Evaluating Course Impact on Student Environmental Values in Undergraduate Ecology with a Novel Survey Instrument


Robert Humston 1 and Elena Ortiz-Barney 2

1 - Department of Biology, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, VA 24450 (

2 - Department of Biology, Phoenix College, Phoenix, AZ 85013 (


Courses in environmental science or ecology can have formative impacts on student perspectives regarding environmental issues. We undertook this research to explore the effect our teaching has on the environmental attitudes and values of undergraduate students. Specifically, we wanted to know if student-active teaching approaches have an effect on attitude changes and whether or not those attitude changes are accompanied by a change in understanding of the underlying ecological principles. We used two survey instruments to assess student attitudes at the beginning and at the completion of a course. We coupled an established survey instrument (New Ecological Paradigm: NEP) with one we developed specifically for this study (Environmental Conflict Overview: ECO) to determine if attitude changes were consistent and to assess specific dimensions of attitude changes. The ECO survey asks students to respond to stakeholder perspectives in specific environmental issues. This study was done at two quite different institutions, which allowed us to examine responses of a wide range of students. Results showed consistent changes in attitude with both survey instruments at both schools. The ECO instrument also provided valuable insight into specific aspects of student attitudes that changed most. Results showed a significant reduction in students’ anthropocentrism and a reduced emphasis on economic valuation in resolving stakeholder conflicts. Students also demonstrated increased understanding of underlying ecological principles. Quantitative results on the impact of specific student-active teaching methods were equivocal, though free-responses did reveal preference for course topics captured in such activities. Although we do not have quantitative evidence at this point, it is our judgment that the active approaches that we used (think-pair-share, small group discussions and problem solving, debates) effectively helped students examine their environmental values and also learn course content. In addition, we suggest that that the combined surveys provide an effective method for assessing changes in student attitudes and therefore can be used as a powerful teaching tool.


environmental values, environmental attitudes, survey, student-active methods, guided discussion


We thank Charlene D'Avanzo, Bruce Grant, and Deborah Morris for insightful comments and sage advice on this research project. We also thank Karen Fredenburg for assistance with distribution and management of surveys at VMI. This research was funded and facilitated by National Science Foundation grants DUE 0443714, DUE 0127388, and DUE 9952347 to D’Avanzo and Grant.


Robert Humston and Elena Ortiz-Barney. June 2007, posting date. Evaluating Course Impact on Student Environmental Values in Undergraduate Ecology with a Novel Survey Instrument. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 5: Research #4 [online].