The dos and don’ts of creating a large-scale sustainability module

Rachel Lander, Sylvia Snijders and Gustavo Espinoza Ramos discuss lessons learned from creating a sustainability module that’s taken by 600-plus students per year



21 Oct 2021
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Sustainability modules can be crucial for universities

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Westminster

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In 2015, the University of Westminster’s business school took its first steps in teaching sustainability. Like many business schools, corporate social responsibility had always been taught, but there was precious little on environmental sustainability. As such, we developed a new, final-year core module to ensure sustainability was addressed. It has been taken by more than 600 students a year since being introduced in 2017. The module embedded the teaching of the SDGs, addressing the relationships between them.

When reflecting on what we’d learned as a team, we realised that many of the key strategies and approaches we developed for teaching students are cross-disciplinary and, we hope, worth sharing.  We’ve grouped these by what works well and what we’ve learned to avoid.

Do create a non-judgmental learning environment and acknowledge your diverse community. We found that many of our students were very anxious about climate change, especially those that come from areas of the world that have been seriously impacted. Recognise this and ensure that teaching does not only focus on problems but also on positive solutions and innovations. Ensure that what you showcase is international, using examples from the Global South as well as North.

Do encourage honesty. Some will not care about the issues while others will show real passion for change – so ensure all opinions can be voiced and acknowledged. We used tools such as Defra’s sustainable behaviours framework to encourage students to report on their own behaviours and then fed back overall results to our cohorts for discussion. 

Do reach out to internal and external partners to help. We used external speakers to engage students, including a CEO who presented on the experience of creating a sustainable business, speakers from major consultancies addressing governance in companies and issues in supply chains.  The university’s own sustainability team also spoke to students, encouraging more sustainable behaviour across campus.

Do get support from senior management. Our dean supported all these initiatives and was able to organise further external speakers, including sustainability executives from major corporations.

Do find and contact student union societies. We had great support from our environmental society, which had just started and was great at suggesting speakers. We also made sure to keep in touch with alumni and brought them back to speak, too.

Do create authentic activities and assessment. Start with the personal − we deliberately focused on students’ understanding of their own carbon footprint first and then built on this to develop business understanding.  The World Wildlife Fund’s footprint calculator is a great tool for starting discussions, and having students consider changes to their personal lifestyles can support insight into strategies required for change in organisations. Remember that sustainability is live and real, and authentic assessment design is essential. Create assessments that give students flexibility, so they can research what is of real interest to them.

Do encourage realisation that the problems are shared by all of us and commit to actions that can help. We used resources such as Our World in Data to show emissions across the food supply chain to discuss possible changes in diet and developed wider understanding of priorities for action with Project Drawdown resources.

Do promote extracurricular activities. We ran a “Trash Hack” linked to a sustainability event − this was a recycling challenge open to all students, with participating groups working across courses and year levels, which brought additional benefits that lasted beyond the competition.

Do think about curriculum design. Make ambitious plans to embed sustainability across the curriculum and support staff in planning its integration. Coordinate across modules and get a narrative for the SDGs across your courses − detailed module design is important here. Establish a working group if you can.

Do encourage staff to attend training or external events.  The Carbon Literacy Project is one example, but there are lots of free business events showcasing sustainability. Build awareness of key resources such as the EAUC guidance for learning, research and students. And don’t forget to mentor colleagues and share resources.

Don’t encourage a culture of blaming. Instead, focus on actions to address the problem, at both personal and organisational levels.

Don’t brag. Students don’t want to hear how good the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s were and how much tougher it is for them now. 

Don’t lose contact with any external contacts. Invite them back regularly and pass on their contacts to colleagues in other teaching areas who might benefit.

Don’t rely on exams. Authentic activities and assessment are much better suited to this area − exams can be avoided, so use other assessment methods.

Don’t overwhelm students with the enormity of the problems. Think carefully about aims for carbon literacy appropriate for your students − details of carbon footprinting methodologies can be simplified for many undergraduate programmes.

Rachel Lander is principal lecturer,Sylvia Snijders is senior lecturer and Gustavo Espinoza Ramos is lecturer, all at the University of Westminster’s business school.


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