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Sustainability Course Assessment

Nittany lion with sustainability institiute bannerOn behalf of Penn State, the Sustainability Institute conducted a university-wide assessment of sustainability in the University’s curricula in 2010. The survey was conducted using the sustainability criteria developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The assessments relied on a diverse list of criteria and standards, which are described in the following:

Sustainability-focused course vs. sustainability-related course

Sustainability-focused courses provide valuable grounding in the concepts and principles of sustainability. These courses educate students about how different dimensions of sustainability relate to and support each other in theory and practice. In addition, these courses help equip students with the skills to weave together disparate components of sustainability in addressing complex issues.

Sustainability-related courses help build knowledge about a component of sustainability or introduce students to sustainability concepts during part of the course. They may complement sustainability-focused courses by providing students with in-depth knowledge of a particular aspect or dimension of sustainability (such as the natural environment) or by providing a focus area (such as renewable energy) for a student's sustainability studies or they may broaden students' understanding of sustainability from within different disciplines.

In order to further assess the depth and breadth of sustainability education in courses and curricula, Penn State has developed a rubric to categorize the courses. The following criteria are intended to help further describe the content, format and assessment methods used in sustainability education courses.

Sustainability in Higher Education Assessment Rubric

Knowledge and Awareness of Contemporary Issues and Different Perspectives

Knowledge and awareness of contemporary issues allows students to make conscious decisions in their everyday lives and future careers while keeping in mind how this will affect social, environmental and economic interactions.

Action Skill Development

Action skill development is essential for students to be properly equipped to solve problems. Courses should provide an opportunity for students to learn and obtain feedback on skills including planning, interdisciplinary collaboration, communication, critical/creative thinking, decision making, problem solving, ability to analyze and evaluate, ability to justify solutions and ability to clarify personal positions.

Environment Responsibility

Environmental responsibility is recognized in sustainability education literature. It is important for a student to understand how his/her actions can affect social, environmental and economic aspects of a community. This knowledge allows individuals to take steps to minimize their negative environmental impacts. Choose the answer that best reflects what your course offers.

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning, which is often hard to assess, encourages students to look for answers outside the classroom in unconditional situations and, as graduates, to continually adapt, analyze and formulate solutions to problems based on ever-evolving concepts and technologies. The refinement of inquiry skills, reality checking and knowledge reciprocation is also suggested within the literature to be beneficial in justifying the need for lifelong learning. Reciprocal learning of non-students/partners such as community members, members of the same discipline or members of a partnering organization are also suggested to be valuable.

Application in Multiple Settings

Application in multiple settings, supported in environmental and sustainability education literature, suggests that using learning outside the classroom in the form of active learning pedagogy provides students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Diverse Interactions

Diverse interactions expose students to individuals of various disciplines, cultures, racial groups, religious affiliations, generations or economic backgrounds, fostering communication, collaboration and respect among diverse individuals. Choose the answer that best reflects what your course offers.

External Setting/Partner

Partnership longevity with community entities, such as local institutions, groups, governing boards, etc., helps to foster the creation of mutual goals and enriching learning environments. These partnerships should be strengthened and maintained over time so that collaboration between entities is achieved. Choose the answer that best reflects what your course offers.


Reflection is encouraged through discussions, handouts, writing samples, presentations and other final creative artifacts. The consideration of the relationship between what is learned in the classroom and what is applied in one's everyday life influences future decisions that affect social, environmental and economic interactions.