Blueprints for the Semester: Revisiting How to Plan Environmental Pedagogy

[This article was originally published in October 2015. We are publishing it again as an aid to planning this semester’s courses. Today also marks our return to biweekly posts following our brief winter break.]

In academia, there is so much to know that we often focus far more on the “what” than the “how.” But the how—which is pedagogy—is important. Why? Because how we teach affects:

  • whether our students in environmental studies courses choose to take action or become fearful and overwhelmed by the world’s problems, as Diana Liverman points out;
  • how deeply our students learn and retain what we are teaching—information that can inform environmental decision-making throughout their lives (or be forgotten after the test);
  • whether students feel comfortable enough in our classroom to focus on learning and not be distracted by feeling out of place—whether they are women, LGBTQ students, Native American students, other minorities, or first-generation college students. A sense of belonging is a strong determinant of whether students stay in a field of study. We need diverse environmental decision-makers in the future if we are to find the most equitable and effective solutions.

Below I’ll lay out how to think about planning your teaching in a way that will be more likely to consider the “how” as well as the “what.” Some examples are drawn from teaching environmental studies and biology, but I’d argue the ideas apply to all kinds of teaching.

On “Big Ideas”

In planning university courses, we often think of all the information we want students to learn. We pack it into themes, divide the themes into lectures, and students are expected to absorb it all.

We seldom stop to consider what we ourselves retained from our courses, especially those that were not part of our major. How much do you remember from the one psychology course you took? Or your semester-long dip into linear algebra?

With such gaps in our memories in mind, we see why setting forth a small number of clear goals for our students is important. Deciding what we would like them to retain long after they have taken the course can help us hone in on what—and how—to teach.

I learned the value of focusing on a few big ideas as a science-teacher-in-training some years ago. In my master’s in teaching program, I was taught to focus on the big ideas for the thematic areas I was to teach. In high school biology, for example, we organized the information according to eight units, and we analyzed each unit for one—yes, one—big idea per unit. So we had eight big ideas to teach all year, backed up by the details that went into making those ideas comprehensible and memorable for a sixteen-year-old.

In teaching about the environment in particular, our goals for our students may be historical, scientific, artistic, or otherwise inclined. I would argue, though, that for most of us, underlying many of our goals is a deeply entrenched set of ethical beliefs. Such beliefs might include: Resources should be fairly distributed. All humans have a right to life. Non-human organisms have a right to the resources to maintain life. Overconsumption is inherently unethical because of its impacts on the well-being of future life.

For example, one of the large, undergraduate courses in Geography at UW-Madison focuses on a series of questions that tie directly back to these ethical considerations: How have we managed resources in the past? How do we manage resources now? Is it fair? Who decides? Are there better and worse ways of managing resources? According to whom?

By digging out the major questions that our courses address, and then turning those questions into goals for what we want students to retain, we can greatly clarify what we are teaching and gear our methods to the effective accomplishment of those goals. With careful planning, narrowing down to four to eight big ideas per course will permit enough time to dig into the details of each, as experience in teaching similarly complex and interrelated natural science has demonstrated.

For the Geography course I mentioned above, we might outline the Big Ideas along these lines:

  • Past resource management in the United States has experienced distinct historical periods, each of which has had identifiable strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing the relative value of the contributions of these periods can strengthen our current decision-making.
  • Current resource management strategies in the United States have identifiable strengths and weaknesses. Analysis of best practices can contribute to better decision-making.
  • How we manage key resources profoundly affects planetary health. Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the ways these resources are managed provides guidance for improving environmental governance more generally. These key resources include:
    • Endangered species
    • Centers of biodiversity
    • Agricultural areas
    • Tropical forests, as combined human and non-human habitat
    • Earth’s atmosphere, as a driver of planetary temperatures

Clearly, these ideas are broad and encompass further ideas that may not be explicitly laid out in their wording (e.g. Are we talking about legal aspects of resource management? Practical? Bureaucratic? Legislative? Grass-roots?). The more clearly we can define these elements of the Big Ideas, the better we can ensure that we are teaching what we want students to learn.

Are there skills that are fundamental to your Big Ideas? Specific bodies of knowledge that underlie them? As you turn your Big Ideas into goals, it is important to be explicit about: 1) what each goal really encompasses and 2) what kinds of questions you can ask of students to guide them to a strong understanding.

Backward planning

The next step is turning Big Ideas into explicit learning goals. That means planning what you want students to be able to do to demonstrate that they have made sense of the Big Idea. In university teaching, instructors often plow through the information and then set up an exam that attempts to align closely with the information taught. This shortchanges students, as there may be a much different focus in how the information was presented than in how  the examination was written.

So, we need to start by creating the assessments we will use with our students, clearly aligning assessments with goals that we align with our Big Idea. Once we have created the assessments, we can begin to determine in the more detailed steps we will take to get the students to fully wrestle with the ideas.

Yes, plan your assessments before any other part of your unit! This is often counter-intuitive, but keep in mind that you need to know what you want students to accomplish and how before you begin teaching them. In education lingo, this is called backward planning or backward design.

Assessment: so much more than exams

A common way of assessing students in large, lecture courses is with multiple choice exams. With multiple choice, it is often possible to determine whether students broadly grasped the main facts taught. Such exams, though, are pretty poor at offering students new ways to analyze information, to organize their thoughts, or to wrestle more fully with ideas in ways that will help them to recall the information in the future.

More student interaction in the classroom can lead to better learning outcomes while strengthening assessment. Image credit: Eric Nost

More student interaction in the classroom can lead to better learning outcomes while strengthening assessment. Image credit: Eric Nost

The wording of your goal1 should help to shape what the assessment will look like. For the big ideas in the previous section, the goals ought to look something like this:

  • Students will evaluate the effectiveness of past resource management in the United States and be able to assess strengths and weaknesses of five past approaches.
  • Students will evaluate the effectiveness of current resource management strategies and be able to assess the environmental and social strengths and weaknesses of management of five identified resources (from the Big Ideas, above).
  • Students will be able to create a plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation that incorporates both social and broader environmental needs.

In considering what means are useful in building long-term student learning and retention, it helps to know a little about Bloom’s Taxonomy. Learning that uses only skills at the bottom layers of the taxonomy is least likely to produce long-lasting retention. Layers at the top are best, but students often need to build up to using the top layer skills by working their way up through the pyramid for a given topic. Notice that the goals laid out above use verbs from higher levels of the taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy describes the flow of student learning. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Since university assessments often come at the end of a unit or project, most assessments should push students to use skills from the top of the pyramid. Therefore it may best to assess students using methods such as analytical essays, group projects creating a new set of methods to address a problem, or a new set of problems to analyze in short answers.

Moreover, by using techniques in the classroom that move beyond lecture to more student interaction, you can assess students daily in a way that contributes to their grades and, ultimately, their learningClickers, hand raising, and brief group or individual responses turned in during class can be ways to quickly check that students are on track and to build a long-term sense of their progress (and with more instances of student assessment, a more robust grading system).

Who are your students?

In order to move on from the broad strokes of goals, I want to understand who I am teaching. It helps to know this with some degree of accuracy before planning even the general outlines of your assessments. If starting a new course or working at a new institution, however, it may not be possible to know who your students are when you are already deep into the planning stages.

Even if you are new to the institution, however, you can learn a lot about who your students will be from campus demographic information and from other instructors. With that information in hand, you can plan fully what you are teaching and in what order. You should be able to plan your big ideas, goals, and even loosely plan the specifics of how you will teach. A student survey during the first day or two of the course will help you make final decisions about how to teach that first semester. You will want to know:

  • what your students already know about the subject (are they freshmen? majors? taking this class because they have to?);
  • students’ stage of psychological/intellectual development (yes, college students, although considered adults, are also still considered to be developing);
  • students’ cultural background (ranging from geographic and ethnic backgrounds to gender, age, and whatever other elements your students consider important—ask them);
  • how students plan to use what you teach them.

Clearly, after teaching a class once or twice, this will become a little less vital. But keep in mind that every class is a little different, and knowing who they are should shape your teaching decisions. Surveying for prior knowledge also helps spark students’ memories of past knowledge and energize them to learn new information.

Planning for a diverse classroom is an entire topic unto itself, but some important places to start incorporating your knowledge about your students include developing your lessons based on student background knowledge of the topic to be taught, on level of intellectual maturity (using year-in-school as shorthand), and on providing culturally relevant examples (here is a very specific example in environmental teaching) when appropriate. Over time, you can build more inclusive techniques into your teaching.

Planning to be flexible

Finally, it’s time to plan how to teach!

Keep in mind a mantra from one of my education degree mentors, though: plan to be flexible. Yes, plan as thoroughly as you can. Know exactly what you plan to do. And then be open to what happens in the classroom and the insights and questions brought by your students. Do not stick with all the details of a plan if it is clear that students are fascinated by some angle of the topic that you had not considered, but that still leads toward your goal.

Building backward from the Big Idea and goal to a single activity

So, let’s take an example from the goals above of how you might plan a learning activity. Here is an example built on the Big Idea for a unit I developed in collaboration with Prof. Matthew Turner.

The Big Idea:

  • How we manage key resources profoundly affects planetary health. Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the ways these resources are managed provides guidance for improving environmental governance more generally. Key Resource #5: Earth’s atmosphere, as a driver of planetary temperatures.


  • Students will be able to create a plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation that incorporates both social and broader environmental needs.

Notice that the goal represents an endpoint in learning about the Big Idea. Incorporating the step-by-step learning to get to the goal is part of what we had to think about in planning the unit that leads up to the final assessment.

To build up to a point where students have sufficient understanding to accomplish the final goal, we scaffolded their analytical skills and knowledge of climate change issues. In the university setting, scaffolding often means demonstrating the kinds of questions to ask and the elements of an issue to examine or order to analyze it clearly.

We arranged lecture activities in a style often called a “flipped classroom.” In a flipped classroom, students consume information typically considered lecture-based information (often in the format of online lectures, but we developed online text-based modules that included questions and answers) so that when they come to class, they are already acquainted with fact-based knowledge.

It was important that students acquire this knowledge in advance because we wanted them to focus as much in-class time as possible on analysis.

For higher levels of learning to happen in the classroom context, it helps for instructors to interact regularly with the students and students with each other. Lecture-based learning is largely based on a memory-based model, which is the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Tapping into students’ abilities to learn at the higher levels of the model means employing more active learning techniques.

Tapping into students’ abilities to analyze and create means employing more active learning techniques. Creative Commons Photo: Marcos Ojeda.

Tapping into students’ abilities to analyze and create means employing more active learning techniques. Creative Commons Photo: Marcos Ojeda.

One lesson

So, for example, one element of what we wanted students to understand about decision making on greenhouse gases was how decision makers go about determining which countries are most vulnerable to climate change and, therefore, are likely to need the most urgent assistance in creating effective adaptation measures.

For the lesson, students spent homework time learning about two very vulnerable places. They viewed videos on climate change impacts. They read about the places. They answered questions about those places. Students therefore came to class with some understanding of climate vulnerability.

In class, students were presented with additional examples that were easier to digest in brief written descriptions. They read the descriptions, and then worked in groups to debate an ordering of vulnerability (most to least) for the five places provided. Ways to organize the information were offered, including physical vulnerability (e.g. to storms), current human welfare and existing infrastructure. Each place could be analyzed for its relative vulnerability from each of these perspectives.

Subsequent class discussion about ranking decisions and outcomes allowed students to get a broader vision of factors to include in such an analysis from how their fellow students and the instructors thought about the problem. Student debates on the relative importance of physical vulnerability versus low financial resources, for example, closely reflect real-world debates on how to assign aid to affected countries. Student groups also came up with country rankings that are similar to those professionals have made.

So, students were following understanding along a path like this (words in bold from Bloom’s Taxonomy):

obtaining factual knowledge (to remember about each place) ->

categorizing knowledge (understanding how the facts related to levels vulnerability) ->

analyzing vulnerability of each place based on multiple factors ->

evaluating cases comparatively in order to ->

create a list outlining vulnerability levels.


I moved from a Big Idea right into a specific activity to show the kind of activity that can engage all levels of learning. If you are interested in more detailed guidelines for how to make the leap from goals to specific activities, this chart gives an example of some of the background planning that went into the unit.

Last thoughts

This essay has just given the bare outlines of how you might start thinking about effectively planning your teaching. Other important elements to consider are further details of your student population and teaching to include all students (i.e. planning for classroom diversity), how to include technology in your classroom, and how your own positionality as an instructor is likely to affect your students and your own teaching experience.

These first steps, however, are most important. In working toward a style of planning that focuses on Big Ideas and broad goals, we can more intentionally accomplish our underlying reasons for teaching about the environment.  We bring students face-to-face with their own ethical beliefs. We draw them closer to understanding the complexities of decision-making in a world where different groups are driven by different ethical considerations. And we can enable students to create their own solutions, sending them off with the belief that they, too, can take on the world’s grand challenges.

Featured image: Discussion groups, facilitated by the layout of the classroom, enable students to meet learning goals. Creative Commons Photo: Marcos Ojeda.

Cathy Day is a PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Geography Department. She researches how climate change influences the already complex choices farmers make. As an educator at the university level, and previously as a science teacher in public schools, she is passionately interested in how best to engage all learners. She writes on climate, rural change, and teaching here. Contact.

  1. This should be the goal of both your entire unit AND the goal of the final assessment. In the case of the final goal in this list, a lot of background learning is implied by the way it is written, but is not clearly laid out until we get into more details of lesson planning. You need to recognize what is implied by your goals as you begin more detailed planning. 

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