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Environmental Literacy
November 2019


What does the research say about outcomes and assessment of environmental literacy education?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Fraser, J., Gupta, R., & Krasny, M. E. (2015). Practitioners' perspectives on the purpose of environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 21(5), 777–800. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Since the 1980s, scholars have suggested that environmental education (EE) has a ‘definitional problem' represented by a multiplicity of perspectives that have critically impacted its discourse, practices, and outcomes. This study sought to investigate how North American EE practitioners from backgrounds ranging from formal and non-formal institutions think about their work. We focused on folk narratives and emerging urban environmental concerns of community education rather than reliance on academic opinion alone. Using Q methodology, the study identified five distinct perspectives that appear to represent different ways of prioritizing EE outcomes. All five perspectives were concerned with promoting sustainable living and improved human well-being, but the nuances suggest that an individual who adheres strongly to one may feel someone holding a contrasting perspective is working at cross-purposes. The authors suggest that understanding these perspectives can help reduce misunderstanding within the EE field."

Kaya, V. H., & Elster, D. (2019). A critical consideration of environmental literacy: Concepts, contexts, and competencies. Sustainability, 11(6), 1581. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This study is based on a Delphi study on environmental literacy which is an important part of science education. The main goal is to clarify the framework, including concepts, contexts, and competencies of environmental literacy, and to reach consensus on this framework in accordance with expert opinions. This study used a mixed method research design, which included both qualitative and quantitative methods, to reveal expert opinions. The exploratory sequential design, one type of mixed method research, was used in this Delphi study and performed in three consecutive steps. The sample consisted of 45 experts who initially agreed to participate in this study, with 20 of the 45 participating in the first step Delphi. The numbers of participants in the second and third Delphi steps are 44 and 31, respectively. This study concluded there was a consensus about the definition, sub-dimensions, and competencies of environmental literacy and the institutions, social groups, and people responsible for the development of qualified environmentally-literate individuals. Additionally, there was agreement concerning what to do to support the development of environmental literacy, topics that should be included in the curriculum and textbooks, and teaching methods and extra-curriculum activities for the development of environmental literacy."

McBeth, W., & Volk, T. L. (2009). The national environmental literacy project: A baseline study of middle grade students in the United States. The Journal of Environmental Education, 41(1), 55–67. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The authors discuss environmental literacy in the United States and present a brief summary of the results of a major national study designed to attain a baseline measure of environmental literacy among middle school students in the United States The authors include events that led up to the study and describe future directions for environmental literacy assessment."

Stern, M. J., Powell, R. B., & Hill, D. (2014). Environmental education program evaluation in the new millennium: What do we measure and what have we learned? Environmental Education Research, 20(5), 581–611. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"We conducted a systematic literature review of peer-reviewed research studies published between 1999 and 2010 that empirically evaluated the outcomes of environmental education (EE) programs for youth (ages 18 and younger) in an attempt to address the following objectives: (1) to seek reported empirical evidence for what works (or does not) in EE programming and (2) to uncover lessons regarding promising approaches for future EE initiatives and their evaluation. While the review generally supports consensus-based best practices, such as those published in the North American Association for Environmental Education's Guidelines for Excellence, we also identified additional themes that may drive positive outcomes, including the provision of holistic experiences and the characteristics and delivery styles of environmental educators. Overall, the evidence in support of these themes contained in the 66 articles reviewed is mostly circumstantial. Few studies attempted to empirically isolate the characteristics of programs responsible for measured outcomes. We discuss general trends in research design and the associated implications for future research and EE programming."

Stevenson, K. T., Carrier, S. J., & Peterson, M. N. (2014). Evaluating strategies for inclusion of environmental literacy in the elementary school classroom. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 18(8), 1–18.

From the Abstract:
"Although elementary school may be a prime stage for building environmental literacy, elementary school teachers face significant barriers to including it in their instruction. Several studies have identified teachers' limited ecological science content knowledge and heavy emphasis on state standards and testing as common constraints to environmental literacy instruction. However, few of these studies have measured actual (versus perceived) ecological knowledge or focused on how teachers are successful in including environmental literacy instruction despite constraints of standards and testing. The present exploratory study surveyed 627 randomly selected elementary school teachers in North Carolina to begin addressing this gap. We found ecological knowledge levels were high (89.9% average score). Lack of instructional time was the most oft-listed barrier to environmental literacy instruction (76.7%), followed by lack of resources (53.4%), whereas lack of content knowledge was rarely mentioned (21.6%). Respondents identified access to environmental literacy-related lesson plans, activities that integrate children's literature, and access to and training in published environmental education curricula as the resources needed to be more successful in inclusion of environmental literacy concepts in the elementary school classroom."

Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H. D., Mertig, A. G., & Moore, S. E. (2013). Environmental, institutional, and demographic predictors of environmental literacy among middle school children. PLoS One, 8(3),1–11, e59519. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Building environmental literacy (EL) in children and adolescents is critical to meeting current and emerging environmental challenges worldwide. Although environmental education (EE) efforts have begun to address this need, empirical research holistically evaluating drivers of EL is critical. This study begins to fill this gap with an examination of school-wide EE programs among middle schools in North Carolina, including the use of published EE curricula and time outdoors while controlling for teacher education level and experience, student attributes (age, gender, and ethnicity), and school attributes (socio-economic status, student-teacher ratio, and locale). Our sample included an EE group selected from schools with registered school-wide EE programs, and a control group randomly selected from NC middle schools that were not registered as EE schools. Students were given an EL survey at the beginning and end of the spring 2012 semester. Use of published EE curricula, time outdoors, and having teachers with advanced degrees and mid-level teaching experience (between 3 and 5 years) were positively related with EL whereas minority status (Hispanic and black) was negatively related with EL. Results suggest that school-wide EE programs were not associated with improved EL, but the use of published EE curricula paired with time outdoors represents a strategy that may improve all key components of student EL. Further, investments in teacher development and efforts to maintain enthusiasm for EE among teachers with more than 5 years of experience may help to boost student EL levels. Middle school represents a pivotal time for influencing EL, as improvement was slower among older students. Differences in EL levels based on gender suggest boys and girls may possess complementary skills sets when approaching environmental issues. Our findings suggest ethnicity related disparities in EL levels may be mitigated by time spent in nature, especially among black and Hispanic students."

Szczytko, R., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M. N., Nietfeld, J., & Strnad, R. L. (2019). Development and validation of the environmental literacy instrument for adolescents. Environmental Education Research, 25(2), 193–210. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Environmental education (EE) practitioners struggle to consistently and rigorously evaluate their programs, particularly when little time is available for evaluation. Since environmental literacy (EL) is the goal of environmental education, a very short EL instrument – amenable to use when longer tests are not practical for practitioners – would address an important EE need. We describe the development and validation of the Environmental Literacy Instrument for Adolescents (ELI-A) that is short enough for use in field applications (i.e. 5–15 min) and measures four domains of environmental literacy (ecological knowledge, hope, cognitive skills, behaviour). Factor analysis, item response theory, and concurrent validity tests were used in the validation process. Structural equation modelling supported the fit between the ELI-A and prevailing EL frameworks. The results support a valid and reliable instrument that is short enough for practical use but comprehensive in measuring four primary components of EL. This instrument could help fulfil the call to evaluate EE programming in both formal and informal settings."

Other Resources

Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental literacy in America. What ten years of NEETF/Roper research and related studies say about environmental literacy in the US. Washington (DC): The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation.

From the Abstract:
"In 1944, noted conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: "Acts of conservation without the requisite desires and skill are futile. To create these desires and skills, and the community motive, is the task of education." Almost sixty years later, in January 2003, the National Science Foundation released a report of its Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education. The Committee found that "in the coming decades, the public will more frequently be called upon to understand complex environmental issues, assess risk, evaluate proposed environmental plans and understand how individual decisions affect the environment at local and global scales." The Committee called for the creation of a scientifically informed citizenry and pointed out that this will require a "concerted and systematic approach to environmental education grounded in a broad and deep research base that offers a compelling invitation to lifelong learning." Now in 2005, Environmental Literacy in America offers an assessment of environmental literacy in America that is both sobering and hopeful. This summary of almost a decade of NEETF collaboration with Roper Reports provides a loud wake-up call to the environmental education community, to community leaders, and to influential specialists ranging from physicians to weathercasters. At a time when Americans are confronted with increasingly challenging environmental choices, individuals learn that the citizenry is by and large both uninformed and misinformed. This report offers a wealth of data and analysis accompanied by recommendations intended for environmental educators, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, funders, public decision makers, and professionals who are daily affected by environmental issues. It emphasizes the need for more research, clearer benchmarks to demonstrate impact, and far greater coordination."

Igbokwe, A. B. (2012). Environmental literacy assessment: Exploring the potential for the assessment of environmental education/programs in Ontario schools. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, 3(1), 648–656. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Environmental education (EE) initiatives and programs are continually being introduced to schools and school boards in Ontario. For example, the EcoSchools program was initiated in 2002 and has seen a great increase in school participation since its inception. Several schools and school boards have adopted these initiatives with claims and praises on their effectiveness for improving students' learning, environmental literacy and the school's physical environment. However, the aggregate and quantifiable effect of these programs on students' environmental knowledge and literacy is usually not emphasized. This paper is the report of a work in progress and proposes an environmental literacy assessment for elementary and secondary schools in south western Ontario as a tool for assessing the effectiveness of EE initiatives."

McBride, B. B., Brewer, C. A., Berkowitz, A. R., & Borrie, W. T. (2013). Environmental literacy, ecological literacy, ecoliteracy: What do we mean and how did we get here?. Ecosphere, 4(5), 1–20. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Numerous scholars have argued that the terms environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy have been used in so many different ways and/or are so all-encompassing that they have very little useful meaning. However, despite the seemingly arbitrary and, at times, indiscriminate use of these terms, tremendous efforts have in fact been made to explicitly define and delineate the essential components of environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy, and to firmly anchor their characterizations in deep theoretical and philosophical foundations. A driving purpose behind these ongoing conversations has been to advance complete, pedagogy-guiding, and broadly applicable frameworks for these ideals, allowing for standards and assessments of educational achievement to be set. In this manuscript, we review a diversity of perspectives related to the often nuanced differences and similarities of these terms. A classification of the numerous proposed frameworks for environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy (advanced within the fields of environmental education, ecology, and the broader humanities, respectively) is presented, and used to compare and contrast frameworks across multiple dimensions of affect, knowledge, skills, and behavior. This analysis facilitates close examination of where we have been, where we are, and where we might be headed with respect to these vital conversations. This work also offers points of reference for continued critical discourse, and illuminates a diversity of inspiration sources for developing and/or enriching programs aimed at cultivating these types of literacies."

National Environmental Education Foundation. (2015). Environmental literacy in the United States: An agenda for leadership in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"This report defines an environmentally literate person as someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well-being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life."

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). (2019). K–12 environmental education: Guidelines for excellence. Washington D.C. North American Association for Environmental Education. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"K–12 Environmental Education: Guidelines for Excellence provides students, parents, caregivers, educators and others a roadmap to achieving environmental literacy by setting expectations for fourth (age 10), eighth (age 14) and twelfth grade (age 18) students and outlining a framework for effective and comprehensive environmental education programs and curricula. These guidelines define the aims of environmental education. They set a standard for high quality education, based on what an environmentally literate person should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school. They draw on the best thinking in the field to outline the core ingredients of environmental education."

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). (2014). State environmental literacy plans: 2014 status report. Washington D.C. North American Association for Environmental Education. Retrieved from

From the Document:
"Across the nation, states are making significant progress in advancing our national educational goals by creating and implementing plans to enrich the curriculum with environmental education. These plans to integrate environmental education into the K–12 curriculum will give teachers and students new opportunities to take learning outside; explore their communities; analyze issues; learn about connections between our economy, society, and environment; support economic growth; and become engaged citizens."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Environmental literacy, Definition, Environmental education

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.