Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Assessment for Learning on Sustainable Development

  • Sharon Bramwell-LalorEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_1-1


In this entry, assessment for learning on sustainable development is defined as a systematic approach (or process) geared toward facilitating learning and providing comprehensive evidence of learners’ knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes related to sustainable development.


The concept of sustainable development and its underlying principles has been introduced, defined, and actively promoted since 1972. One key aim of sustainable development is securing a better future for present and future generations. Education is seen as the means through which sustainable development can be achieved. If the mandate of achieving a sustainable future is to be fulfilled through education, appropriate teaching, learning, and assessment strategies that are compatible with the goals of sustainable development are needed. In line with this, therefore, is a recent focus on the reorientation of the education system away from assessment practices that mainly target students’ knowledge, to those which also consider skills, values, attitudes, and behaviors. The use of appropriate teaching strategies should be at all levels of the educational system, including higher education. Higher education particularly plays a critical role in achieving sustainability because of its direct link to students who will become leaders in the future. According to UNESCO (2005:4):

Traditionally, literacy, numeracy, and disciplinary knowledge are assessed using standardized tests and data are gathered related to enrolment and attendance; however, these do not measure many aspects of quality education. Missing are assessment and evaluation of life skills, perceptions, behaviours, and values, which are part of quality education.

Assessment for learning is being promoted in recent times in higher education (Carless 2015). Assessment for learning is an approach where the purpose of assessment tasks and practices is not just to focus on content knowledge and generating grades but rather on ensuring that relevant and meaningful learning occurs (Fry et al. 2015). This assessment approach can therefore be applied to the wide range of sustainable development knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes. In this entry, assessment for learning on sustainable development is defined as a systematic approach (or process) geared towards providing comprehensive evidence of learners’ knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes related to sustainable development.

This entry provides a brief overview of assessment for learning and how it relates to conventional approaches to assessment. This overview is followed by a description of the key features of sustainable development and the role of education in its promotion. Examples of how assessment for learning can be applied to sustainable development will then be presented. The entry will end with preliminary suggestions on the way forward with regard to assessment practices in higher education that can promote sustainable development.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning creates an environment where assessment is used continuously to support and enhance learning. Klenowski (2009) describes it as a natural part of the everyday practice of teaching and learning by students and their teachers. This purpose of assessment is different from that called “assessment of learning” (Earl 2013) or “summative assessment” which is carried out for grading and reporting on students’ achievement, ranking, certifying, and accountability (Sambell et al. 2013). Assessment for learning on the other hand requires that evidence of learning be provided to teachers and students while learning is occurring rather than at the end of the process (Fry et al. 2015). When evidence of learning is provided right away, it can be acted on, and necessary adjustments to the learning process can be made. This can in turn ensure improvement of the outcomes of the learning process.

Feedback is very important for providing evidence of learning in the assessment for learning model. Black and Wiliam (1998) reported on a review of a wide range of research on assessment and concluded that assessment that focuses on providing good quality feedback to students does promote learning and improve students’ performance. When the feedback information from an assessment activity is used by teachers and their students to modify teaching and learning, respectively, the purpose of assessment is said to be formative (Ussher and Earl 2010). In addition to good quality feedback from teachers or peers, students can assess themselves and generate feedback. Assessment for learning includes the sharing of learning goals so that required targets are known, the use of student-centered strategies such as open-ended questioning, and the opportunities for learners to monitor, evaluate, and reflect on their performance. Assessment for learning enhances students’ motivation and commitment to learning. This is because they understand exactly what they are expected to learn, or what skills they are to display, and they are given feedback and advice on how to improve their work. One of the main arguments of assessment for learning is that all forms of assessment activities should help students to learn. Because of this view, both formative and summative approaches to assessment can be incorporated in assessment for learning. More importance should however be placed on formative assessment because of its usefulness in allowing students to practice valuable skills before summative assessment is required (Sambell et al. 2013).

Sustainable Development and the Role of Education

The concept of sustainable development is rooted in concern about the ability of the environment to provide for the needs of human beings and ensure survival without depleting the natural resources including drinking water, food, energy supply, and clean air. The most commonly quoted definition of sustainable development is that stated in the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report on Environment and Development (“Our Common Future”) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED] 1987:43). The Brundtland Report fueled a new global awareness that in order for development to be sustainable all the dimensions or spheres which affect the environment must be incorporated (e.g., economic and social). Further, it is important to acknowledge that the dimensions are interdependent and interconnected and that all should be taken into account in any decision-making process about the environment (Duran et al. 2015). Additionally, it must be noted that addressing environmental concerns and sustainable development needs might be influenced by the cultural context in which they exist and by what is valued in each respective country. Culture is therefore viewed as another important contributor to the success of sustainable development (UNESCO 2012).

The focus of the Brundtland Report was maintained and relayed to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development [UNCED] (“The Earth Summit”) held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. Agreements were made at this conference by over 170 countries to act on a number of proposals to achieve sustainable development by the twenty-first century. “Agenda 21” which came out of the Rio Earth Summit promoted education as being:

…critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues...It is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making. (UNESCO 1992, Chapter 36: 2)

Education was proposed as a powerful, major, and ideal driver for promoting the principles of sustainable development. The role of education was somewhat cemented when the United Nations declared 2005 to 2014 as the “Decade of Education for Sustainable Development” with the intended focus on integrating sustainability education into all aspects of learning. The follow-up to the decade is the “Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development” and the adoption of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (United Nations 2015). Related to the 2030 Agenda are 17 Sustainable Development Goals which were developed, each with specific targets to be achieved by 2030. The importance of education to the success of sustainable development was maintained in the 2030 Agenda. Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 4 has targets that are all education-related. Education is targeted because the framework exists to assist individuals in acquiring, fostering, and demonstrating the specific knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes needed for making informed decisions and taking appropriate actions about the environment (UNESCO 2014).

Applying Assessment for Learning to Sustainable Development

If education is to succeed in promoting sustainability, there must be teachers who can use relevant strategies to assist their students in developing the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors to address sustainability issues. The teaching strategies in turn should be aligned with appropriate assessment strategies that keep educators current with students’ progress in acquiring the associated knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. The summative end-of-course types of assessment such as multiple choice tests which are traditionally used in higher education do not provide opportunities for learners to demonstrate sufficient understanding of complex issues such as those related to sustainability. Summative assessments tend to focus mainly on content knowledge and generating grades and should not be used alone as they would not yield sufficient evidence of learning. Rather than assessing a learner’s ability to write about sustainable development, it is more effective to measure the extent to which the student can put into practice and demonstrate what he or she has learned. Assessment for learning is aptly suited for this purpose because it is more holistic in nature and promotes lifelong learning (Sambell et al. 2013).

The issues related to sustainability are multidimensional and complex. It follows that teaching, learning, and assessment approaches related to sustainable development within education institutions must also be multidimensional, inter- and transdisciplinary, reflecting the interconnected nature of sustainable development. In order to evaluate knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes associated with sustainable development, UNESCO (2017) suggests that learners should be assessed with performance-based methods. In other words, it requires asking students to demonstrate sustainable development skills that are transferable to their future lives by performing tasks or by creating something.

Another major desired outcome of sustainable development is taking action. If students are to build their confidence to take actions to alleviate present and future negative environmental effects, then assessment related to sustainable development must be carried out in authentic contexts inside and outside the classroom. This approach will give students opportunities to implement their classroom learning in real-life situations. Interactive assessments carried out in authentic contexts are well suited to sustainable development, as they will foster and nurture students’ twenty-first-century skills and competencies such as collaboration, communication, and creativity (Scott 2015). Assessment modes that expose students to complex problems will also allow them to develop respect and tolerance of other students’ differing values and perspectives of the problem. Further, higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills are exercised in authentic situations as students make their own inferences about the issues. Peer and self-assessment which are also emphasized in assessment for learning also provide opportunities to capture insights gained and to allow for reflection on these.

There are a number of ways in which students can be assessed for achievement of sustainable development outcomes. Consideration should be given to the relevant learning outcomes when devising all assessment tasks (UNESCO 2017). Teachers should ask questions such as “What specific knowledge and skills are students expected to demonstrate in this specific context?” and “What assessment types are best for capturing students’ skills and competencies which are considered vital for sustainable development?”

There are some key components of assessment that should be considered if it is to be used to facilitate the development of knowledge, skills, and competencies related to sustainable development. These include:
  • Using tasks that enable the development of communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills through collaboration

  • Providing opportunities to apply these skills to real-world problems

  • Integrating activities that allow students to connect learning about sustainable development across various subject areas

  • Students participating in activities that encourage adoption of values, attitudes, and behaviors relevant to sustainable development

  • Providing tasks that allow students to engage the perspectives of a wide variety of persons including stakeholders external to the institution

  • Opportunities for peer evaluation

  • Reflecting on experiences and personal development (The Higher Education Academy 2014; UNESCO 2017)

Assessment for learning utilizes a wide range of tools and strategies which can ensure the achievement of these components. Some of these strategies called performance-based assessment, authentic assessment, or alternative assessment require that students construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity linked to real-world situations as opposed to just recognizing and selecting predetermined options (Frey and Schmitt 2007; Darling-Hammond and Adamson 2010). Darling-Hammond and Adamson explain:

Because they allow students to construct or perform an original response rather than just recognizing a potentially right answer out of a list provided, performance assessments can measure students’ cognitive thinking and reasoning skills and their ability to apply knowledge to solve realistic, meaningful problems. (2010:7)

These kinds of tasks which are ideal for assessing sustainable development knowledge and skills include portfolios, reflective journals, debates, speeches, role-play/drama, case studies, making of models, presentations, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and work or industry-based learning. These assessments are usually used along with a rubric (Brookhart and Chen 2015) which is designed to clearly describe the specific knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes desired along with how to grade them. The rubrics also provide feedback for the students thus promoting their learning. Essays, checklists, rating scales, questionnaires, and interviews are useful tools for assessing skills, values, attitudes, and behaviors (Herman et al. 1992) related to sustainable development.

Higher education institutions play a major role in the achievement of sustainable development goals because of their collective intellectual capacity and academic freedom to “develop new ideas, to comment on society and its challenges, and to engage in bold experimentation in sustainable living” (Cortese 2003). Higher education systems are well versed in conventional teaching and assessment methods that provide a measure of how much content knowledge was successfully transmitted (Nicolaides 2012). Nicolaides suggests that this is mainly because of large class sizes as well as students themselves preferring the more conventional methods. Educators in higher education institutions need to practice the use of strategies that will allow for assessing sustainable development knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes. Of all the required components, the observation and rating of values, attitudes, and behaviors are likely the most difficult aspects to be assessed. The following are some examples of alternative assessment strategies and how they can be used.

Case Studies

Assessment using case studies are highly relevant for sustainable development. The content in a case is in the format of a narrative accompanied by questions and activities (Bonney 2015). Case study narratives allow for the use of a wide range of authentic experiences to promote concrete application of knowledge to real-world situations. Case study investigations allow for collaborative discussions on authentic issues that provide opportunities for students to articulate and clarify the principles and values on which environmental decisions are made and to propose strategic actions for addressing the issues. The authentic nature or cases can be enhanced by utilizing data from peer-reviewed papers, professional reports, news articles, and videos that closely match the concepts and issues that need to be identified and discussed. For example, cases could deal with transportation challenges and pollution in urban areas, excessive hunting of wild animals, and mining and housing developments and their impact on the environment. The cases should be accompanied by carefully constructed instructions to clearly guide students’ thinking and expressions.

Dramatic Activities

Dramatic activities involve role-play and simulation of real-world situations and experiences some of which may be familiar to students. The aim of role-play and simulation activities is for participants to re-create events and activities, which may involve taking on the role of someone else by imitating their character and behavior.

Dramatic activities naturally involve students working alone, in pairs, or in groups. Dramatic presentations ideally facilitate and enhance creative, communicating, questioning, and problem-solving skills. As students work on situations, they practice taking positions, establishing empathy, and understanding others’ feelings, ideas, and behaviors (United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP] 2018). Because the situations used are authentic, as students act and express themselves, knowledge, skills, values, and behaviors can be observed and assessed to determine changes. Dengler (2008) cites an example of using a “mock climate change negotiation exercise” in order to expose higher education students to the complexities of negotiating an “international treaty.” In another example, Blanchard and Buchs (2010) created a simulation game as an assessment activity to address sustainable development. The game was created to foster students’ knowledge and awareness, to develop interaction and decision-making skills, and to become responsible citizens. Dramatic activities also allow students to link with their communities by performing plays for schools or other community events to raise awareness on environmental issues.


A portfolio is a collection of documents and other forms of evidence representing students’ work and progress (Popham 2014) through the learning process. Portfolios are fairly easy to use as they require no technical inputs. The nature of the portfolio and what should be included are decided by the learning objectives. It can also be tailored to match individual students’ specific factors and therefore represents his or her uniqueness. In using portfolios to assess students’ progress in sustainable development, they could gather, for example, documents and photographs from newspapers and magazines or from students’ own surroundings. The items in the portfolio would be useful in indicating students’ values and interests. In addition, students can also be asked to write reflective pieces on the items they have selected for their portfolio including the reason(s) for their inclusion (Nicolaides 2012). This would promote self-assessment practices which are a feature of assessment for learning. Portfolios can be evaluated by either considering the ongoing compilation process as well as the final product. In addition, evaluation of the individual items in the portfolio or the entire collection of items can be considered.


Projects are ideal for the collection of physical evidence related to an assignment to demonstrate learning (Carless 2009) on specific tasks. Tasks can be built around authentic situations requiring solutions related to students’ context. Students identify a problem, propose solutions, investigate, implement solutions, collect, and analyze data. Projects facilitate collaboration with peers and other stakeholders in the community in which the institution exists. Students can also work individually on projects. Students may also develop a research project and propose implementation strategies and expected outcomes without having to carry it out. Similarly to portfolios, both the process and product can be assessed in projects (Butler and McMunn 2011).

Reflective Journals

Journals provide an opportunity for students to record and reflect on their learning experiences and how they have developed over a period of time (Butler and McMunn 2011). They can also be used to write projections about how current learning will influence future actions. Reflective journals represent a synthesis of learning as they can gauge the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values achieved by students. Journals encourage deep reflection on issues and provide teachers with evidence of students’ understanding, changed beliefs, emotions, and attitudes and can be used in tandem with other assessment forms such as project-based learning.

Journals have no specific format or requirements for what students should write. For example, teachers can provide questions as prompts, or students can be asked to reflect on their learning experiences. Teachers can also determine the frequency with which students will add content to their journals.

Work- or Industry-Based Learning

In this assessment approach, students are sponsored by companies and organizations external to the institution, and they spend some of their time at these sponsoring companies. Work placements give them opportunities to gain practical skills (Coll et al. 2003) and to have a broad understanding of the social and cultural context in which they will work so that in the future they will “make a difference.”

Coll et al. (2003) propose three models linking sustainability to workplace experiences. One of the three suggests exposing students to relevant knowledge and values in the classroom which they then take into the workplace. The students can then be observed and assessed for their demonstration of transfer of learning.

In order to promote sustainable development, students could be placed in organizations such as nongovernmental organizations where they can directly interact with issues that relate to sustainable development to gain experience as they apply the relevant skills to addressing them.

Assessing Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors

Values, attitudes, and behaviors are affective or dispositional learning outcomes and have to be assessed as part of the indicators of accomplishment of sustainable development goals. These outcomes are difficult to measure; however, instruments (e.g., Likert types) have been developed and commonly used for this purpose. In addition, interviews can be used to determine values and attitudes if questions are posed in a way to obtain honest answers. Journal entries, drawings, and other artistic products also provide a means of assessing affective outcomes (Suskie 2009).

In order to assess behaviors, they have to be observed. Criteria are selected on which students’ behavior is judged. Teachers will note whether the behavior is displayed or not, or they could determine the frequency with which the behavior is displayed. Observation of behaviors can be applied to any of the performance assessment strategies.


The kinds of scores obtained from assessment tasks used in performance-based assessment for learning can run into the danger of being subjective. This is so because students create their own responses, and there may be no “right” or “wrong” answers. For example, if students are asked to give their opinions on matters related to the environment, these opinions would vary and would not necessarily be “correct” or “incorrect.” Instead, the quality of the response should be the focus.

Subjectivity can, however, be reduced with the use of rubrics. Rubrics contain the criteria which are the factors used to determine the quality of the students’ responses and behaviors. Rubrics also have qualitative descriptions for each criterion that ensure distinctions in the students’ responses and behaviors (Butler and McMunn 2011). These ensure that everyone who is using the rubric understands what is expected. Rubrics assist teachers to be accurate and fair if they apply it consistently and in an unbiased manner. Scoring can be carried out analytically (awarding scores to each criterion) or holistically (awarding a score based on all the criteria collectively) (Butler and McMunn 2011).

Conclusion and Future Directions

It is of paramount importance that the present and future generations fulfil the mandate of sustainable development. Higher education institutions are well-placed to play a critical role in this effort. This means that teaching, learning, and assessment strategies in these institutions should be reviewed to ensure they are aligned with all the learning objectives as well as the dimensions related to sustainable development. This would require huge efforts of the leadership within these institutions.

Assessment for learning is an approach to assessment that focuses on using assessment as a learning tool. Faculty and students within universities and colleges are generally familiar with traditional forms of assessment that focus on acquisition of knowledge and may be enjoying success in its use. In the context of achieving sustainable development goals, greater efforts are needed to understand and apply more alternative forms of assessment that serve as opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning. This is because sustainable development objectives are a mixture of cognitive and affective skills requiring students to collaborate on authentic tasks. Lack of understanding of sustainable development as well as assessment for learning approaches could lead to resistance against implementation for both faculty and students. Unsuccessful implementation could lead to false impressions that the strategies do not work. This has implications for teacher professional development efforts and may require ongoing training and participation in learning communities for faculty (Vlachou 2015) and awareness of the range of strategies available for gathering evidence of students’ learning (Heritage 2007). Harrison and Wass (2016) pointed out that faculty members often contribute to undermining the intentions of assessment for learning, with Vlachou (2015) suggesting that this may be due to lack of understanding of its principles. In addition to understanding the principles of assessment for learning, faculty would need to strive to achieve an ideal balance between the use of the traditional forms and alternative forms of assessment.

Conducting assessment in authentic situations requires partnerships with a wider array of stakeholders including organizations such as workplaces, businesses, and industries. The benefits of such partnerships would be numerous and reciprocal. Students can gain specific knowledge and experiences from their interactions in the workplaces, while the employees can feel they are contributing to secure more sustainable futures.

Overall a change in the organizational culture of higher institutions might be required from a focus on assessment that is individualistic and competitive to one that requires cooperation and collaboration. A shift from the dominant use of traditional, paper-based assessment tasks to more student-centered practical experiences would also be needed. Furthermore, focus should be given to the affective skills which are largely disregarded in favor of content knowledge.

In this entry, the assessment for learning approach was described and applied to the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes related to sustainable development. This approach to assessment is lagging particularly in higher education institutions, and much work remains to be done on its understanding and implementation. Higher education institutions are well-placed to be at the forefront of demonstrating how this can be successfully done in the context of achieving sustainable development goals.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of the West Indies (Mona)KingstonJamaica

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luciana Brandli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Passo FundoPasso FundoBrazil