Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Assessment of Sustainability Competencies

  • Qudsia KalsoomEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_331-1



Assessment of sustainability competencies may be defined as a process of drawing inferences about people’s sustainability competencies on the basis of evidence gathered by using reliable and valid assessment tools. The process of assessment of sustainability competencies starts with decisions regarding what to assess (knowledge, skills and attitudes with respect to real-world sustainability problems); and how to assess (assessment strategy; tools for assessment; strategy to interpret data).


Assessment of sustainability competencies is a complex, cyclical process of planning assessment of sustainability competencies, developing assessment tools, gathering data, analyzing data, and making judgements to inform decisions. Like any other assessment, assessment of sustainability competencies is a process not an event. The purpose of the process is to constantly learn about the level of students’ competencies to make further decisions at classroom level, university level, or national level. Assessment helps the educators to revisit their pedagogies if some students are not developing desired competencies. Assessment of sustainability competencies is useful for the overall university too. It provides a complete picture of students’ level of sustainability competencies. This is important in revising curricula, course contents, programs, university policies, etc. Key concepts associated with assessment of sustainability competencies are sustainability competencies, assessment, types of assessment, tools of assessment, and tools for assessing sustainability competencies. The following sections explain these associated concepts. Moreover, research on assessing sustainability competencies has also been described briefly.

Sustainability Competencies

The concept of sustainability competencies has received attention in the past two decades as an attempt to provide an outcome framework for education for sustainable development (ESD). The need for sustainability competencies arose from the criticism of ESD as a vague, non-outcome- based construct (Mochizuki and Fadeeva 2010). Some researchers found ESD goals as a set of ideals and lofty aims devoid of any context and focus (Stevenson 2007). Vagueness of ESD goals leads the scholars to identify outcomes of ESD. Scholars have conceptualized ESD outcomes differently like sustainability competencies (de Haan 2006; Jensen and Schnack 1997; Wiek et al. 2011), sustainability literacy (Stibbe and Luna 2009), sustainability consciousness (Berglund et al. 2014), and sustainability capabilities (Thomas and Day 2014). It is also important to note that different conceptualizations of ESD outcomes contain similar elements or overlaps. The difference lies in conceptualization of the term. For example, Thomas and Day (2014) have used the concept of “sustainability capabilities.” They argue that capability is more neutral than competence. Moreover, competence is associated with behaviors regarding completion of specific and detailed tasks. Behavioristic orientation makes ESD outcome mechanical. Similarly, proponents of sustainability literacy find the term literacy broader than competence. To them competencies are part of overall sustainability literacy (Stibbe and Luna 2009). On the other hand, advocates of the term sustainability competencies find it more meaningful as it is much focused as compared to other terms.

Sustainability competencies may be defined as a set of “knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem solving with respect to real-world sustainability problems, challenges and opportunities” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 204). Real-world problems are complex and transdisciplinary. They are also recognized as “wicked problems” (Brundiers et al. 2010). To deal with the real-world problems, people need to be aware of the complexity of the problem. They should have knowledge of the connections between economy, environment, and society. Moreover, they need to have cognitive and motor skills and pro-sustainability attitudes to address the real problems effectively. Sustainability competencies is an umbrella term used to represent knowledge regarding economy, society, environment, and their inter-connectedness; cognitive abilities to critically analyze and solve problems; and pro-sustainability attitudes.

Wiek et al. (2011), in their meta-analysis of sustainability competencies, categorized the key sustainability competencies in five groups. Each competency is a set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Five categories are systems thinking, normative competence, strategic competence, anticipatory competence, and interpersonal competence.

Systems thinking refers to the ability to look at things as a whole. It requires analysis of the systems across three domains of sustainability, i.e., society, environment, and economy as well as across different scales, i.e., local to global. Systems thinking allows to consider inertia, cascading effects, feedback loops, and other systemic features related to sustainability issues and sustainability (Wiek et al. 2011). Systems thinking needs systemic knowledge which includes concepts such as structure, function, and cause-effect relations. It also requires perceptions, motives, decisions, and regulations (Wiek et al. 2011). The category of systems thinking covers two sub-competencies identified by de Haan’s (2006). They are competence in interdisciplinary work and competence in cosmopolitan perception. Systems thinking is important to understand the “wholeness” and enact accordingly. As real-world problems are not compartmentalized in different subjects or disciplines, therefore, their solutions require systems thinking. Systemic thinking, interconnected thinking, and holistic thinking are the terms used interchangeably with systems thinking (Wiek et al. 2011).

Normative competence is “the ability to collectively map, specify, apply, reconcile, and negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals, and targets…This capacity is based on acquired normative knowledge including concepts of justice, equity, social-ecological integrity, and ethics” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 209).

Anticipatory competence refers to “the ability to collectively analyze, evaluate, and craft rich ‘pictures’ of the future” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 207) regarding the issues of sustainability. Anticipatory competence resonates with de Haan’s (2006) “foresighted thinking.” Future problems are unseen. However, it is expected that people should be competent enough to foresee the future problems. This anticipatory competence will allow them to plan for the future.

Strategic competence is the ability to “collectively design and implement interventions, transitions, and transformative governance strategies toward sustainability” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 210). Strategic competence is about decision making. Sustainability problems are complex and multidimensional. Strategic competence involves cognitive skills of analysis, evaluation, and planning. Knowledge of sustainability issues is a basic element of the competence.

Interpersonal competence is “the ability to motivate, enable, and facilitate collaborative and participatory sustainability research and problem solving” (Wiek et al. 2011, p. 211). Sustainable development is a collective ideal. It requires collective work. Interpersonal competence is a key competence regarding collaborative work. Interpersonal competence comprises of advanced skills in communicating, deliberating and negotiating, collaborating, leadership, pluralistic and transcultural thinking, and empathy (Wiek et al. 2011).


Assessment is usually described as a process of gathering and interpreting information to make judgments about students’ learning and achievement to guide future decision. The future decision could be about how to address students’ weaknesses in the next class or it could be about prompting students in the next grade or placing students in a professional program. Assessment is a key link between learning outcomes, content, and pedagogy (Black et al. 2011). Assessment, evaluations, and measurement are technically different terms. However, they have been used interchangeably by some scholars. There are three common categories of assessment on the basis of purpose of assessment. They are diagnostic assessment, formative assessment, and summative assessment.

Diagnostic assessment aims at identifying students’ academic strengths or weaknesses and then identifying an appropriate strategy to address students’ weaknesses. Formative assessment is also known as “assessment for learning.” “It is used to provide feedback to pupils and teachers to promote further learning and to allow genuine dialogue between pupils and teachers about progress so that pupils’ learning is promoted and teachers’ planning is effective” (Atjonen 2014). The purpose of formative assessment is to improve students’ learning. Summative assessment is done at the end of instruction periods. Duration of these instruction periods may vary from a month to a year. This kind of assessment is also known as “assessment of learning.” Summative assessment aims to represent individual achievement regarding taught content or skills over a certain period of time. The focus is on achievement (Black et al. 2011). Summative assessment is important as it may improve motivation and can help student, teachers, and parents to compare performance of different students. Summative assessment provides an opportunity to the districts, states, or provinces to compare performance of different schools by comparing average scores of students in a particular grade level.

Both types of assessment are needed for learning. Both formative and summative assessments can serve the purpose of diagnostic assessment.

Self-Assessment and Peer Assessment

The terms “self-assessment” and “peer assessment” are commonly used in assessment discourse. They refer to the method of assessment. Reports written by students regarding their own learning are called self-assessment. Conversely, peer assessment refers to assessment conducted by peers. Both self-assessment and peer assessment processes are important in validating teacher-generated assessment reports. Moreover, they develop students’ evaluation skills.

Key Questions in Assessment

Good assessment starts with planning of assessment. It requires answering the following questions:
  • Who to assess?

  • Why to assess?

  • What to assess?

  • When to assess?

  • Where to assess?

  • How to assess?

Who to assess refers to the audience of assessment. Age group, gender, and study programs are important considerations while planning for assessment.

Why to assess refers to the purpose of assessment. The assessor should clarify if they are going to “assess for learning” or “assess learning.”

What to assess is another important consideration at the planning stage. It involves identification of criteria against which the assessment is to be made. Assessors need to be clear if they are going to judge cognitive learning, psychomotor learning, or affective learning. Moreover, they need to further delineate the construct to be measured.

When to assess is about the timing of assessment. Timing of assessment is decided on the basis of the purpose of assessment. If the assessment is formative, then assessment will be done during routine classroom time. If the assessment is summative, then assessor decides appropriate time after finishing certain content.

Where to assess is another important question in assessment. Assessment criteria determine assessment location. If assessor wants to assess a young doctor’s surgery skills, then surgery room will be the appropriate location. On the other hand, if the assessor wants to assess young doctor’s knowledge of surgery, then it can be assessed in examination hall.

How to assess refers to the methods and tools required to gather data. TenBrink (1999) identified four methods or strategies of assessment. They are:
  • Testing

  • Analysis

  • Observation

  • Inquiry

Testing is used to assess cognitive learning. There could be formal or informal testing. Informal testing involves questioning during classroom. It could take any form, oral, or written (paper pencil test). Summative assessment involves formal testing. Students are informed about the date, place, and time of examination. They are also communicated with the content they would be assessed on. Testing is used to assess students’ factual knowledge, comprehension, application skills, analytical, synthesis, and evaluation skills (Bloom 1956). To assess students’ higher-order thinking skills, assessor develops rubric or criteria. Rubrics help in fair and reliable assessment. Paper pencil tests are the common tools employed during testing.

Analysis is used to assess cognitive and psychomotor skills. An artist’s painting skills or an author’s writing skills could only be assessed by analyzing their work products. Analysis is done by using a rubric or criteria for reliable, unbiased assessment.

Observation is an assessment strategy used to assess feelings and psychomotor skills. If an assessor wants to know the equipment handling skills of undergraduate science program, then they would employ observation strategy. Equipment handling cannot be assessed through paper pencil test. Observation could employ observational checklists as tools or there can be unstructured assessment.

Inquiry is an assessment strategy used to know about people’s opinions, perceptions, or feelings. Inquiry is the least reliable method to assess cognitive skills of the students. Inquiry may be done by using tools of questionnaire or interview.

Assessment of Sustainability Competencies

Sustainability competencies have three components: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These three components belong to three domains of learning. Knowledge of sustainability and intellectual skills (recalling, comprehending, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating) come under the category of cognitive learning, whereas the ability to do something physically or motor skills come under psychomotor domain. Attitudes belong to the affective domain of learning. Assessment of the sustainability competencies would involve assessment of knowledge, skills, and attitudes toward sustainable development. Moreover, the assessment needs to measure all sustainability competencies, i.e., systems thinking, normative competence, and anticipatory, strategic, and interpersonal competence. Scholars have tried to develop tools to measure knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors toward sustainability (Biasutti and Frate 2017; Michalos et al. 2012). However, there is relatively less literature reporting tools to assess sustainability competencies. Rodríguez-Aboytes and Nieto-Caraveo (2018) developed an assessment framework to investigate the level of sustainability competencies of the secondary school students in Mexico. Their instrument consisted of a performance task and questionnaire to measure knowledge and attitudes of the students.

Assessment of sustainability competencies needs to be done by using testing, observational, and inquiry methods. Reliable assessment of knowledge of sustainability issues can be done through testing, whereas cognitive and psychomotor skills need to be analyzed by using rubrics. Attitudes may be assessed through observation or inquiry method. Inquiry method of assessment cannot produce reliable results regarding knowledge domain. A valid and reliable assessment of sustainability competencies would consider basic questions of assessment which are related to the purpose, audience, criteria, location, and timing.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationBeaconhouse National UniversityLahorePakistan

Section editors and affiliations

  • Patrizia Lombardi
    • 1
  1. 1.Politecnico di TorinoTurinItaly