Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2010 Action Teaching Award: Honorable Mention

SPN Action Teaching Award    The Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award entry below received Honorable Mention in 2010. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the Honorable Mention recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Honorable Mention
Title: The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior: Three Action Teaching Assignments
Submitted by: Christie Manning (Macalester College)
Category: Student assignment
For students/learners in: College
Objective(s): To (1) understand the psychological factors that lead people to engage in sustainable behavior; (2) strengthen analytical skills through critical analysis; (3) reflect upon personal values and lifestyle choices; and (4) create real-world, sustainable change at the local level


As part of a college course that I teach on the "Psychology of Sustainable Behavior," I developed a set of three action teaching assignments that involve applications of psychological theory and research to topics covered in the class.

Assignment #1: Self-Change Project

For this assignment, students choose a behavior that they want to change in their personal lives. During a two-week period, they then alter the circumstances that prompt the behavior and change the reinforcements that follow the behavior. The behavior I encourage students to try is living in a way that produces zero garbage (compost, recycling, and reuse are allowed). Most students enjoy the challenge, and this project consistently has a strong personal impact. I don't require all students to live waste-free for their Self-Change Project because some students feel that a different behavior is personally more important, such as giving up meat.

Project goals: The goals of this project are for students to learn that changing behavior is often difficult even under the best circumstances; to better understand the complex situational and personal factors that influence behavior; and to feel empowered when they see that careful analysis and effort can lead to positive behavior change.

Students are instructed to carry out the following steps:

  • Step 1: Examine your daily habits and consider their impact.
  • Step 2: Choose a specific behavior goal.
  • Step 3: Define the actions that fulfill your goal.
  • Step 4: Before making any changes, keep track of conditions that relate to your goal. Observe behavior for two days and write down how often goal and non-goal behaviors occur, and under what circumstances.
  • Step 5: Analyze the conditions leading to non-goal behavior and think about how these conditions could be changed. Also analyze what happens after non-goal behavior, and think about how non-goal behavior is reinforced.
  • Step 6: Outline a plan of how you will change circumstances and reinforcement in order to successfully change your behavior.
  • Step 7: Tell someone about the project, and make a written public commitment to your goal.
  • Step 8: For the next two weeks, regularly record your experiences in making the desired change.
  • Final Step: Turn in a summary of your experience (around 10 pages). Provide a written analysis and reflection on the project, what you learned, and how it relates to class material. Be sure to explicitly link psychological concepts with your experience making a personal behavior change. Relevant concepts that we have covered in class include situational constraints on behavior, learning theory, internal vs. external motivation, self-efficacy, and the attitude-behavior gap.

Assignment #2: Campus-Change Group Project

A Stovetop Prompt to Conserve Energy This project is similar to Assignment #1, but rather than focusing on a single individual, it involves helping the college campus and community become more sustainable. Students work in groups of 3 to 5 to identify a target behavior and devise a way to change it. Following the approach outlined in Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith's book Fostering Sustainable Behavior, students develop and implement a strategy, take measurements, and evaluate the success of their endeavors.

Project goals: The goals of this project are for students to experience first-hand how important it is to make observations and collect data, rather than relying solely on intuition to understand others' behavior; to see the value of using psychological principles and research findings when developing behavior change strategies; and to create a situation on campus that supports sustainable action.

For this assignment, I give students the following instructions:

  • Step 1: Identify the target behavior (summarize the ecological reasons that this particular behavior should be changed).
  • Step 2: Choose the goal behavior (summarize the reasons for this goal behavior).
  • Step 3: Conduct informal observations of people carrying out target and goal behaviors.
  • Step 4: Conduct a short survey, designed to test hypotheses developed through informal observations.
  • Step 5: Develop a behavior change strategy using psychological tools covered in the readings and class. Relevant psychological tools and concepts include:
    • social influence tools such as commitment, social proof, similarity, and a likable authority/expert
    • reminders and prompts (to overcome the human tendency to forget)
    • making hidden information visible (to overcome perceptual limitations)
    • changing the situational context (to make new responses easier and to avoid prompting habitual responses)
    • feedback (to create a link between people's actions and a real-world response).
  • Step 6: Pilot test the strategy on a small scale.
  • Step 7: Evaluate the strategy by taking measurements of how behavior has changed (use observational or survey data collection methods).
  • Step 8: Share your group's findings with the class in a formal presentation.
  • Step 9: Submit a final report that describes how your strategy was based on concepts from class, and how various psychological tools and concepts contributed to the behavior change you observed.

When I've assigned this project, students have chosen a wide array of target and goal behaviors, including waste reduction, composting, turning off lights, and reusing newspapers in common spaces. The success of these efforts depends heavily on the motivation of the students. By and large, it has been a great experience for all. Students particularly like the feeling of having had an impact. They can see their peers respond, and they witness local behavior change as a result of their work. I have received a number of comments on course evaluations about how empowering this experience is because it creates real, measurable, positive change.

Assignment #3: The "Find Your Voice" Project

This is a communication project and is the most unstructured project that I assign to students. For most students, it is also their favorite project of the class. They complete the assignment at the end of the semester, after they've read and discussed most of the class material and have a variety of psychological concepts to draw upon, including research findings on effective communication and persuasion. For this assignment, students must apply principles and ideas from the course to improve the way they express something about sustainability.

Project goals: The goals of this project are for students to apply the knowledge they've gained in class, expand their sense of self-efficacy in promoting sustainability, and successfully convey a message of sustainability to a wide audience. I also encourage students to have fun with the project and do something bold and creative. They usually take this encouragement to heart!

Here are the steps that I give to students:

  • Step 1: Identify the ecological issue that you are most concerned about. In your report, describe the issue and why it is important to you personally and to the world.
  • Step 2: Develop a personal communication idea. This can be almost anything. Be creative, but ground your communication approach in the principles we've discussed in class. (Hint: Refer to our class text Influence by Robert Cialdini, as well as readings from Creating a Climate for Change by Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling.) Some of the important psychological concepts that we have discussed with respect to communication include framing information to appeal to a variety of worldviews and social identities, fostering accurate mental models of complex environmental information, balancing urgency with realistic hope in order to encourage problem-focused coping and discourage emotion-focused coping, transmitting task-relevant and effectiveness information, and risk perception. Talk to me if you need ideas or inspiration. Successful past projects have used a variety of media and methods: posters on campus, a trash sculpture, a photo exhibit, a sustainable party, and many others.
  • Step 3: Find your voice! Try out your communication and record what happens when people encounter it (these records can take many forms, including written notes, video or audio recording, photographs, comments on a blog, etc.).
  • Step 4: Submit a 7-10 page report describing the project's motivations, implementation, and results.

Tree Made from Recycled Trash on a Residence Hall The Find Your Voice Project requires students to choose a sustainability issue that they care about, design a message that they want to communicate, and then choose a creative, psychology-informed way to convey this message. In response, students have come up with amazing ideas. One young woman dressed up as a penguin and went around the college cafeteria at lunch asking students to fill out a survey on climate change. Another student created a tree out of recyclable material she found on her residence hall. Still another student created a 4-minute radio show about a renovated eco-house that students live in on campus, which has all sorts of energy efficiency updates. More than half of the students went above and beyond the specifications of the assignment, creating something great and enjoying the process. Unfortunately, approximately one third of the students left the assignment to the last minute, and their projects reflected their procrastination. When I next teach this course, I will provide more structure and intermediate deadlines for this assignment.

Quotes from Student Papers

A Student Penguin Doing Survey Research on Climate Change Here are a few comments that illustrate the positive reaction students have had to these action teaching assignments:

"I'll take the last paragraph here to say that these type of projects are really unique to my college experience, and I've never had the opportunity to directly apply things learned in class to the real world so effectively."

"I feel good about my temporary transformation into a penguin and my bold attempt at exposing our convoluted mental models and the strong effects of framing. My spirited endeavor into Café Mac was a lesson in confidence and commitment for me, and for others, if nothing else, provided comic relief in the hustle and bustle of a stressful week of finals. In the end, I believe I found my voice in the squawk of a penguin."

"I am very proud of the work that I have done. I was able to convey a message of importance or severity simultaneously with one of hope, and provide a constructive outlet for emotions concerning global warming... I found a way to convey my intended message in a creative, concise, attention-grabbing way -- to find my voice surrounding the issue of global climate change."

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