Experiential Learning and Empowerment as the Channel for Behavioral Change

June 8, 2011

By Stephanie H. Blake, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
(This article appears in the June, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)


As public relations practitioners and educators know, the only initiative more difficult than changing opinions is changing behavior. To add to the challenge, changing opinions does not necessarily result in changed behavior. So, we can hope, but not assume, that educating our students about the consequences of climate change will cause them be more aware and to turn off the lights when they leave a campus classroom, for example. Since ACUPCC signatories commit to not only educating their campuses, but also changing behaviors by way of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions, how do we talk to students about climate change in ways that will result in behavioral change? In other words, what messages are most likely to persuade, and what channels are most likely to effectively deliver the messages that lead to change?

During the spring and fall semesters of 2010, as a faculty member in the Communication Department of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), I partnered with the campus’s Office of Sustainability, the unit tasked with educating about climate change and facilitating behavior change, to determine the messages and tactics that might be most effective in reaching the UCCS student body.

In terms of determining the approach to messages, I knew we were in for a challenge. While UCCS does not currently track campus attitudes toward climate change, national polls indicate there is work to be done to influence public opinions about climate change and its causes. In an October 2010 survey from the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of respondents answered “yes” to the question: “Is there solid evidence the earth is warming?”, and just over one-third of respondents believed global warming was human caused. This survey and another Pew Research Center survey indicate an association between attitudes toward climate change and religion and political party affiliation, suggesting opinions about climate change are entangled with ideology.

UCCS is embedded in a politically conservative and religious community. This, coupled with the fact that almost two-thirds of the U.S. population does not see climate change as human caused, indicates motivating students to change behaviors could be difficult. Even with strong messaging, the channel and placement of that message is crucial to effective delivery.

As faculty, administrators and staff on college campuses, we often make assumptions about students. In this case, I assumed students would prefer to receive information about climate change from their peers and would favor social media, such as Facebook, as a channel. Rather than base communication on such assumptions, we turned to our students for insight and were surprised by some of the results. In the spring of 2010 we held five focus groups with a total of 48 students. Generally, those students:

Communication Channels

  • Valued professors, above peers and student groups, as a channel for information about climate change and sustainability.
  • Favored the use of visuals through documentaries and photographs showing impact.
  • Felt overwhelmed by the activities, messages and events on the college campus, combined with their own course work, and indicated they could not pay attention to or participate in every message or opportunity.


  • Expressed disdain at climate change messaging that is politically charged or is framed in a way that authoritatively orders them to take action.
  • Wanted to be shown, rather than told, the consequences of climate change and/or the benefits of behavioral change.
  • Cited experiential learning as the most effective technique (e.g. field trips) for learning about climate change and behaviors that influence it.
  • Believed behavioral habits begin early, so students should be educated at a younger age, or when entering as freshmen.


  • Perceived the lack of immediate tangible effects as the challenge of getting peers to change behaviors.
  • Recommended incentives, including giveaways and food for attending events, and financial benefits (such as reduced tuition, fees or utility bills) for behavioral changes.

In summary, the students wanted to learn about the tangible impact of climate change from professors, who they viewed as knowledgeable and less biased, and wanted to be engaged and empowered through action and experiences, rather than words and political causes. While students varied in opinions about how climate change should be incorporated into university curriculum (e.g. through a required class, freshman seminar or non-science courses that incorporated climate change issues), many suggested it was a college course and professor that had influenced or could influence their opinions, and in some cases behaviors, about climate change.

While many colleges and universities might oppose adding a required course in sustainability (that addresses the behaviors that affect climate change), they might consider educating willing faculty about incorporating the subject into existing curriculum or adding educational initiatives to freshmen orientations. For example, UCCS’s College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences declared the focus of the 2011-2012 school year to be sustainability and community, encouraging faculty to include information about sustainable practices in their curriculum. For the first time at UCCS there will be an All Campus Reads. The first theme for this program is sustainability and the selected book is No Impact Man. The leadership team of the university, resident hall assistants, and incoming students are gearing up to read this book and find ways to incorporate some of the sustainability concepts into practices. There will be a number of speakers next year that are selected to integrate the theme of reducing environmental impact and Freshman Seminar faculty are also examining ways to follow up on the themes of the book with their students.

These insights are merely the beginning of research into what will motivate students to change behaviors to assist universities and colleges in meeting climate commitments. But, in a world saturated with media messages and multiple channels for receiving information, perhaps infiltrating students’ lives with more messages, events, causes and distractions is not the most effective way of hoping to persuade them to change behaviors. Maybe we need to stick with what we strive to do best, exposing students to knowledge and teaching them about their impact by engaging them in educational experiences that empower them to make smart choices.



June 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm

A report which I wrote for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy describes some of the differences between marketing energy-efficient behavior and communicating energy information.

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