At a time when the reality of climate change has become the focus of national debate – often a political hot potato – research showing that 98 percent of students in a large introductory biology course believe it is a genuine problem would seem to be good news.

And while the high percentage of agreement was a pleasant surprise for University of Michigan faculty member Meghan Duffy, especially when compared with the 70-75% of earlier studies of university students and the general population, other data from the study told her the status quo in teaching climate literacy is not good enough.

“When I first saw that number I thought, ‘Well maybe we are preaching to the choir here,'” said Duffy, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “They already came in accepting that climate change is happening. But there is value here in preaching to the choir. We also see students become more sure climate change is occurring and they can better explain the causes.”

Students in Introductory Biology. Image: Martin Springborg

Yet she and colleagues J. W. Hammond of the U-M School of Education and Susan Cheng of the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching also found that by the end of the course, students filled with more information were more worried about climate change than when they began and had a perception that nothing will be done about it.

This reality about the way students were learning about the topic has prompted the researchers to call for a “writerly,” rather than “readerly” approach to teaching the subject. With a writerly approach, the focus is not just on whether students know facts about climate change, but also whether they are prepared to use them.

“Our students are not just these vessels that we are depositing knowledge into, they are people with feelings and emotions and we need to factor that in, too,” Duffy said. “So some of what I’ve been thinking about as I teach this semester is how can I lead students to feel more empowered to tackle climate change. They need to be able to take that information and act on it.”

Read full Michigan News press release

Ecology and Evolution study