What on Earth are you doing?

“I want to stand up for what I stand on”

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 U-M faculty member Meghan Duffy, especially when compared with the 70-75 percent 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,’” says 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.”

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.

“…just ignoring it is really messed up”

Acting on the information

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 says. “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.”

The team surveyed a total of 383 students twice over two semesters in a large introductory biology course. They conducted pre- and post-course surveys to determine the students’ attitudes about climate change coming into the class and then after being presented with content about the topic throughout the semester.

What they found:

  • The belief in climate change throughout the semester changed by one percentage point from 98 percent to 99 percent but the degree of conviction increased from 44 percent of students who were “extremely sure” at the beginning versus 70 percent at the end.
  • The understanding of humans as the primary cause of climate change went from 69 percent to 92 percent
  • At the beginning of the course, only 33 percent recognized that climate change is impacting people now; by the end, 63 percent said it is a problem now, while 8 percent still thought it would not be a concern for 51-100 years, and 2 percent thought it would be 100 years or more.

Empowered to develop solutions

What the team also found anecdotally and through statistics was that students had a sense of hopelessness about climate change. An overwhelming majority of respondents — 93 percent — were either unsure whether humans would take meaningful action in response to climate change or they were absolutely certain they would not. Only 4 percent thought humans would successfully address the problem. One student even reported a panic attack about the issue mid-lecture.

Duffy called what most educators do in such courses a readerly approach to teaching these topics: fill students with all sorts of information about climate change, hoping the information sticks and that they make the leap to what they and others can do to solve it. Instead, she advocates the writerly approach, which allows students to actively develop solutions to climate problems they encounter.

“When I first started this work, I thought a student agreeing that climate change was happening might be the end goal for the course. Now I realize that’s the starting point,” she says.

In their study, the researchers suggest ways instructors can approach courses: doing an assessment of what students know at the beginning; focusing on local “bright spots”—those things that have been done in the area that the class can expand upon to bring a larger problem into focus; reframing the issue to focus on what can be gained in the fight rather than fixating on what is lost if people ignore the problem; and designing course activities around realistic roles for students in climate change solutions.

Duffy has already made changes to the large intro biology course she teaches.

Since a large number of students in the courses are pre-health majors, she spends time connecting climate change to global health concerns, and plans to extend this to additional social science related contexts, among other curriculum changes.

This semester, she is focusing more on individual-level and societal changes that might help tackle climate change. And she is considering the potential unintended consequences of asking students exam questions that focus on climate catastrophe, instead, thinking of ways to ask students to apply their understanding of concepts to solve problems.


  1. Jeff Richied - 95

    I taught HS Ecology for the first time last year & was pleasantly surprised that virtually the entire class believed climate change was a real issue. There was value in them learning more detail regarding the science so that they could explain why to others. They also wanted to know more about what can be done to solve the issue than whether it was an issue. On this topic, I found our textbook to be quite lacking & had to provide information from other sources. I’m curious if you could recommend a HS level Ecology and/or Environment Science text? Thanks!


  2. Robert Scullen - PhD 1967

    I specialized in fluid mechanics/dynamics, heat transfer and thermodynamics and applied them at various points in my career. Climate change is a natural event which has been occurring pretty much from the very beginning of the planet. The UN IPCC argument for increased levels of carbon dioxide as a cause fails to meet the requirements of the Scientific Method and therefore has no validity.


    • Dora Lefaive - 80

      The rate of temperature change is unprecedented for the last 60 years. The natural temperature swings over millions of years do occur and have always been within limits. It will be interesting to see if humans can make the correct choices to slow the exponential temperature rate Are you walking, bicycling or using alternate transportation? Are you comfortable using AC below 78 degrees or using renewable energy sources. Eating differently to reduce your carbon footprint. It starts with you to save the world or just let the government tell you after they realize that their beachfront home is gone.


  3. Bob Spink - 69

    Disappointing 92% agreement in cause of climate change. This sheep mentality is unworthy of a research University like Michigan!


  4. Barbara Alexander - 1968

    I will be one of the Earth Day “veterans” returning to campus for the activities on March 11-12. My comment is that we are long past the issue of whether climate change is occurring. Most people agree with that. But, the more important and politically relevant issues surround how we respond. What should we do? I will be asking students and others in these events to construct a critical thinking approach to evaluating the many proposals that are being proposed to address climate change in the U.S. Who pays? Who benefits? What is the least cost approach? How can we weave social and economic justice into our solutions? How can the U.S. impact the global warming trends over which we do not have certain control? What should be done to ameliorate the inevitable climate change impacts since it is clear we cannot prevent current trends from having an adverse impact? That is the role that our current students must focus on. Thanks.


  5. Barbara Irene Nagler - 1977

    The complexity of the factors around climate change are so great that we have scientists and citizens using the word “belief”- since traditional scientific method can’t precisely prove it. The vast territory cannot be tucked into a laboratory or even be encompassed in the field. Climate science is based in technology, gathering field data and doing computer modeling derived from it. There’s actually still some argumentation going on among scientists involved. My own “belief” is that humans are indeed agents in climate change, though I wouldn’t reduce it all to metric tons of a gas that can’t be precisely measured in its container (in this case the entire atmosphere of Earth).

    It troubles me that the solutions proposed seem to be skewed rather drastically toward the wealthier parts of the world (or peoples anywhere). The technological solutions involve mining, shipping and manufacturing that are themselves oppressive, polluting of water (at mining sites and of the ocean in all the container shipping), and that too often employ what might almost as well be (or actually be) human slaves. Even in carbon terms, AI and electronics contribute much to the “metric tonnage”, esp. AI manufacturing and training (according to some literature, 5 times as much as the equivalent work on a car for its lifetime). There’s a real difference between “carbon fundamentalism” and “climate justice”.

    The same factors that increase carbon also cause pollution. I would suggest shifting some of the focus back to clean air and water, and to conserving and planting green areas (not to “lock up carbon” so much as to breathe with us as part of a dynamic process). And really push for such things as public transit,  and really use it. And be careful about overdevelopment; let development be need-based and by request.

    Too much of it in the end devolves to the plutocracy that manipulates the world, that has no real interest in nations but wants us to be nationalistic as a distraction from what’s being done. Students & graduates dealing with loans and compound interest will have an opportunity, perhaps, to be motivated to change how that works, and in so doing may have a good impact on the environment worldwide.


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