Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 4:

How do the societal influences, affective elements, personal background and beliefs, and prior-knowledge of students impact their conceptual understanding of Earth system sciences?


Students enter classes with a complex array of beliefs and personal history that shapes their learning and their perception of the relevance of what they are learning within their own lives. Literature about cognitive and metacognitive aspects of learning shows that these external factors have significant influence on students' conceptual understanding, particularly on topics perceived as controversial (e.g., Vaughn & Robbins, 2017; Walker et al., 2017). Religious beliefs, political inclination, and social identity are strongly correlated with the acceptance or rejection of perceived controversial science topics like evolution, vaccination benefits, and climate change (Walker et al., 2017).

The strong disconnect between scientific views of climate change and the public perception of the scientific consensus (Figure 1), fueled by media and various interest groups, is a formidable challenge for educators (Walker et al., 2017) and has striking similarities to challenges encountered in teaching evolution in the United States.

Social identity theory hypothesizes that people sort themselves into groups based on perceived similarities (e.g., religion, political inclination) and that they hold onto the opinions of the group to remain part of it, a phenomenon known as identity-protective cognition (IPC, Kahan et al., 2007; Kahan, 2010). Studies have shown that, for example, teaching the evidence of climate change is not sufficient, or even counterproductive (Maibach et al., 2009; Kahan, 2015; Walker et al., 2017). However, a recent study shows that students' perception of risks associated with climate change increases with their level of knowledge of climate change science (Aksit et al., 2017). Addressing the connection between student identity and acceptance of certain scientific conclusions (Walker et al., 2017), building from personal background and beliefs, rather than challenging them (e.g., Nadelson & Southerland, 2010; Catley, Lehrer, & Reiser, 2005), and focusing on solutions as well as challenges (McCaffery & Buhr, 2007) are powerful teaching approaches.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. We recommend the use of research-based evidence in developing curriculum and formal and informal instructional guides for instructors in how to approach teaching about controversial topics like climate change. Instructional guides, like the ones available for teaching evolution, would focus on best practices for teaching students about identity-protective cognition (i.e. the tendency of individuals to selectively credit and dismiss evidence in patterns that reflect the beliefs predominant in their group) and acknowledging external influences on scientific opinions (Kahan, 2017).
  2. The perceived controversy about anthropogenic climate warming is created by groups that organize climate change deniers; learning more in detail about the efforts and agenda of these groups can be used to inform students about misinformation. The GER community should draw on literature in the information sciences, specifically on the importance of information literacy in higher education (Flierl, 2017) and the use of misinformation as a teaching tool (Bedford & Cook, 2013).
  3. Incorporating feedback of human-induced alterations in complex natural system and realizing effects of extreme events of climate change in society requires collaboration between natural and social scientists. Connecting with social scientists doing similar work to create multidisciplinary research and then spreading the resulting messages to community would broaden the impact of this field (Morss et al., 2016; Morss & Zhang, 2008).