Living and Learning Green

Do students in sustainability-themed dorms stay environmentally responsible?

Karen A. Hegtvedt

Cathryn Johnson

For both professors and students, learning happens in a variety of “places,” literally and figuratively. In summer 2008, the two of us embarked on a learning odyssey. Trained as experimental social psychologists, we took steps out of the laboratory when we agreed to examine how encouragement and support of environmentally responsible behaviors from higher administration and peers impact students’ environmental behaviors and identities over time. The confluence of two events—our participation in the Piedmont Project and the opening of two new “Gold” certified L.E.E.D. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) residence halls—stimulated this foray into survey and qualitative research. 

Given the nature of the research, we recruited undergraduate and graduate collaborators and sought advice from other university units, including the Office of Sustainability Initiatives and Residence Life. We pursued non-traditional learning activities—touring unfinished buildings, talking with undergraduates, and serving on a building committee—to grasp topics for our project. Likewise, our surveys and interviews with members of the class of 2012 show that our university can help “teach” students to be environmentally responsible citizens outside of the classroom, without reliance on traditional tools of pedagogy. 

Existing literature shows that developmental changes occur in the way college students think, what they do, and how they see themselves (see Pascarella and Terenzini 2005). Studies document that extracurricular activities and programs influence students’ attitudes, values, behaviors, and sense of community (see Hollway 2005; McDonald et al. 2002; McFarland and Thomas 2006). And, specific to our endeavor, research indicates that dorm and campus environmental awareness programs favorably affect undergraduate behaviors (see Marcell et al. 2004; Peterson et al. 2007). (Please see below for full citations on these works.) 

While these studies provide evidence of how specific factors affect behaviors, they largely do not conceptualize why sustainability efforts work and whether their effects endure over time. We argue that the more students perceive university sustainability efforts to be legitimate, the more likely they are to behave in environmentally responsible ways, even taking into account other relevant influences such as perceptions of peers’ behaviors or their own attitudes. Theoretically, such behaviors, in turn, may shape how individuals see themselves, and their “environmental identities” then propel subsequent behaviors.

Perceptions of university sustainability efforts, however, depend in part on what students glean from various information sources, both those they seek out and others brought to them by peers, professors, and university staff. Our study examines these sources of information, tapping into ways that students gain knowledge through avenues other than the traditional professor-centered learning. 

We asked study participants—both those living in the new “green dorms” and those living in more conventional residence halls—about the amount and sources of their environmental knowledge. We posed these questions at the end of their first year on campus (T1, with N=300, a 48 percent response rate) and then again prior to graduation (T2, with N=264, a 51 percent response rate). We also interviewed 40 T1 respondents (equally split between “green” and conventional dorms) during their sophomore year to gauge their thinking about sustainability and related behaviors. While there is some overlap in respondents for each survey period, our analysis looks at differences by dorm and gender at each time rather than individual changes over time.

Generally, at the conclusion of both their freshman and senior years, our students indicate that they receive neither too little nor too much, but the “right amount” of information about environmental issues. The sources varied over the years. Clearly, “living green” mattered in terms of accessing different sources of information during the freshman year. Results show that first-year students living in “green dorms” were more likely to rely on orientation packets, web sources, print media, emails, dorm flyers, and campus flyers, posters, or banners than their counterparts in conventional dorms. And, not surprisingly, “living green” participants attended more dorm and campus programs focused on sustainability. First-year women, regardless of residence hall, also relied more on Emory print media, dorm flyers, campus flyers, and email communications than did first-year men. And these women attended more campus-wide sustainability events. Other analyses show that regardless of residence hall, to the extent that students get their information from dorm flyers or print media, they are more likely to think Emory legitimately supports sustainability. And perceived legitimacy bolsters environmentally responsible behaviors, above and beyond the effect of peers on such behaviors. 

From our interviews, another source of non-traditional learning became quite apparent: the energy competition. Many students commented on the impact of the annual October competition designed to reduce consumption of BTUs/square foot of building space. Students especially remember the day they all turned out the lights at the same time. The uniqueness of such an hour-long event clings in their memories, providing a basis for “thinking twice” about their own energy use. The activity may serve as an “a-ha” moment in their sustainability education, akin to the moments faculty try to produce in the classroom.

The effects of residing in a green dorm as a freshman, however, waned by the students’ senior year. Reliance on all Emory sources of information decreased, and attention to most sources of information was similar regardless of where respondents had lived their freshman year. The one exception is word-of-mouth information—those having lived in conventional dorms are more likely to use that source than those having “lived green” during their first year. Female compared to male seniors indicated that the amount of information they get about environmental issues is a bit less than “the right amount,” but those senior women attended more campus wide sustainability programs than their male counterparts (perhaps seeking to enhance their knowledge). 

What do we learn from these data patterns? First, individuals in themed living communities attend more to relevant information. Given Emory’s investment in first-year living communities, these data lend support to the wisdom of that investment in shaping individuals’ knowledge. Second, simply making information readily available—plastering the walls of residence halls—reinforces the perception that Emory strongly supports sustainability efforts. And those perceptions can inspire behavior consistent with those messages. Perceiving that their peers behave similarly also helps. Thus leveraging peer interests and activities toward sustainability—effectively signaling generational social norms—may augment learning beyond the classroom. 

And third, the impact of university communication is strongest when students are a captive audience on campus. Once they are living off campus and adjusting their outlooks beyond their college years, that impact, not surprisingly, diminishes. With regard to university sustainability efforts, the question becomes, what can Emory do to ensure the graduation of environmentally responsible citizens? Going forward, a challenge for the university will be to explore how to cultivate environmentally responsible values and actions among students living independently. Just as the faculty-led Piedmont Project affected our thinking about sustainability and provided the seeds for this research project, student-led initiatives to enhance sustainability may be central to continuing the commitments and behaviors initiated in themed living. Those initiatives may capitalize on digital resources and new ways of thinking about the college learning experience. Indeed, multiple ways “to teach” and multiple teachers may epitomize twenty-first-century learning.


Hollway, Michael C. 2005. “A Comparison of the Impact of Two Liberal Arts General Education Curricula on Student Humanitarian Values.” The Journal of General Education 54:237-66.

Marcell, Kristin, Julian Agyeman, and Ann Rappaport. 2004. “Cooling the Campus: Experiences from a Pilot Study to Reduce Electricity Use at Tufts University Using Social Marketing Methods.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education  5:169-89.

McDonald, William M. and Associates. 2002. Creating Campus Community. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

McFarland, Daniel A. and Reuben J. Thomas. 2006. “Bowling Young: How Youth Voluntary Associations Influence Adult Political Participation.” American Sociological Review 71:401-25.

Pascarella, Ernest T. and Patrick T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students (Vol. II): A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peterson, John E., Vladislav Shunturov, and Kathryn Janda. 2007. “Dormitory Residents Reduce Electricity Consumption When Exposed to Real-Time Visual Feedback andIncentives.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8(1):16-33.