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The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Ban, N. C., E. Boyd, M. Cox, C. L. Meek, M. Schoon, and S. Villamayor-Tomas. 2015. Linking classroom learning and research to advance ideas about social-ecological resilience. Ecology and Society 20(3):35.
Insight, part of a special feature on Advancing Social-Ecological Research Through Teaching: Social-Ecological Systems Framework and Design Principles in Large Areas

Linking classroom learning and research to advance ideas about social-ecological resilience

1School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, 2School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Reading, 3Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University., 4Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, 5Department of Political Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 6School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, 7Division of Resource Economics, Humboldt University


There is an increasing demand in higher education institutions for training in complex environmental problems. Such training requires a careful mix of conventional methods and innovative solutions, a task not always easy to accomplish. In this paper we review literature on this theme, highlight relevant advances in the pedagogical literature, and report on some examples resulting from our recent efforts to teach complex environmental issues. The examples range from full credit courses in sustainable development and research methods to project-based and in-class activity units. A consensus from the literature is that lectures are not sufficient to fully engage students in these issues. A conclusion from the review of examples is that problem-based and project-based, e.g., through case studies, experiential learning opportunities, or real-world applications, learning offers much promise. This could greatly be facilitated by online hubs through which teachers, students, and other members of the practitioner and academic community share experiences in teaching and research, the way that we have done here.
Key words: complex systems; interdisciplinarity; pedagogy; problem-based learning; project-based learning; social-ecological resilience; social-ecological systems; teaching


Human society is faced with complex environmental problems that require innovative solutions (Berkes et al. 2003, Folke et al. 2005), and hence there is an increasing demand in higher education institutions for this type of training. Emerging interdisciplinary endeavors of social-ecological systems (Ostrom 2009), resilience (Maynard et al. 2010, Neubauer et al. 2013), sustainability science (Clark and Dickson 2003, Chapin et al. 2010), complex systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002), among others, which together we refer to as social-ecological resilience, are well-poised to contribute to finding solutions to contemporary sustainability conundrums, and have the potential to serve as a platform for teaching complex, interdisciplinary issues. However, teaching such multidimensional, emerging themes effectively can be challenging not only because of the complexity of the issues, but also because they ideally integrate multiple disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives and learning techniques (Laurillard 2002) at a time when the dominant educational model reinforces single discipline-oriented learning.

We review literature on teaching these themes, highlight relevant advances in the pedagogical literature, and report on some of our efforts toward innovative attempts to teach complex environmental issues. We ask, how can students be taught about complex environmental issues and solutions in a way that reflects current pedagogical research? The purpose of this paper is to briefly summarize the relevant literature and to share our efforts of improving undergraduate and graduate teaching and learning about coupled social and environmental issues with clear relevance to society. We summarize our courses that have attempted such integration, and provide a self-assessment of the benefits, challenges, and opportunities for improvement. Our intent is not to examine the efficacy of different teaching techniques, as has been done elsewhere, but rather to review approaches and our own experiences for teaching social-ecological resilience. Our goal is to provide ideas and motivation for others to learn from, and improve upon, our efforts.


Social-ecological resilience and education literature

Environmental governance and resilience issues are an emerging research theme, and hence we wanted to identify the status of advice about teaching such themes to university students. We searched the Web of Knowledge for literature on social-ecological systems, or sustainability science, or complex systems, and environment (n = 439). We subset this search with educational key words, e.g., education, or classroom, or teaching, or pedagogy, or learning, and the research area of educational research (n = 82 articles). We then reviewed the abstracts to identify those specifically investigating educational approaches to teaching these subjects to university students (n = 13, see Appendix 1).

To identify broader trends and recommendations in pedagogy, beyond the theme on social-ecological resilience as per the search outlined above, we started with recent high profile papers, e.g., in Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (Handelsman et al. 2004, Ruiz-Primo et al. 2011, Freeman et al. 2014), and used a snowball approach to identify other relevant scholarship. We focused on studies that quantitatively assessed learning approaches. Our purpose with these reviews was to highlight some approaches that hold promise for engaging students with ideas around environmental issues, social-ecological systems, resilience, etc.

We also summarize our own experiences relating to the challenges, opportunities, and examples of teaching these themes. We are mostly early-career scholars with a common interest in resilience and social-ecological system, who discussed this paper at a meeting of the Resilience Alliance (France, 2014). The courses we reflect on have been taught at five universities in Europe and North America. Our assessment of the courses involved self-reflection (including discussions with each other), and, where available, formal course evaluations and informal student feedback. Our directly relevant collective experience includes a combined upper-level undergraduate and graduate course in social-ecological systems thinking, an upper-level undergraduate course in social-ecological research methodology, graduate courses on social-ecological-technical systems, undergraduate courses on systems thinking, graduate and undergraduate courses on resilience for sustainable development (Table 1).


Challenges from the literature to teaching social-ecological resilience

Two key challenges to teaching social-ecological resilience and related ideas emerge from the literature (Appendix 1). First, social-ecological systems learning requires engaging students with many relevant disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary perspectives (Dieleman and Huisingh 2006). Teachers thus need to either relate to students the many different understandings of concepts related to social-ecological resilience, or simplify and focus on only one or a few such perspectives (Sriskandarajah et al. 2010).

Second, and related to the above, social-ecological resilience can be difficult to translate into effective educational strategies because of, as Sriskandarajah et al. (2010:560) state, “profoundly contestable positions on the nature of nature (ontology), the nature of knowing and knowledge (epistemology) and the nature of human nature and the role of values (axiology).” Thus teachers and students need to be able to make the connections between the diverse domains of knowledge, which means bridging different professional cultures, traditions, gender differences, and ages (Dieleman and Huisingh 2006).

Approaches to teaching social-ecological resilience from the literature

General trends in the evolution of approaches to university teaching over the past ~50 years can provide some general insights for teaching social-ecological resilience (Slavich and Zimbardo 2012). In particular, there seems to be a shift from conventional lecturing to other learning techniques, e.g., active learning, student-centred learning, experiential learning, transformational teaching, research-led teaching. Although some defend lecturing (Burgan 2006), evidence is mounting that more active forms of instruction enhance student learning through building problem-solving skills rather than perfecting rote memorization (Handelsman et al. 2004). For example, a recent meta-analysis comparing lecturing to active learning in undergraduate science, engineering, and mathematics classes found that examination scores improved by 6% with active learning and students were less likely to fail (Freeman et al. 2014). Similarly, a meta-analysis assessing course innovations on learning in science found that teaching techniques that incorporated collaborative learning (engaging students with peers as a component of the learning process) led to improved learning over control conditions, as did those involving conceptually oriented tasks, technology innovations, and combinations thereof (Ruiz-Primo et al. 2011). Another study found that small-group learning is effective at promoting greater academic achievement (Springer et al. 1999)

The literature on teaching social-ecological resilience closely reflects the general shift in pedagogical approaches. Teaching and learning are of course closely linked (Biggs and Tang 2011), with the aim of teaching to promote learning among students. Ultimately, intertwined teaching and learning about social-ecological resilience is aimed at constructing solutions to complex environmental issues. Experiential learning (learning by doing), for example, was integrated into a course in Sweden on integrated water resource management, where soft-systems methodology, which attempts to explore diverse stakeholder perspectives through conceptual models of the selected systems, was used to foster learning and understanding of diverse stakeholders, including through an experiential component where students facilitated real-life multistakeholder processes (Krasny et al. 2009). Transformative social learning, aimed to induce changes in the students’ worldview, (Mezirow 1991) was used in a course in the Netherlands where one activity included deconstructing the Happy Meal, and then reconstructing what a happy meal might look like (Sriskandarajah et al. 2010). Activity theory, which suggests that learning occurs through the interaction of the learner with other components of the systems, e.g., other people or tools that help interactions, has also been applied in teaching social-ecological resilience (Krasny and Roth 2010).

Case studies are a common tool for explaining ideas around social-ecological resilience (Dieleman and Huisingh 2006, Fazey 2010). Case studies can engage students with higher level thinking by immersing them in the complexities of social-ecological systems (Fazey 2010). However, case studies have also been criticized because they may limit students to looking for solutions within the boundaries of the case instead of thinking outside the box. To overcome this limitation one study suggests that additional teaching techniques should be combined with case studies to encourage higher level thinking. For example, games can play an important role in getting students to appreciate different points of view (Dieleman and Huisingh 2006).

Computer-supported learning is another technique employed in teaching social-ecological resilience. For example, computer-supported collaborative learning is one promising technique (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2011). Similarly, computational representation of complex systems using agent-based models have been used as models for students to experiment with how complex systems work without real-world implications (Jacobson et al. 2011).

Our experience with teaching social-ecological resilience

Case study 1: analyzing environmental issues using a social-ecological systems perspective

A combined upper-level undergraduate and graduate course, this classroom-based learning experience at the University of Victoria, Canada, used case studies to immerse students in social-ecological systems ideas (one 3-hr class per week for 13 weeks). The course linked with an ongoing research project by the teacher and others that uses case studies to better understand the governance approaches that work in large social-ecological systems, the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-analysis Database (SESMAD) project (Cox 2014, Epstein et al. 2014a, b, Evans et al. 2014, Fleischman et al. 2014a, b, Villamayor-Tomas et al. 2014). Undergraduate students worked in small groups on case studies of their choosing, and graduate students worked individually. Students were guided through a series of assignments to apply the social-ecological systems framework (Ostrom 2009) to their case studies (Appendix 2), with the ultimate aim of presenting possible solutions to addressing environmental issues in their case studies. Students were thus required to carry out literature-based research because none of their case studies had been analyzed in this way. The novelty of some of the case studies led to contributions to social-ecological resilience research; four of the case studies from the course are currently in review in peer-reviewed publications, with more likely to be submitted in the future.

Many aspects of the course worked well, but others proved challenging. The case study approach was a great asset. In the course evaluations many students reflected positively on the case studies, and the series of assignments that walked them through using the social-ecological systems framework. Integrating the course with an active research program of the teacher also motivated students. Indeed, most graduate students and one of the undergraduate groups submitted papers to this Special Feature based on their work during the course. The biggest challenges were the diverse backgrounds of students and engaging everyone in discussions. Some students grasped the complex issues around social-ecological resilience much more quickly than others, and were thus able to participate more effectively in the course. These challenges are not unique to teaching social-ecological resilience, but are perhaps exacerbated by the interdisciplinary nature of the topics. Improvements to the course could include more diverse pedagogical techniques to actively engage students in in-class discussions, e.g., games, and interacting with guest speakers to bring alive multiple aspects of social-ecological resilience.

Case study 2: teaching social-ecological methods using standard techniques from social science methods literature

This course at Dartmouth College followed what would be considered a more traditional route to teaching research methods by relying on popular methods textbooks from the social science and common-pool resource research (i.e., Yin 1984, Shadish et al. 2002, Poteete et al. 2010, Bernard 2011). The course was geared toward students interested in conducting research during their senior year of college or potentially afterward in a graduate program. The emphasis was less on theoretical concepts and more on the nuts and bolts of putting together a solid scientific research proposal. Primary topics included research design, sampling techniques, measurement processes, and analytical options, and students were trained to evaluate how well each of these steps were accomplished according to standard criteria, e.g., internal, external, and concept validity, reliability (Appendix 3).

Generally students were able to grasp the basic concepts, although combining them into one coherent research project proved challenging for most. Students generally found the assigned readings to be challenging (read: “boring”), particularly King et al. (1994) and Yin (2014). One challenge was providing the students with sufficient environmental examples because the standard social science textbooks are not usually geared toward environmental issues. Translations needed to be made and, in many cases, issues in the texts were either overemphasized or underemphasized compared to their importance in social-ecological research. For example, it is common in social science methods texts to emphasize the importance of experimental and quasi-experimental methods as the primary, if not the only, way of establishing causal relationships among important concepts and variables. “Observational” is taken to be equivalent to “descriptive,” instead of explanatory. Meanwhile, the majority of empirical work on social-ecological systems (SES) is highly nonexperimental because of the real-world nature of the research questions being addressed.

Similarly, the traditional texts describe threats to internal validity, or the accuracy of causal inferences, that are very specific to projects geared toward the evaluation of specific treatments of cohorts of individuals. For example, “maturation” describes the organic development of human individuals as a possible confounder that may explain over time changes in a longitudinal study, rather than some experimental treatment. This is not very relevant to the great majority of social-ecological studies, while issues such as policy diffusion and spillover effects are highly relevant, but also specific in how they are instantiated in social-ecological contexts.

Case study 3: using problem and project-based learning to study social-ecological systems

Problem- and project-based learning (PPBL) allow students to self-guide and direct their learning through engagement beyond the classroom (Brundiers and Wiek 2013; Appendix 4). Rather than having lecture-based classes, PPBL shifts the role of the instructor from “sage on the stage” to “guide from the side.” It uses projects to convey two sets of learning, i.e., the core material of the course and skills in project management, problem solving, and team building. There are a number of ways to accomplish this in the classroom ranging from less self-directed learning in more traditional class settings to highly self-directed and real-world oriented. This course used semester-long group projects, which form the core deliverables in a traditional class setting. Students worked in small groups of 5 (12 groups in a class of 60), and selected from a handful of projects across a range of real-world issues in the community. The projects all took a systems approach to coupled social-ecological sustainability and included working with the Arizona State Land Department on conservation on public land, working on community engagement in the clean-up efforts of a Superfund site, and looking at transportation options in a low-income section of Phoenix.

The students split the project up into subprojects and had each team member investigate a portion of the project. They then prepared individual papers on their aspect of the problems being confronted in their project. The next deliverable was a team presentation on the overall problem, integrating the individual components. They also presented potential solutions. After the presentation, they then began researching, as a group, which solution to recommend. Throughout this, the students engaged with the external stakeholder. In doing so, the students built a network of practitioners beyond campus and gained real-world experience that they could discuss with future employers. The combination of individual and group work minimized free riders in the group.

The major challenges were in coordinating stakeholder and student schedules, incorporating the material learned in class into the projects, and finding projects of the appropriate duration and intensity that utilized skills developed in class. The coordination efforts and group facilitation took substantial amounts of time. Also, the class size of 60 students was about the most that could be reasonably accommodated by one professor. Students expressed enthusiasm for engagement beyond academia and enjoyed interacting with practitioners interested in hearing their ideas and solutions. However, like many team-based projects, students complained about unequal capacities from team to team and unequal levels of engagement within teams, a reality of all team-based work.

Case study 4: mobilizing qualitative evidence to test SES-related theory

This case is based on a one day workshop on community based social-ecological systems research within a training event of The Training Network for Monitoring Mediterranean Marine Protected Areas (MMMPA; Marie Curie European program; Appendix 5). The goal of the workshop was to introduce mostly PhD students with backgrounds in ecology and marine biology to hands-on institutional analysis of local SES. One of the most challenging but also important steps in the research process is using evidence effectively to test and build theory. This challenge is particularly relevant when studying complex SES and manifests differently depending on whether we use quantitative or qualitative data. Two important aspects of the challenge when using qualitative data are the interpretation of the data itself and the test of alternative hypotheses. The activity below aimed to confront students with those challenges.

The workshop was structured into two sessions. The first session introduced SES-theory through conventional lecturing. The lecture focused on common pool resource (CPR) theory and social and ecological variables that are hypothesized to contribute to sustainable resource use using a small set of synthesizing references (Agrawal 2001, Ostrom 2009, Poteete et al. 2010). Causal mechanisms behind the impact of a number of those variables on sustainable outcomes were emphasized, including collective action and game theory. In the second session, students participated in a hands-on in-class activity to familiarize with the theory and experience the methodological challenges of using qualitative data to test it. Students were given a 5-page text that had been adapted from Evans et al. (2014). The paper, which develops a SES analysis of the Great Barrier Reef, was selected to fit the substantive interest of students (marine protected systems and governance) and because it contains thorough and clearly identifiable pieces of qualitative evidence. The text was adapted to include only those pieces and leave out much of the analysis, discussion, and conclusions. The exercise consisted of three sequential steps: students were asked to (1) read the text and use it as their only source of data to identify marine-sector proxies for a number of the CPR theory variables reviewed in the previous session; (2) use the SES framework (Ostrom 2009) to classify the variables into resource system, unit, actor, or governance attributes; (3) pick one relevant variable or group of them and use collective action theory and quotations to justify why that variable could be important. Discussion followed the third step. During the discussion, students were asked to share their classification of variables and interpretation of the data and compare it the work done by their peers. Students’ analyses were also compared to the analysis carried in Evans et al. (2014). The discussion was guided to promote collaborative learning through common understanding of similarities and differences across analyses and the reasons behind them. Finally, students were requested to hand-in a one page memo synthesizing their analysis as well as the main points of the discussion.

Overall, the exercise was intellectually intense and thus challenging for the students. The first step of the exercise resulted in some debate about different ways to interpret data and operationalize SES variables. The second exercise resulted in the identification of a fair number of relevant variables. This was used to confront students with the challenge of balancing parsimony and accuracy when tackling complex SES. Students were asked to mobilize a theory, i.e., a set of theories about the role of CPR variables, that they were not familiar with and assess a 5-page text in a short time frame. Students also found it difficult to constrain themselves just to that set of theories and the evidence provided in the text. Instead, they were incorporating other theories, their own personal knowledge of the case or similar cases and making strong assumptions. If more time were available, extensions of this exercise could include the mobilization of other theories, use of quantitative evidence, e.g., descriptive statistics, nonparametric tests, or regression results, as well as identification of alternative hypotheses by students.

Case study 5: teaching and learning about sustainable development from a social-ecological resilience perspective

Resilience for Sustainable Development in the Geography and Environmental Science Department at Reading University, UK is tailored for third year undergraduate human and human/physical geography students and for Master’s level science students attending the Environmental Management MSC programme (Appendix 6). The course aims to teach a systematic evaluation of the principles of resilience both as a theoretical lens and operational concept, one through which to examine how contemporary societies and cultures, predominantly in the developing world, are adapting to global environmental change. The course followed a mixed format with interactive lectures designed around key concepts in social-ecological resilience (e.g., Gunderson and Holling 2002, Berkes et al. 2003, Folke et al. 2005, Ostrom 2009), adaptation, vulnerability, and risk (Adger 2000, 2006, Gallopín 2006), group work around case studies of adaptive governance, and interactive games relating to comanagement. The course comprised 10 lectures and 10 workshops over 11 weeks. The course assignment consisted of an exam, individual essay, and a group case study project. Both undergraduates and graduates tackled an individual essay, which included a literature review of key concepts. In addition, the students were also guided through a group project on the topic of “Imagining society and environmental resilience” presented as a poster, PowerPoint, performance, video clip, or other form of visual representation. Invited speakers gave the students the opportunity to engage with the challenges of implementing resilient sustainable development strategies. The students also played serious games, that is, games that have an explicit educational purpose, and role-plays of multistakeholder environmental initiatives. Games can generate emotional experience and simultaneously stimulate individual thinking and enthuse collective cohesion (de Suarez et al. 2012).

Overall the course worked particularly well for graduate students. Although they came from diverse backgrounds, they generally felt that the mixture of lectures, case studies, interactive games, and discussions were a useful way to learn about and interrogate resilience. At the undergraduate level, feedback varied. Some felt inspired by a “great” class, which was also described as “interesting and topical.” Others struggled with the analytical ambiguity of social-ecological resilience and expressed the need for more time to grasp and process concepts. Many of these concerns were directly linked to student aspirations to “do well” in their final marks. This may point to a trade-off between the significant intellectual demands of an interdisciplinary training (curiosity led) and the aspirations of many students to put in enough effort to pass and obtain a qualification for a job (Biggs and Tang 2011). The performance, passion, and experience of the lecturer is undoubtedly essential to the success by which resilience concepts and ideas are conveyed and understood. The class sizes are also important. At the graduate level 18 students received close one-to-one discussion with the class lecturer, while the undergraduate class of between 40-60 students were often frustrated about the lack of one-to-one engagement of the lecturer. Weekly workshops were implemented subsequently to facilitate the student engagement at undergraduate level. These workshops focused around case study problem solving. This was complemented with weekly student group blogging through the internal university teaching platform Blackboard Learn. The aim was to garner student engagement, boost motivation and to give ownership to the student learning experience. The ways that the blog was used was to have students work in small groups to post summary responses to questions/content covered in the resilience workshops and to build a compendium of collective reflections on key issues in social ecological resilience concepts and practice.


Reflection on challenges

Our own experiences echo the challenges outlined in the literature, and highlight some additional complexities. The interdisciplinary nature of social-ecological resilience means that students interested in the topic come from diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. The diverse domains of knowledge related to social-ecological resilience are thus reflected in the backgrounds of students, making it difficult to create a mutual understanding of the topics. As an example, students in the natural sciences are often confused by the multiple “truths” that can be uncovered by social scientists working in different epistemological traditions. At the same time, social science students trained in interpretative analysis and constructivism sometimes contest the knowability of scientific “truths.” For instance, an undergraduate student in one course concluded in feedback that “resilience was an ideology,” which reflected a marked difference in the ontology, epistemology, and axiology of the lecturer and the student on the issue of social and environmental change. This gap between lecturer and student understandings illustrates that, as Sriskandarajah et al. (2010) concluded, social-ecological resilience can be difficult to translate into effective educational strategies.

Furthermore, as a relatively new field, there are not yet many models of what constitutes robust science in social-ecological resilience, making it challenging for students and others to effectively judge well-designed research. Social-ecological science is qualitatively and quantitatively different from either social or natural science, because it attempts to link the two. Many of the first generation of SES scientists worked for many years as a scientist of a discipline, e.g., an ecologist, political scientist, or economist, before shifting to an integrated approach of the social and biophysical. However, many of the current generation have no such background, with many scholars going through interdisciplinary programs. In the extreme, some feel that their science is “undisciplinary” in that it is stand-alone and distinct from past differentiations. As a result, new approaches need to be held to a different but equally rigorous set of standards for what constitutes good social-ecological science. These and other differences can make the validation of social and ecological drivers highly contested.

Another challenge is that there has been to this point little integration of the literature at the frontier of social-ecological research and education, and more traditional methods textbooks. Nor has there been much integration of social and ecological methods texts, which arguably results from an underappreciation of the common issues and goals (generalizability, causal inference) shared by them. If one were to further develop the methods of social-ecological research, attempting to integrate social and ecological research methods would seem like one fruitful place to start.

Reflection on using case studies as a way to teach social-ecological resilience

Our own approaches and the pedagogy literature suggest case studies as a useful approach for teaching social-ecological resilience, and here we reflect further on this approach. Case study research is an important tool in the social sciences. It has been malaligned as well as being too specific to support hypothesis testing and thus generalize findings to the broader scientific community (Yin 1984). At the same time, however, case study research has long been regarded as an important method used to understand governance (George and McKeown 1985, Jensen and Rodgers 2001) as it contextualizes barriers and bridges to the success of institutions. Thus case studies can be used to develop a description of the event of interest, to design a more accurate hypothesis, and to guide analysis. One can test hypotheses using data in case studies by examining within-case variances (e.g., differences in governance outcomes between units of the same community or institution), through a longitudinal study (e.g., examining governance processes within the same social-ecological system through time), and across entities in a larger population (e.g., one particular rule across two management agencies), as well as a combination of these approaches (Jensen and Rodgers 2001). By the same token, case studies allow for the combined use of quantitative and qualitative data and analysis techniques at different levels of analysis (Netting 1981). This attribute may pair well with student engagement in peer-learning relating to social, ecological, and social-ecological indicators including understanding the basis for assumptions and measurement validity. Finally, case studies can complement statistical studies by focusing on outliers or average cases, and also constitute the grounding for modeling exercises (Bäck and Dumont 2004).

The same reasons that make case study research valuable also makes it a relevant tool for teaching social-ecological resilience: students can understand the depth and context of a case, and examine hypotheses, both individually and collaboratively. By using practical examples to learn new concepts and problem solve, it is easier to gain a common understanding and overcome differences in ontologies. The detailed descriptions provided through case studies can facilitate the identification of ontological controversies and thus open up for such collaborative learning. Also, the analytical versatility of case studies can facilitate dialogue between students from different disciplines and specialized in different methods. Case studies are a useful tool for identifying variables and measurement indicators that best demonstrate theoretical concepts of interest to the student/researcher. In particular, many of the variables that are of relevance to the “social” in social-ecological resilience, e.g., democracy and power, are considered notoriously difficult to measure because they are often context dependent (George and Bennett 2005). Case studies allow for examination of such contextual factors.

However, there are also limitations and trade-offs in using case studies. A course built on case study analysis may be challenging to evaluate because of the highly contextual nature of the description; it would be difficult to grade a case study assignment as if it were based on a fixed understanding of a phenomena. Case studies also vary in the direct applicability to the desired learning outcomes, in spite of best intentions to minimize differences. Instead, case studies may be as varied as their authors, depending on which variables are highlighted, which time frame bounds the study, and which theoretical lens is framing the analysis. To contribute to higher order learning, the evaluation of a case study should focus on internal consistency as well as the extent to which the case study allows for analysis and theory-testing. Evaluating the extent to which case study learning contributes to a course calls for an evaluation of student engagement, rigor in description as well as analysis, and the extent to which case studies allow students to connect more deeply to their subject matter (Fazey 2010); a rich set of cases under careful scholarship should facilitate discussion, debate, and social learning. Finally, it is important to note that to engage in multidisciplinary problem solving, students may need additional training to be conversant in their classmates’ fields.

Opportunities for moving forward

The literature and our own experiences highlight the many pedagogical opportunities in the important yet challenging task of teaching complex environmental issues and social-ecological resilience in higher education. The consensus from our experiences and the literature is that lectures are not sufficient to fully engage students in these issues. Instead, multiple pedagogical advances can be incorporated into courses, including experiential learning (Krasny et al. 2009), transformative social learning (Sriskandarajah et al. 2010), games (Dieleman and Huisingh 2006), and problem-based learning (Krasny and Roth 2010).

In all of our courses, we found that problem-based and project-based, e.g., through case studies, learning offers much promise. In some of our own courses, further work is required to build problem-based learning in ways that facilitate learning about the concepts, their application, and how these map onto the social-ecological systems and resilience frameworks in a more experiential manner. In the future, it will be important to introduce ways to successfully engage those students who are operating below the cognitive level needed. This could include a combination of problem-based learning and buzz group discussions around a focused set of questions. The key will be to continue to engage the majority of students with social-ecological resilience in ways that are seamless and easy to grasp. Technology, visual representation, and engagement through games and case studies, as well as getting out of the classroom may be the key to this success.

Problem-based and project-based learning also provided the best opportunity for students to contribute to social-ecological resilience research. Research on case studies with a social-ecological lens is tangible, provided a useful learning tool, and in one course (Appendix 2) has resulted in four peer-reviewed submissions to date: an investigation of carbon emissions as a common pool resource issue (K. Lacroix and G. Richards, unpublished manuscript), investigating comanagement in two large regions, Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia (S. Gose, A. Paul, A. Firth, and N. C. Ban, unpublished manuscript) and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in northern Canada (W. Tyson, unpublished manuscript), and a review of Rockfish Conservation Areas 10 years after their implementation in British Columbia (D. Lancaster, D. Haggarty, and N. C. Ban, unpublished manuscript). These papers all highlight possible management changes to improve the environmental issues discussed, and thereby not only provide new social-ecological case studies but also offer solutions.

Teaching can also advance social-ecological research by promoting spaces of collaborative and interdisciplinary thinking. Such spaces are difficult to promote among established scholars because of practical and career path dependencies (Campbell 2005). Teaching interdisciplinary groups of students offers an opportunity to treat students as colleagues and learn from their less path-dependent views. Similarly, project-based, experiential teaching serves not only the purpose of training students but also that of scientific production, which seems particularly important for nascent research fields such as social-ecological systems.

Given that social-ecological resilience is an emerging field, there is a need for development and sharing of teaching materials. One resource that could greatly facilitate the further development of social-ecological education is an online hub that can be used to share experiences in teaching and research, the way that we have done here. This could build on several already existing projects and web sites, including the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (, or the Curriculum for the Bioregion Initiative hosted by the Science Education Resource Center ( The former focuses on specific case study analyses across a range of substantive areas and disciplines, whereas the latter contains a range of pedagogical materials, each oriented around the theme of sustainability.

Several specific functions that such a hub could have that would aid our teaching efforts include the following:

  1. A source of methods-oriented material for students learning about social-ecological research, and a basis for students to learn how to conduct social-ecological case studies.
  2. A repository for course descriptions and syllabi. Each course can essentially be considered as a case study and examined as such in a consistent way.
  3. A forum where specific themes and issues can be discussed by web site members.

We are excited about the prospect of continuing to improve our efforts to teach social-ecological resilience, and to create a community of teachers facing similar challenges and opportunities. In particular, given the diversity of disciplines involved and the interdisciplinary nature of social-ecological systems, an opportunity going forward is to incorporate each other’s expertise in our courses through guest appearances. Technology can be particularly helpful in this regard, allowing us to connect students with experts through video-conferencing. Furthermore, given the environmental challenges humanity is facing, inspiring future leaders to think about coupled human-environment systems is critical. Indeed, the suggestion has been made that environmental education has the potential to contribute to a resilient world because it may foster attributes of resilient social-ecological systems (Krasny 2009, Krasny et al. 2010, Tidball and Krasny 2011).


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NCB thanks funding support by SSHRC and NSERC, and the Resilience Alliance and Resilience Alliance Young Scholars for providing inspiration in teaching and writing this paper. SVT thanks funding support from the Division of Resource Economics (Humboldt University). MLS would like to thank ASU's School of Sustainability for pedagogical support and the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity for research support. We thank Mike Petriello for insightful input, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


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Address of Correspondent:
Natalie C. Ban
School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
PO Box 1700 STN CSC
Victoria BC V8W 2Y2
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Table1  | Appendix1  | Appendix2  | Appendix3  | Appendix4  | Appendix5  | Appendix6