Participating in the policy process: Assessing students’ contributions to a government consultation on climate change

What was the activity?

In 2021, I developed an optional Masters module ‘Participation in climate change policy consultation’, as part of which students developed a collective submission to a consultation the Irish government ran to seek input for the preparation of the 2021 iteration of Ireland’s national Climate Action Plan. This module involved experiential learning, in which students were immersed in a particular experience requiring their active engagement, followed by critical reflection on their experience in order to facilitate the development of new knowledge and skills (Bradberry and De Maio, 2019). An important element in the assessment of experiential activities is that it should be student-centred and involve elements of reflection or self-evaluation (Burch et al., 2014). Formative strategies, such as those of reflection, can then be used to inform summative assessment as they provide evidence of the process of learning (Simm, 2005). In the area of sustainability education, Ely (2018) has documented the use of in-class activities such as personal reflections on professional experiences, case-based discussions and role-play games as part of an MSc course on innovation for sustainability, which complemented traditional lectures and enabled deeper degree of learning.

The assignments on this module were all geared towards the end goal of producing a collective submission. I divided the class into thematic groups linked to the consultation topic (for example, energy, transport, built environment). There were four stages to the assessment:

  • The students’ first assignment was to write an individual background research paper on their allocated thematic topic.
  • Next, they were asked to work in groups, bringing together their individual research papers to develop and agree upon proposed recommendations for their area. We then held a workshop over two classes in which each group presented their proposed recommendations and received feedback from the rest of the class. 
  • On the basis of this feedback, each group was required to write up a short set of agreed recommendations for their thematic area. Once these were submitted, I collated them into a shared Google document. The group collectively worked to polish and finalise the submission, which is available to view here.
  • Finally, the students were required to keep a reflective journal throughout the module and to submit this for assessment at the end of the semester.

The module was assessed on a pass or fail basis. I worried that this would encourage the students to treat it less seriously than the modules that were contributing to their final degree grade and classification. If anything, the opposite was the case. Students reported feeling liberated by the absence of a numerical grade. One student wrote: “I also think the pass or fail structure is the right one – it removes the pressure of a grade burden from group activities and allows instead for a focus on putting in the effort because it is just simply the right thing to do. Grades should not be the driver of effort or performance on this particular module.”

How did it impact students?

Student feedback on the module was overwhelmingly positive.

“Overall, I feel that this module has given me practical tools that I can apply to the outside world and has taught me to search deeper than what may appear to be on the surface level concerning climate policy. Making an actual submission to a real live public consultation, and the detailed and layered approach to same, has been very educational and beneficial and will help me prepare for future submissions.”

“Although I was wary to pick this module as I felt it was slightly out of my comfort zone, I’m delighted I did. It gave me a great opportunity to engage in the CAP [Climate Action Plan] consultation first hand in an encouraging and educational environment.”

“I found it one of my most engaging modules and particularly enjoyed the group presentations as I loved listening to so the various perspectives of my classmates. It really opened up a great discussion in class and even after class with my own friends and family.”

“Participating in this module has been an extraordinarily positive and practical experience which taught me a great deal about the Irish policymaking process, the multiple aspects and functions of lobbying, what happens before, during and after a public consultation, as well as how to write an effective submission. Moreover, contributing to a group submission created a nice exchange of ideas among peers and the opportunity to learn from one another, thanks to the diversity of knowledge, creativity and writing style.”

Any advice for others?

I found this to be a really rewarding teaching experience. I was very pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement on the part of the students, and the quality of the work they produced. They were really dedicated to the task and worked together really well to produce a final collective output that I think they were rightly proud of. 

There are three key take-aways from this case study:

  1. Teachers on many third-level modules (undergraduate or postgraduate) could potentially integrate this type of exercise and assessment into their teaching. Governments regularly seek public input on a wide range of topics and, as such, this exercise is potentially applicable to many diverse subject areas.
  2. Experiential learning is best assessed through a combination of formative and summative assessments, including an element of student self-reflection.
  3. Rather than discouraging engagement, assessment of such a module on a pass/fail basis can actually encourage student learning and experimentation. The key seemed to be that their final assignment – the collective submission – would be in the public domain, thereby giving students a strong incentive to produce high quality work.

I would encourage others to give it a go, and I would be happy to chat to anyone who wants to find out more.

Other contextual details

Although this case study focused on the policy issue of climate change, it is a teaching and assessment activity that could be used for any subject area that intersects with public policy. As noted above, many subject areas are relevant to public policy and are potentially amenable to such an approach. 

It may not be necessary for a public consultation of relevance to be open at the time of a particular module. This set of teaching and assignments could be carried out as a hypothetical exercise within a module, with students producing a collective submission to a mock consultation. Similarly, the exercise could be run outside of a formal module as an extra-curricular activity, though in this case there would presumably be no need for the activities to be formally assessed.

References

Bradberry, L. A. and De Maio, J. (2019) ‘Learning by doing: The long-term impact of experiential learning programs on student success’, Journal of Political Science Education, 15(1), pp. 94–111. https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2018.1485571

Burch, G. F. et al. (2014) ‘Experiential learning – what do we know? A meta-analysis of 40 years of research’, Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning: Proceedings of the Annual ABSEL conference, 41, pp.279-283.

Ely, A. V. (2018) ‘Experiential Learning in “Innovation for Sustainability”: An Evaluation of Teaching and Learning Activities (TLAs) in an International Masters Course’, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 19(7), pp. 1204–1219.

Simm, D. (2005) ‘Experiential Learning: Assessing Process and Product’, Planet, 15(1), pp. 16–19. https://doi.org/10.11120/plan.2005.00150016

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About the author

  • I am an Associate Professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. I teach and research environmental politics, and I am programme chair of DCU’s MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media and Society.

How to cite

Torney, D. (2022) Participating in the policy process: Assessing students’ contributions to a government consultation on climate change. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/participating-in-the-policy-process-a-module-that-facilitates-students-to-contribute-to-government-consultations-on-climate-change/. (Accessed: 16 August 2022)

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Posted in Edition 2, Recipes for Success