Are Students Learning enough about Sustainable Development (SDGs)?

Are students learning about sustainability in the curriculum at University? Using a benchmarking tool we looked at how much your University has embedded the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We also looked at our participation in the annual SDG Teach In. Written by Heather Barrett & Katy Boom. Edited by Rosie Bramwell.

The SDGs are a collection of 17 goals to make the world more sustainable:

Since we used the bespoke benchmarking tool to map university modules to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there has been a growing appetite to engage with the SDGs from courses and from students.

For the past two years, the university has had great staff and student engagement, with the SDG Teach in.  In 2024 we had 29 educators pledge to include the SDGs in their teaching, reaching 1628 students – 17% of the student body.  The University has been ranked in the top ten overall for educators pledging two years running. In 2023 we had 41 staff pledge reaching 4374 of our students – 48% of the student body and were also ranked in the top ten for students reached. This demonstrates the widening of engagement with the SDGs across the University.

SDGs in University Teaching

In 2023, a Student’s as Partners (SAPs) project reviewed different manual SDG mapping frameworks. This was done using keywords to map two courses to the SDGs and our Graduate Attributes. The outcomes of this project will be used to develop further guidance for staff and students to support embedding the SDGs. This will also show students in their course documentation how their course supports learning about sustainable development, and building relevant sustainability skills.

Some courses in the university have already begun to make the SDGs clear to students in course documentation.  For example, in 2021 our Business School achieved PRME accreditation, which included demonstrating how their modules and courses embed the SDGs. In 2023 they published their second PRME report. You can download a copy of the report form the PRME website.

Designing a benchmarking tool

This post explains the development of a semi-automated benchmark tool, to review how embedded sustainability is into university research and the undergraduate curriculum.  It also maps it to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDG’s.

The SDGs are a collection of 17 goals to make the world more sustainable. This was undertaken by students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts USA. It was applied to the University of Worcester, but aims to be something available freely to the higher education sector. 

The tool is made up of 2 sets of questions, about the curriculum and research. It also uses software for analyzing modules and research articles based on a set of sustainability-related keywords.

We have been working on improving the set of keywords used by the software. We removed the keywords that were too general and added many keywords and phrases to reflect the Sustainable Development Goals.  We also updated some of the questions to have more clarity and obtain more insightful information.


Results for University of Worcester

Once we updated the tool, we applied it to the University of Worcester. We found that they score really well for sustainability in both their curriculum and research (see figures below). The red line maximum score has been taken from the AASHE STARS benchmarking tool, used predominately in American universities to benchmark their sustainability.  As this is a well-used tool, this ‘best practice’ reference point has been used on the first iteration of this tool. We acknowledge that this will need to change both as the usage of the tool is more widespread, and also as universities more fully embedded sustainability into their teaching and research.

Figure 1 C1-C10 scores for the University of Worcester undergraduate curriculum 2018-19

Figure 2 R1-R9 Published research articles as at March 2019 from University of Worcester research academics 

Mapping to the SDG’s

The best new feature of the module and research analyzing software is the ability to map the modules or research articles to the SDGs. The University of Worcester has a focus on SDG3, Health and Wellbeing, and SDG1, No Poverty, in every aspect of what they teach.

SDGs in Sustainability-Related Modules

SDGs in Sustainability-Related Research Articles

Once we finished updating and applying the benchmarking tool at the University of Worcester, we wanted to create a way for more universities to use our tool.  We decided that creating a website would be the best way of easily sharing the tool.  The website could run the research and module analyzing software and have a place to answer all the questions.

The hardest part of sharing the benchmarking tool with other universities is modifying the software to work on the research and modules of any university.

We also worked with Kingston University to improve the sustainability benchmarking tool. When we tried to apply the tool at Kingston University, we ran into a few major challenges. These challenges gave us insight into the difficulty of developing a universal benchmarking tool. We found that universities don’t store their module directories or research publications in a constant format. That makes our software very difficult to use. Also, the staff members that answer our questions for some parts of the benchmarking tool aren’t in the same positions which makes our benchmarking tool more time-consuming.

The benchmarking tool works really well on the University of Worcester. We would love to one day see this tool work at all universities across the UK. It’s going to take more interaction with other universities to develop a common way of storing data.  Once this problem is solved the possibilities are endless.

Watch a 10-minute video presentation about this project 


Benchmark your university

We welcome universities who wish to run the tool with their data so do please use the comments box below to get in touch.

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Jane Davidson
Jane Davidson
4 years ago

Hi Katy,

Please send me the tool.

All the best,


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