Deep diving into students’ reflections and experiences about Phenomenon-based learning and Sustainability

Background and objectives

In an era of the climate crisis, severe environmental changes, and social inequality challenges there is a need for new ways of learning. It has been proposed that sustainability requires transformative learning (TL) processes. Phenomenon-based learning could be used as an approach for understanding complex interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary sustainability issues. In this thesis the purpose is to study on how phenomenon-based learning (PhBL) approach could arouse critical reflection on sustainability. The central aim for the study is to develop TL on sustainability, by using a PhBL approach.

This thesis is built upon theories and earlier research on TL and PhBL. TL is shown to be popular within the sustainability education research field. A central dimension within TL is critical reflection, on which this thesis focuses on instead of TL as a process. Critical reflection is a suitable method for tackling value-laden topics such as sustainability issues. PhBL as an approach could be suitable for sustainability education and in the process of TL. PhBL uses collaborative learning, through which the social dimension also provides learning. The learners’ interests and emotions are in the center of the learning process and there is a lot of space for reflections.

This study was conducted as a part of a research project at the University of Helsinki called SveaSus: Sustainable World Heritage learning through a Phenomenon-based Approach.

A beautiful day when visiting Suomenlinna, the World Heritage where the course partly took place at. Photography: Emma Heikkilä


This thesis is a qualitative phenomenological and hermeneutic study. The analysis was drawn from five interviews with students who had taken part in an optional university course about PhBL, sustainability and World Heritage education. The phenomenological interviews were conducted after the course was finished online via Zoom. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was used as the analysis method. IPA is an idiographic and inducive analysis method and suits well for going deep in the experiences and reflections of the students.

Results and conclusions in a nutshell

The IPA analysis revealed six themes: 1) connection to nature, 2) emotions about sustainability, 3) cultural sustainability, 4) sustainable studies, 5) the process of PhBL, and 6) emotions evoked by embodied exercises. There were some signs of change in attitudes and assumptions that could be interpreted as critical reflection. However, the data did not provide very clear evidence on this.

The course was conducted as a hybrid course, mostly online. The online dimension had a clear impact on the student experiences. The students reported experiencing the PhBL process uncomfortable and that several emotions arose during the course. However, the reflections showed that despite of challenges the result was in acceptance and learning. The results were in line with earlier research and can be used in the future for planning and implementing PhBL and TL on sustainability.

Ideas for further research

A clear cross-cutting phenomenon throughout the analysis result were emotions. Therefore, it would be interesting to study emotions in similar contexts as this study was conducted in. According to earlier research there also is a need for deeper understanding about emotions on large societal phenomena such as sustainability or climate crisis.


Emma Heikkilä

Sustainability through a Phenomenon-based learning approach  – A study of student reflections


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