Learning processes for interpersonal competence development in project-based sustainability courses – insights from a comparative international study

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


Purpose: For professional sustainability work, graduates need to be able to work in teams and collaborate with stakeholders; in other words, they need to have developed interpersonal competence. There is growing evidence that project-based sustainability courses facilitate interpersonal competence development. However, research so far has focused on single case studies and on assessing learning outcomes. The purpose of this study is to deepen the understanding of how graduate students learn interpersonal competence in project-based sustainability courses. Design/methodology/approach: This study adopts a multi-case study approach triangulating observations, semi-structured interviews and focus groups supported by Photovoice method. A comparison of three project-based sustainability courses in graduate programs at universities in the USA, Germany, Switzerland and Spain is conducted to gain generalizable insights on how interpersonal competence can be developed through project-based sustainability courses. Findings: Receiving inputs, experiencing, reflecting and experimenting are four learning processes supportive of interpersonal competence development. Interpersonal attitudes seem to be mostly learned through a combination of experiencing and reflecting, followed by experimenting; not surprisingly, interpersonal knowledge is mostly developed through a combination of receiving inputs, experiencing and (collective) reflection; and interpersonal skills seem to be mostly learned through a combination of receiving inputs and experimenting, or, more directly, experiencing and experimenting. Practical implications: These findings support the unique learning opportunities offered through project-based sustainability courses and can help instructors to better facilitate students’ development of interpersonal competence. Originality/value: The value of this study is three-fold: (i) it provides a comprehensive picture of interpersonal competence, including attitudes, knowledge, and skills; (ii) it spells out specific teaching and learning processes; and (iii) it links these to specific interpersonal competence facets and components.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)535-560
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 22.02.2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture and Volkswagen Foundation for the grant “Educating Future Change Agents – Higher Education as a Motor of the Sustainability Transformation” (A115235) through the program “Science for Sustainable Development.” The authors would like to thank their colleagues, Jodie Birdman, Jan-Ole Brandt, Jana Timm, Marie Weiss and Aaron Redman from LEU (Germany) for support on the research presented in this paper. The authors also would like to thank the students, instructors, tutors and stakeholders of the three investigated courses for their openness, trust and time in support of this research, in particular Pius Krütli and Michael Stauffacher from ETH Zurich as well as Jordi Segalàs and Gemma Tejedor from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited.