Effects of childhood setting and interaction with nature on academic performance in introductory college-level courses in the environmental sciences

Melanie A. Spero, Nick J. Balster, Alex W. Bajcz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


This study explored the relationships between student background and academic performance in college introductory environmental science (ES) courses at a large U.S. research university with the premise that this analysis may inform teaching practices, curricula, and efforts to increase retention. We surveyed over 700 students across eleven introductory ES courses and used multiple linear mixed-effects regressions to model the data. We found that students who grew up in rural settings or who had frequent childhood interactions with natural environments earned higher grades, on average, than students from urban settings or with fewer childhood interactions with natural environments. Our results indicate that students reporting frequent childhood interactions with forests, for example, were projected to earn grades up to 1.5 letter grades higher in these courses than students with no such interactions. In addition, students with frequent childhood interactions with nature were likelier to report that such interactions helped them in their ES course, suggesting that these students may recognize the value of these experiences. Greater interest in the subject matter also correlated with higher ES course grades, whereas amount of prior ES coursework did not. We discuss the possible implications of these correlations for ES academic performance and educational practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)422-442
Number of pages21
JournalEnvironmental Education Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 4 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE-1231286, and was completed as part of the Delta Program in Research, Teaching & Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. MAS was supported by a traineeship from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number T32GM008349. We thank the reviewers for providing feedback that improved and clarified this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, © 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Environmental science
  • interest
  • introductory course
  • rural
  • student background


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