35 Using the UN Sustainability Literacy Test

Cormac MacMahon


Ever since Brundtland recognised the challenge to humanity in meeting its present needs without compromising future generations [1] , higher education has played a role in ensuring that its graduates emerge as leaders in sustainability [2]. Yet, population proliferation and technological advances have brought humans unprecedented capacity to alter the natural environment [3]. In 2019, humanity consumed its entire natural resource budget by 29th  July, faster than the planet’s ecosystems can replenish [4]. With emerging consensus on an urgent need to address the potentially catastrophic issues of climate change, biodiversity loss and threats to the natural world, Generation Z is elevating the UN sustainable development goals (Fig. 2) from desirable to essential.

Figure 2:  UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Figure 2:  UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The challenge for educators is that sustainability requires an appreciation of system complexity, beyond that taught in traditional programmes [6]. Solutions most likely derive from requiring innovative interdisciplinary approaches. Undoing a deep-rooted Western ideology of exploitation for economic growth requires transformative learning in which students question their worldviews. Against this backdrop, the Polytechnic Alliance of TU Dublin, Purdue Polytechnic, Coventry University, Hochschule Luzern and Hochschule Darmstadt organised its first Sustainability Summer School in July 2019.

The SDGs provide a common discourse for transitioning to a sustainable way of life, challenging higher education to track its students’ awareness of sustainability issues. This chapter reviews the application of the Sulitest to raise awareness among students in an interdisciplinary summer school. The test is an open-access online assessment tool, developed, aimed at developing sustainability literate graduates [5].  This chapter outlines how the SULITEST tool works, explores the benefits and feedback that the summer school students received from undertaking the test providing a mechanism to expose students to the broad and complex nature of super-wicked problems [6] [7].

Figure 1: Sustainability Literacy Test
Figure 1: Sustainability Literacy Test


Sustainability Literacy is defined as the “knowledge, skills, and mindsets that help compel an individual to become deeply committed to building a sustainable future” [8]. The SULITEST allows students to self-assess what they know about the sustainability challenges facing the world. It reflects what the UN believes to be an appropriate level of knowledge in social, economic and environmental responsibility for higher education students. Over 70,000 students have already taken the test, providing them with employability recognition by companies around the world. The test can be found at https://www.sulitest website. A useful video introduction to SULITEST can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdQrig4dAOY.

Steps for Implementation


The SULITEST homepage is relatively uncluttered and includes some background information about the test, instruction in how to use it as well as some newsfeed and media. The most important option provided is to either [a] login or [b] signup (Fig. 3).


Figure 3: TU Dublin Students Logging into Sulitest
Figure 3: TU Dublin Students Logging into Sulitest

Signing up requires users to create a profile using personal information, such as name, email and phone number. To start a test, students must enter a “session”, which is provided by an administrator or examiner in your university. This can be done by manually entering a session code provided by your professor or by clicking on a session already set up for you. Time limitations can be set for each session, usually somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes (Fig. 4). The test can also be taken in different ways, reflecting different modes of assessment, both formative and summative.

Figure 4: A Typical Student Interface - Sessions Tab
Figure 4: A Typical Student Interface – Sessions Tab

The test comes in the form of a multiple-choice questionnaire (MCQ). The questions are randomly selected from a large bank, which is organised into different modules. The core module covers global issues whereas specialised modules provide questions that address challenges specific to regional contexts to individual sustainable development goals. There is a single correct answer for each question and, to discourage guess-work, there us a reduced score for selecting “I’m not sure” (Fig. 5).


Figure 5:  Typical Multiple-Choice Question
Figure 5:  Typical Multiple-Choice Question

Students receive immediate feedback on their answers, including the context to each question, historical documentation and the science behind the correct answer. Sessions are either anonymous, in which case results are private to each student, or otherwise, in which case the examiner has access to the scores in that session. The “Results” tab provides students with their scores obtained during the sessions they have taken, which can be compared statistically against average scores within their own cohort, within national groups and even internationally (Fig. 6).

Figure 6:  A Typical Results Tab
Figure 6:  A Typical Results Tab

Top Tips for Success

Given the broad and interdisciplinary nature of the sustainability literacy test, it is worth directing students to the 17 UN sustainable development goals (along with their 169 targets) at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/ in advance of taking the test.  

For our summer school, we used the sustainability literacy test as a supplementary tool for the project activities. Ideally, I would have liked to have tested the students before and after the summer school to examine its impact on their sustainability literacy.

There is a growing Sulitest community, including senior advisors from the UN, national expert committees and researchers that are actively advancing the tool. Modules contextualised to national contexts and specialised modules in areas such as the circular economy, affordable and clean energy are the UN SDG framework, are also available.

A recently added feature allows learners and educators to co-create questions and add them to a global question bank. Addressing the sustainability challenge requires creative problem-solving and systems thinking in multidisciplinary settings, underpinned by the knowledge that is rapidly evolving and learning that is transformational. In this context, this new feature encourages represents a form of “revere pedagogy” in which students get to think about sustainability issues and their contributions to resolving them.

At its current stage of development, SULITEST is designed to assess a minimum level of knowledge, not a higher level of expertise about sustainability. The test does not assess complex knowledge given its multiple-choice question format. Rather, it focuses on the basic literacy required to move the sustainability agenda forward.

Further Reading

G.H. Brundtland, M. Khalid, S. Agnelli, S. Al-Athel, B. Chidzero (1987), “Our Common Future”, World Commission on Environment and Development, New York..

Stephens, J.C., Maria E.H.,  Román, M.,  Graham A.C.  and Scholz, R.W. (2008). “Higher education as a change agent for sustainability in different cultures and contexts .”,International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education  Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 317-338.

Carew, A.L. and Mitchell, C. (2002) “Characterizing Undergraduate Engineering Students’ Understanding of Sustainability”, European Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 349 – 361.

C. Gorey (2019, July) “How to calculate your carbon footprint on Earth Overshoot Day”, Silicon Republic, Available at:  https://www.siliconrepublic.com/innovation/calculate-carbon-footprint-earth-overshoot-day-2019

Aurélien, D., Barbat, G., Carteron, J.C., Hands, V. and Parkes, C. (2017). “Sulitest: a collaborative initiative to assess sustainability literacy in higher education.”, International Journal of Management Education, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 138 – 152.

Steiner, G. and Posch, A. (2006) “Higher education for sustainability by means of transdisciplinary case studies: an innovative approach for solving complex, real-world problems.”, Journal of Cleaner Production,
Vol. 14, No. (9-11), pp. 877-890.

Levin, K., Cashore, B., Bernstein, S. and Auld, G. (2012) “Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change.”, Policy Sciences, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 123 – 152.

Caeron, J.C. and Décamps, A. (2014)The Sustainability Literacy Test: Can universities be sure that they are producing sustainability literate graduates? World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, Nagoya, Japan.

Digital Resources/ Templates/ Examples

Useful Introductory Videos on Youtube


Image of Author Cormac MacMahonCormac MacMahon is a lecturer at TU Dublin and has taught undergraduate and postgraduate modules in areas of sustainable energy, sustainable transport and mobility, responsible production and consumption. He is currently supervising postgraduates students in the area of education for sustainability and is overseeing the embedding of sustainability within the curriculum.