The Pre-sessional English programme in the Centre for English Language Learning (CELL) teaches international students English reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. The main goal is to prepare them for the academic year, meaning they are also taught aspects of academic culture, such as critical thinking, the ability to discuss topics in groups and note taking. Sustainability is a fantastic topic to use to teach these essential skills to our students, so we have begun transforming our curriculum to revolve around sustainability education.


What was the programme or module?

Pre-sessional English in CELL. This programme takes 600-700 international students during the summer months who have not reached the required level of IELTS 6 in an English test to enable them to study at DMU. You can find out more about IELTS here:


What happened?

Overview: The Pre-sessional English programme has begun embedding sustainability into their curriculum. This course teaches English language and academic skills to international students through the use of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Context: For a long time, the programme had guest lecturers come in and do a talk for the pre-sessional students. Three years ago, Dr Andrew Reeves was invited to do a talk on Doughnut Economics, which emphases social and environmental constraints as foundational ideas for economic systems. Shortly after, Heather Powell was invited to do a talk on Corporate Social Responsibility. After those lectures were given, I realised that the topics fit together really well and that we had embedded sustainability into the curriculum without realising it. Once I had realised this, I made the connection between sustainability and the students’ needs to learn critical thinking skills.

Description: Now we are being much more intentional, in terms of trying to bring the theme of sustainability in to our materials. We have begun a project for this summer, which will be rolled out across our whole summer programme next year, where we are designing all of our own materials. Previously we have used bespoke off the shelf materials, which has been easy, but hasn’t always met our students’ needs. We began by discussing having one sustainability topic, but now we are planning to have the entire course based around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We will be using DMU staff and students who are working on sustainability to create content for our classes.

The vast majority of our students are business students, we are trying to choose SDGs that relate most to the students’ courses, so that the content that they are learning is useful to them in their subjects as well.

Evaluation: We have realised that we have to be careful not to be too evangelistic about it and to bash people over the head with it because you can get a kick back reaction. Students haven’t come here to learn about sustainability, they’ve come here to learn critical thinking, to learn discussion skills, how to reference in an essay. So, we’re easing back on the visibility of the SDGs, but that will still be a strong theme.

So far we only have the summer’s ‘accidental’ sustainability lectures from Andrew and Heather to go on. However, students have enjoyed them and they’ve engaged well with the subject matter. Some students, due to not have well developed listening skills, haven’t taken much from the lectures, but this isn’t an issue with the content. Feedback in the classes has been very positive.

Last year, Andrew didn’t give a talk on doughnut economics, but instead gave an introduction to the SDGs. I think that the doughnut economics one was more effective because the introduction to the SDGs was too much for the students to take in. The SDGs all fit into doughnut economics, because you’re either talking about ensuring you have a strong social foundation and that people’s basic needs are met sustainably, or they’re about making sure that we don’t exceed the planet’s limits.

Next Steps: The students are taught for 5 hours a day, so creating all of our own material is a lot of work. We currently have 4 weeks’ worth of material ready for this August. We are soon going to have more permanent members of staff, so this will be a growing project. By next summer, I fully expect to have 8 weeks of in-house materials that we’ve developed as a unit, which will have the SDGs running through them. By this time, some of the material will actually have been piloted as well, because we will use some this summer.

For this year, Andrew has recorded a Doughnut Economics lecture, a short introduction to the SDGs and Heather has done the Corporate Social Responsibility talk. We’ve recorded the lectures so that now rather than students coming live and having to get everything down then, we can scaffold the materials. So, they do a little bit, and we can introduce topics to them, for example “now you’re going to hear the lecturer talking about this…” and we can build a whole day of materials into it, which will work better.


Why are the SDGs important to this subject?

Education for SDGs is important because young people are our future. If a university isn’t about finding solutions and equipping people and students with the skills that they’re going to need to go out and save the world, then what’s it for ?

The most relevant SDGs for this programme are those that connect most obviously to business, because the majority of our students are business students. For example, goal 9, goal 10, goal 12 and goal 16. Goal 12, Responsible Consumption and Production works particularly well because it cuts across all faculties.


What would you recommend to colleagues considering adopting a similar approach?

Particularly for undergraduate modules, I would encourage teaching critical thinking and other important skills that students are very often quite weak on – this isn’t just overseas students, it’s a challenge for anyone.

The more they can be given opportunities to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, the better it’s going to be for them and the more they’re going to improve with their grades.

Tutors in different subject areas should think about using the SDGs in that way, to get students thinking critically. Think about the skills that the students are going to need to do the assignments that you’re going to give them, particularly the critical aspects. Consider picking an SDG that is related to your subject area and doing small tasks and projects in workshops because the students will enjoy it and will engage with the topic.



Associate Professor, Philip Rule,, 0116 201 3856


This post is one of a series of case studies describing teaching and learning activities linked to the SDGs at DMU.