A new qualitative synthesis summarizes the importance of processes and context when it comes to action-oriented learning. Photo: P. Turander/Azote

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Eight steps to action

There is a lot of scholarship dedicated to understanding knowledge of natural resource management but less on how learning influences real-world natural resource management

Story highlights

  • Review article highlights eight factors that contribute to action-oriented learning in natural resource management
  • Authors highlight three lessons learned from synthesis findings
  • Qualitative thematic synthesis method was used – an approach not commonly used in environmental research

When it comes to sustainability, much is known about what should be done. However, efforts to put knowledge into action have puzzled researchers, educators, policy-makers and others for a long time. Despite long-term attention on putting knowledge into action, there is still a gap between what is learned and what actually happens.

Important knowledge gaps

A review, led by former centre postdoctoral researcher, Monika Suškevičs, looks at how previous studies about knowledge of sustainability is put into practice in natural resource management (NRM).

The article, published in Society & Natural Resources, is co-authored by centre researcher Thomas Hahn and Romina Rodela of Södertörn University, Sweden and Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

The sample of papers they surveyed includes only empirical research. This, Suškevičs says, makes it easier to understand how action-oriented learning can emerge in real-world resource management situations.

Our review points at important knowledge gaps, which can be used to further the current research agenda about learning and natural resource management

Monika Suškevičs, lead author

The study is the first qualitative synthesis aiming to address the knowledge in action gap, and provides one of the first qualitative reviews in the environmental field. It also explicitly introduces the action-oriented learning concept.

“This concept refers to changes not only observable in individuals or groups, such as gained knowledge, but also to changes in the natural resource management domain, such as new management practices, polices or institutions,” Suškevičs says.

Eight factors affecting action-oriented learning

The fact that no review so far has looked at how action-oriented learning emerges and can be supported makes this study important, particularly in the light of advancing knowledge and effectively taking action in implementing policy goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals.

Suškevičs and her colleagues identified eight factors affecting action-oriented learning.

Three factors contribute to processes internally in NRM settings. These are:

(1) participatory and collaborative arenas, where people can participate, and self-organize around an issue

(2) proximity to praxis, where people learn as a result of concern about an issue

(3) intermediaries, key individuals who demonstrate leadership, or act as a bridge between two parties

The other five factors relate to external contexts around these learning processes in NRM settings. They are:

(4) power asymmetries, hinder learning processes

(5) time, sufficient time is necessary for learning outcomes to occur

(6) environmental crises, have the potential to promote learning

(7) complexity of social-ecological systems, oversimplification has been found to impact learning processes

(8) identity, a lack of a shared identity can inhibit learning

Process-based and contextual factors found to affect action-oriented learning. Click on illustration to access scientific study

Three lessons for practice and research

The qualitative review identified three general lessons for NRM practice and research.

Lesson 1: self-organizing governance networks for NRM are complementary to and nested in government regimes or other externally facilitated processes.

Lesson 2: environmental crises as a window of opportunity for action-oriented learning and conflict can encourage learning processes. Addressing power asymmetries may also aid learning processes.

Lesson 3: When there is a conscious effort to experiment or when practice-based discussions occur with NRM processes, action-oriented learning can occur.

“When people deliberatively experiment with NRM issues, such as through governance experiments, models or scenarios, it has the potential to open up actors’ minds to new ideas,” says co-author Thomas Hahn. Such experiments can facilitate discussions on real-world experiences and create action towards NRM change.

Future gaps to fill

The study finally identifies two important knowledge gaps for future research.

First, the link between contextual factors such as time or identity and action-oriented learning is still vague.

Second, sub-groups of literature which discuss learning and its implications for NRM would benefit from a tighter exchange between each other. For instance, literature on adaptive co-management has a pragmatic view on learning but the environmental governance literature with its problem-based focus has brought new topics into the learning discourse.

“A more dynamic exchange between these bodies of works may help to address some of the key challenge of how to put sustainability knowledge into practice,” the authors conclude.


The authors applied a thematic synthesis method to the in-depth study of the sample of 53 selected academic articles. Thematic synthesis is a qualitative meta-study, which includes interpretive translations deriving from the integration and comparison of findings from qualitative studies.

Based on the 53-paper sample, the authors used a two-step process of thematic synthesis:

(1) “Data-driven analysis” is a reciprocal translation of key concepts and themes from one article in another article’s terms and develops descriptive themes, using descriptive coding of line-by-line text passages of the 53 articles.

(2) “Synthesis” includes further interpretation of descriptive themes into analytical themes. We systematically compared and contrasted the eight themes (groups of text sections), based on our research questions. We synthesized key factors supporting and hindering learning into key themes and sometimes sub-themes.

Link to publication

Published: 2019-04-24

Related info

Monika Suškevičs, M., Hahn, T., Rodela, R. 2019. Process and Contextual Factors Supporting Action-Oriented Learning: A thematic synthesis of empirical literature in natural resource management. Society & Natural Resources 32, 2019 - Issue 7

Link to publication

Thomas Hahn’s research focuses on ecological and institutional economics in relation to ecosystem services, financial instruments, and adaptive governance of social-ecological systems