Note: My last blog post highlighted three benefits of field-based learning: enhanced connections among people, personal growth facilitation, and curiosity stimulation. Franz Plangger from the Outdoor Council of Canada observed that the first two benefits focus on personal development. So he asked if the literature supports the idea that outdoor / experiential education is beneficial for curricular achievement, content acquisition, and “passing the exam”. Thanks for asking, Franz!
Administrators ask : do you teach in the field because it is more FUN or because your students LEARN more?
The best answer is “both”. While some learning outcomes are better suited to experiential education than others (i.e., memorizing multiplication tables vs. learning to identify trees), well-designed field courses can be created for almost any academic topic. Even if your administration wants you to “teach to the test” you can do that in a field setting. If you start with clear, concise content-driven learning outcomes, design a course that inspires students’ curiosity about the subject matter, and engages them with the material in an authentic, meaningful way, your students will learn more in the field than they do in the classroom.
Field courses require active student-centered teaching, which works better than traditional teaching.
Traditional teaching methods, such as lecturing, reading textbooks, and working through problem sets, are typically used in distraction-free learning environments such as classrooms, libraries, and lecture halls. The outdoors is not a distraction-free learning environment. Experienced field instructors know that students can listen to a lecture for 10-15 minutes before the physical environment becomes too distracting (e.g., mosquitoes, weather, wildlife) for them to pay attention. Therefore, the most practical and effective way to keep students engaged in the field is through active learning. It works best to get them moving around, asking questions, talking with one another, and exploring their environment. This redefines “distractions” into “curiosities” that the students can focus on and learn about.
Field instructors simultaneously use multiple teaching methods, such as active, problem-based, and experiential learning, to keep students engaged in the field. However, educational researchers typically test one teaching strategy at a time. For example, one section of a class learns with the methodology in question and students in the adjacent classroom serve as a control group. Research that uses this reductionist approach allows us to highlight individual benefits of field teaching methods, but certainly misses emergent and synergistic benefits such as increased enjoyment, confidence, and improved relationships. Student-centered learning is not only more fun for students; the educational literature suggests that it is more effective than traditional methods.
This gets us to the question: can field courses “teach to the test”? Presumably when your administrator asks this, she is talking about the high stakes standardized tests that have become routine in K-12 education. Multiple sources support the idea that standardized tests “measure lower order knowledge and skills (e.g., recall and comprehension) as opposed to higher order thinking (e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation).” Perhaps your administrator is suggesting that field courses focus on higher order thinking skills at the expense of lower order skills – and thus compromise test results. However, a comparison of 12th grade government classes that used traditional techniques and experiential education methodologies (e.g., student-directed learning, real-world connections, critical reflection) found that students in the experiential education rich classroom performed the SAME as students in a traditional classroom on lower order thinking skills but BETTER than the control students on higher order thinking skills (Ives and Obenchain 2006). This suggests that you can promote higher order thinking on field courses without sacrificing the skills needed to “pass the test”.
Finally, field courses provide opportunities for students to learn in many different ways throughout the course of a day, which teaches to different learning styles. For example, students start the day by working together to count the number of invasive weeds near the campsite [collaborative learning is consistently more effective than individualized learning]. Then, students meet with a noxious weed expert, listen to a short presentation about invasive plants in the region, and ask follow up questions to learn how they can help manage the invasion [students in an active learning classroom scored approximately twice as well on physics tests than traditional students]. Next, they work together with the guest speaker to design a strategy for weed removal [problem-based learning increases student engagement, but not necessarily test scores] and spend an hour pulling weeds [service learning can improve standardized test scores]. After dinner students are asked to reflect on their personal opinion of non-native plants and whether they believe “weeds” should be managed or left in place [critical self-reflection allows students to process their experience and synthesize new information]. This progression allows students to build an understanding of a real-world issue that impacts the field area where they are living and studying.
Field instructors need to use a wide variety of student-centered teaching methods to keep their students engaged in the field. These teaching methods combined with a stimulus-rich learning environment, provide numerous opportunities for students to become curious and involved in learning. Once students are interested, educators can facilitate active learning about real world issues. The educational research supports the idea that these three methods (student-centered learning, student engagement, and active learning) increase student learning over traditional methods, so we can logically conclude that students learn more on field-based courses than in the classroom.
Partial List of References
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