Research Summary

Formal Lessons Improve Informal Educational Experiences: The Influence of Prior Knowledge on Student Engagement

Connecting Prior Knowledge and Student Engagement During Field Trips

Visitor Studies

Including informal learning experiences, such as field trips, in the formal school curriculum is one way to more closely link classroom experiences with students’ everyday lives. Such connections can increase students’ scientific literacy, learning outcomes, and overall motivation. When 17 working to connect school with everyday life through field-trip experiences, educators can use certain methods, approaches, and techniques to enhance learning. This study explored how educators can design a preparatory lesson that builds on students’ prior knowledge and considers socioeconomic status (SES) in service of maximizing student engagement with a zoo exhibit.

The researchers conducted this study with 210 seventh grade students (12- to 14-years-old) from two urban schools in a major Southeastern U.S. city. One school was comprised mostly of low-SES families and the other mostly of middle-SES families. The middle-SES school and the low-SES school had 35% and 82% of students receiving free and reduced lunch, respectively. Within each school, the researchers randomly divided students into two groups who received different prior-knowledge treatments a week before a zoo field trip. The experimental group participated in a preparatory lesson on the field trip-related content about brain anatomy. The control group participated in a preparatory lesson on heart anatomy, a topic unrelated to the field trip. Then, both groups visited a local zoo, spending half the time rotating through interactive indoor exhibits on neuroscience, including one specific exhibit comparing animal species’ brain anatomy. Each group spent 12 to 15 minutes at the exhibit and two pairs of trained researchers observed and recorded each students’ behaviors, using body language and verbal cues to rate levels of attentiveness (attentive, neutral, or inattentive) at regular 1-, 4-, and 7-minute intervals. Researchers used the scores to generate an average percentage of time spent being attentive, neutral, and inattentive with the brain anatomy exhibit for each group. Then, researchers compared the average duration of time that each group spent being attentive, using attentiveness as a measure of student engagement.

The researchers statistically analyzed the data to examine the relationship between school SES and preparatory treatment on students’ engagement levels. The researchers found that, in the low-SES school, students in the experimental group (those who received the brain-related preparatory lesson) were significantly more attentive during the field trip than those in the control group (who received the heart-related preparatory lesson). The students from the middle-SES school, however, in both experimental and control groups, showed similarly high levels of attentiveness. Furthermore, researchers found that students in the experimental group from both the low- and middle-SES schools were able to access and use their prior knowledge during the exhibit to ask and answer questions as well as discuss the animal models with the presenter and their classmates.

These findings suggest that, while a preparatory lesson on field trip-related content may be beneficial for all students, it may have greater impact in increasing engagement and learning for low-SES students. The researchers suggest that this may be because low-SES students may not have as many opportunities as others to visit zoos and museums due to associated costs; therefore, they may be less familiar with informal educational settings such as these. The researchers also found that overall larger group size was associated with lower student engagement.

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers recommend that teachers consider preparing students for field trips using several specific techniques. These techniques, designed to maximize engagement and learning in informal settings, include partnering with informal educators to provide students with relevant resources, and teaching content related to the upcoming field trip.

The Bottom Line

Informal educational experiences, such as field trips, can enhance formal curricula. To maximize student engagement and positive learning outcomes, however, educators should prepare their students prior to these experiences. Research-based strategies include partnering with informal educators to enhance and build students’ relevant, specific knowledge prior to the trip, and using similar instructional approaches as those at the field-trip sites. Educators can also conduct a pre-visit site orientation, using videos or online resources, to minimize student distraction once arriving at the field-trip site. Such preparatory lessons are particularly important for lower-SES students or when students may not have access to informal learning sites on a regular basis. Developing partnerships between formal and informal educators can assist in connecting informal-setting content with curricula as well as developing materials and tools that teachers can use with their students prior to their field trip.