Research Summary

Student self-reported learning outcomes of field trips: The pedagogical impact

Pedagogy Is a Critical Aspect of Field Trips to Natural Environments

International Journal of Science Education

Field trips are enriching experiences for students. In addition to presenting new knowledge or clarifying concepts learned in the classroom, field trips provide opportunities for social and personal growth, and they can foster interest and motivation to learn. Field trips to natural places have particular potential for encouraging environmentally friendly actions. In sum, participation in field trips can lead to a wide range of positive learning outcomes. There is limited understanding, though, of what it is about field trips that leads to these results.

With this study, the authors attempted to explain how different aspects of field trips to natural environments relate to student outcomes. Specifically, they examined how preparation for the field trip, connections to school curriculum, and pedagogy related to students’ knowledge acquisition, environmental attitudes, and commitment to environmental behavior. In other words, the researchers examined cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes. These field trip characteristics and student outcomes were based on work the authors had done previously, in which they developed a framework for designing and assessing field trips, called the Field Trips in Natural Environments (FiNE) framework. The authors also considered students’ socioeconomic status (SES) and whether the field trip was led by a classroom teacher or someone affiliated with an environmental organization as potentially meaningful factors.

To examine the relationship between field trip characteristics and outcomes, the researchers followed 26 groups of fourth through ninth graders in Israel, for a total of 566 students. These students participated in field trips to nature parks and nature reserves in central and northern Israel. The schools were selected to represent a range of SES groups and were sorted into four categories: suburban, which represented affluence; urban, which represented middle class; developing towns, which represented greater ethnic diversity and lower SES; and countryside schools, which are smaller and provide more outdoor education. Most field trips in Israel are led by professional guides, rather than by classroom teachers. This is particularly true at the elementary-school level (grades 1–6); junior high schools and high schools have teachers dedicated to outdoor education. To examine whether there were differences in who led field trips, the authors included 17 groups led by an environmental organization professional and nine groups led by teachers.

All of the professional guides were affiliated with one of two major Israeli environmental organizations. All of the study participants completed a questionnaire after their field trip, which was adapted from the Science Outdoor Learning Environment Inventory (SOLEI) and informed by the FiNE framework. The authors’ final survey included 34 items that fell into three main categories: (1) planning—preparation in school, communication, and collaboration between the guide and schoolteacher, and connection to the school curriculum; (2) pedagogy— the guide’s explanation and stories, and the guide’s use of the environment, demonstrations, active learning, physical activity, and connecting to everyday life; and (3) outcomes—learning new things or enhanced learning, enjoyment of the outdoor experience, developing positive attitudes toward the environment, and environmental action following the trip. The authors also observed the field trips and interviewed a subset of teachers, guides, and students about their field trip a few days after it occurred. The authors performed statistical analyses on the survey data, and they used the interview data to illustrate survey results.

Based on their analysis of survey data, the authors found that field trip characteristics related to pedagogy were the most impactful for students. The most powerful aspect was the guide’s storytelling. When the guide told interesting stories, students reported positive results in all three domains—cognitive, affective, and behavioral. In addition to storytelling, students reported greater knowledge acquisition when the guide gave examples from everyday life and explained things that both the guide and the students discovered during the trip. Students who were given exploration tasks during the field trip and who were helped in making connections to concepts learned in school also showed greater cognitive learning outcomes. In the affective domain, when students engaged in physical activities and challenges, they reported more enjoyment and overcoming difficulties. Finally, in the behavioral domain, when students felt that concepts they learned in school were clarified during the field trip, they reported changes in their thinking about the environment and their intention to change their environmental behavior.

Although the authors anticipated that factors related to trip planning would be important, they found only one significant nonpedagogical factor: preparation for the trip in class was associated with cognitive learning. Despite their assertion that student SES (based on the school location) and the affiliation of the field trip guide might make a difference, the authors found no differences in outcomes based on these factors.

The authors acknowledge their finding that pedagogy, particularly the guide’s storytelling, is the most critical element of these field trips differs from other researchers’ conclusions that experience-based learning is superior to teacher-directed learning in natural environments. However, they explain that the field trips in this study featured more guide-directed than student-led activities. In this context, the authors argue, storytelling is particularly powerful.

The Bottom Line

Field trips to natural environments provide opportunities for students to learn, develop new interests, and improve environmental attitudes and behaviors. This study points to the importance of strong pedagogy in these learning environments, particularly when the guide is instrumental in shaping the field trip activities. On a guide-directed field trip, when the guide tells interesting stories, offers opportunity for exploration, explains discoveries, relates experiences to everyday life, and clarifies concepts learned in school, students’ experiences can be enhanced, with greater learning, attitudes, and changes in environmental behavior.