Out-of-school field trips with non-formal environmental education (EE) providers are key experiential learning opportunities for students. Studies have shown that pre-visit and post-visit activities can strengthen student learning outcomes and can lead to increases in essential environmental literacy skills. This study was grounded in Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle, which theorizes that learners create knowledge in four stages: concrete experience, reflection, abstract conceptualization (new idea or modification of existing concept), and active experimentation (application of new knowledge). This study explored and expanded on the idea that field trips can include or encompass any or all of these stages. All past research in this area focused on singular programs or providers, so this study used a large, diverse sample of programs to examine how student outcomes from EE field trips are related to pre-visit and post-visit activities, alone and in combination.
This study was conducted from January-June 2017 during the course of 334 single-day field trips for 5th-8th grade students across the United States. To ensure diverse program contexts, researchers used rankings of state Environmental Literacy Plans as a measure of the general status of EE in each state, and then recruited at least 10 organizations from states in each quarter of the rankings.
Data were collected via on-site student and teacher surveys at the end of each field trip, followed by an online teacher survey 2-4 weeks later. The student survey was a self-assessment of EE outcomes for the 21st century (EE21), which asked students to answer scaled questions about topics such as their environmental attitudes, interest in learning, and self-efficacy. The on-site teacher survey focused on the types of pre-visit preparation their students had experienced, while the post-visit survey asked about follow-up activities and the teacher's assessment of student EE21 outcomes. In total, researchers collected 3,721 valid student surveys from 279 programs from 86 organizations, as well as 430 on-site teacher surveys from 289 programs from 87 organizations across 24 states and D.C. The sample for post-visit teacher surveys was much smaller (73 teachers), but still represented 66 programs at 28 organizations in 21 states. The researchers analyzed the scaled questions and grouped open ended questions by theme. They also informally observed programs and spoke directly with teachers.
Overall, the study found that both pre-visit and post-visit activities enhanced student outcomes, separately and together. High levels of logistical preparation, subject matter preparation, and lesson preparation correlated with more positive EE21 scores. Logistical preparation, the most commonly reported pre-visit activity, was most strongly related to better student outcomes. Students who understood what to expect were more comfortable and prepared to deal with the challenges of a potentially novel experience. Field-trip specific subject matter and lesson preparation also helped students by giving them prior experiences from which to develop new knowledge. Due to the variability in quality and availability of host-provided pre-visits and materials, the researchers could not determine if these specific activities directly correlated to better outcomes.
After the field trip, teachers reported the highest student outcomes for 21st century skills and in-curriculum learning when both pre- and post- activities happened, and lowest when neither happened. Neither preparation or follow-up were statistically linked to student gains in environmental literacy or out-of-curriculum learning, but this could have been due to the difficulty of gauging these skills in the classroom. Follow-up activities after trips helped students to further engage in the experiential learning cycle through reflection and application of gained knowledge.
Although the study sampled a diverse array of EE providers, it was still limited in its scope due to a focus on only middle school students during one-day programs in the United States. The sharp drop in teacher participation from the on-site survey to the post-trip online survey also limited the results.
The authors recommend that EE organizations hosting school field trips strive to create partnerships with attending teachers and forge valuable links between field trip experiences and the classroom. Shared planning responsibilities and program co-development lead to the most effective and useful materials. In addition, the authors suggest that field trips used more creatively within students' learning, such that the active participation in a trip can broadly serve curriculum goals. As the imaginable array of field trip outcomes widens with the support of pre-trip and post-trip activities, so do the possibilities of intertwining formal and nonformal learning to further strengthen the student experience.
The Bottom Line
<p>This multi-state, multi-organizational study further cemented the importance of preparation and follow-up for non-formal environmental education field trips. After surveying 334 single-day middle school programs, the authors found the strongest student outcomes were achieved during programs with high levels of both pre-trip preparation and post-trip follow-up. Specifically, logistical and subject matter preparation helped students feel comfortable and ready to learn in a new setting, while post-trip activities expanded the experiential learning cycle through reflection and application of new knowledge. The authors urge EE providers and teachers to collaborate and co-develop program materials and creatively intertwine EE field trips into the curriculum.</p>