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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Evaluating the effectiveness of construction site visits as a learning experience for undergraduate students enrolled in a built environment course

Peter Ashford
Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning
University of Melbourne

Anthony Mills
School of Property, Construction & Project Management
RMIT University

This study evaluates whether construction site visits assist the student learning experience and how effective site visits are as a means of student's gaining a contextual understanding of the relationships between theory and construction practice. With Occupational Health and Safety issues being paramount on sites, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide students with access to construction sites to provide these essential learning experiences. Students generally have a positive attitude towards the benefits of real site visits, however universities have been encouraged to develop virtual approaches to teaching construction technology using visual media such as overheads, slides, digital images, digital videos and computer simulations.

This strategic research investigates the perceptions of students towards the four different site visits covering four separate topics within the subject "Structures and Construction 3B". This was done to evaluate the alternative modes of traditional visual media as a learning experience, compared to real site visits. The research also examines the most effective use of real site visits within an undergraduate course. The results identified that some aspects of construction technology could be replaced by computer simulations and the like. However, other aspects of the curriculum are more effectively taught by retaining real site visits. The research was intended to provide a more structured approach to determining the value of site-based learning in construction-related courses.


Introduction

The property and construction program at the University of Melbourne offers undergraduate courses as a single undergraduate degree and also combined undergraduate degrees with architecture, commerce, geomatics and law. The subjects offered must accommodate several discrete cohorts of students that have different perceptions of the role of the subject to suit their needs.

The faculties aim is to produce graduates that can become effective construction managers. There are however, a number of ancillary objectives that directly relate to construction technology subject teaching which include:

The objective of the paper is to evaluate the usefulness of site visits as an educational tool for teaching construction technology to undergraduate students. The paper discusses some educational theory surrounding the advantages and limitations of the site visits as a learning model. In addition, the future directions for site visits are discussed.

There is plenty of past research (Kajewski, 1999; Kumarasarmy, et al 2000, and Baldwin et al, 1999) into the benefits of learning by observing real world practices. This mode of learning has traditionally been part of most undergraduate construction courses including the University of Melbourne. However, the difficulties associated with organising site visits are placing increasing burdens on both staff and students which perhaps leads to a reduction in educational benefits.

The effectiveness of the site visits is partially dependant on the commitment of the teaching staff. Research by Menser (2001) indicated that good learning environments are those where a teacher is creating the correct educational environment. This means that the ongoing use of site visits places additional work-load of the teaching staff and thereby the staff have to be extremely motivated in order to use this type of teaching approach.

Undergraduate teaching in construction technology has many educational difficulties. Prior research by Kajewski (1999) suggested that large class sizes, tight timetables, busy site management, distant sites and site safety concerns have drastically curtailed such useful opportunities for a close up appreciation of the construction processes. This is impacting on the ability of modern undergraduates to understand the necessary issues associated with construction. Past research has showed that a contextual understanding of the problem is an important step in the learning process (Ramsden, 1988). However, teachers in construction management courses are finding increasingly that it is difficult to provide students with an effective site-based experience in construction education.

Lecture-based education can provide solutions to some of the problems. The use of slides, video and computer simulation can assist by creating a learning experience which does have some positive benefit. {Mills and Ashford, 2003}. However, in spite of the success of this approach a belief remained that some site visits are still essential for construction management education. This has led to a closer evaluation of their full potential.

Effective learning occurs when the students are given the opportunity to reflect on their experiences. According to Pearson and Smith (1985) it is not enough to simply experience or observe. Instead, students should be asked to reflect on their own experiences in the experiential sessions after the observation. This facilitates an increased awareness and understanding of the potency of the activities as therapeutic agents. They are encouraged to reflect on what they have done and if possible to explain why and its significance.

In summary this research suggests that learning from the observation of site visits can be effective because it provides an opportunity for students to observe real construction situations and contexts.

Research questions and methodology

The principle objective of the research was to determine the usefulness of the site visits compared to lecture based learning. The research aims to investigate the quality of the learning experiences and explore the perceptions of a cohort of construction students in the third year of their degree.

The study delved into the following aspects:

A number of research instruments were examined, but in the end a questionnaire was chosen as the method most likely to achieve the best results. This was due to the time-constraints and the number of students enrolled in the subject. Some of the advantages of questionnaires include; there is generally an absence of interviewing bias, the respondent is free from any pressure of being observed and possibly answers the questions more honestly. (Malhotra, 1993). This is particularly important because the students need to be sure that their responses do not form part of the assessment for the subject. The data collected is entirely the perceptions of students towards the learning experience of site visits. Academic perceptions are not included.

Care was taken with format of the questions to create a non-biased survey to ensure respondents were not influenced in anyway. The general instructions provided with the questionnaire included an introduction to the questionnaire's purpose, assurance of confidentiality, and how and when to return the questionnaire. The questions were grouped into sections, to help structure the questionnaire and provide a flow, and both positive and negative items were intermingled to avoid leading the respondents.

Format of the questionnaire

A survey was developed based on prior experience and past research which comprised set questions to evaluate the usefulness of site visits. The questionnaire was given to all students enrolled in the subject called "Structures and Construction 3B" and 96 surveys were handed out. A total of 80 valid questionnaires were returned, giving a response rate of 83%. The purpose of the questionnaire was explained and handed to students before the first site visit and collected several weeks after the last visit. This was to allow time for the student to reflect on the experiences. The next section of this paper describes the subject learning objectives, and explains the reason why site-based learning is important.

Student responses to the questions were based on a sliding Likert Score from 1 Not useful to 5 Extremely useful. A score of 3+ is considered "useful.

Construction technology learning objectives

Students are required to reach an understanding of the construction process and to develop some skill in management of a construction project. The objective of the site visit is to provide an opportunity to observe actual construction techniques and durations of various activities. Students are then required to undertake assignments demonstrating their understanding of the construction process. The specific subject objectives include:

Results and discussion

The students visited four different construction sites over a nine week period. Sites were selected at the appropriate stage of construction and specifically focused on a different topic within the subject. Tables 1-5 below evaluate the visual learning techniques and consequent understanding of the topics through individual site location responses. The results of the questionnaire are summarised in Table 6 and show that students generally find the site visits to be Useful to Very useful to their learning.

The four construction sites visited were:

Site 1Steel portal frame warehouse at North Laverton
Site 2Basement excavation and site retention in Melbourne city
Site 3Industrial ground slab at Laverton
Site 4Tilt up concrete panels at North Laverton

The questions in each of the Tables 1-6 relate to sites 1-4 respectively. It should be noted that of the total 80 responses:

46 students58%had no work experience
17 students21%had less than 4 weeks work experience
9 students11%had 4-26 weeks work experience
8 students10%had more than 27 weeks work experience

The impact of previous site experience obtained from previous work experience

The students with significant amounts of previous site work experience do have a positive impact on the effectiveness of site visits. This may be because they appreciate the difficulties associated with site visits and seem to accept those difficulties in advance of the visit. Students with little or no site work experience find it difficult to cope and tend to find fault with site visits as a learning experience. The chart below (Figure 1) shows that the students expressing the most interest were those that had some site experience.

The students sampled were recoded into those with No experience and those with at least some site experience. The independent sample t-test shows that a significant difference exists between the two groups. T-test results showed that this is significant at the 95% level, the variances are highly significant, f = 13.331 Sig 0.000, and the therefore the equal variance is not assumed (t (78)= -2.556, p< 0.013). This suggests that work experience is a distinguishing characteristic of those students who find site visits interesting. This result shows that students who do have some work experience are in a better position to learn from site visits, compared to those who have no had site experience. Accordingly, Tables 1-5 below have been selected to accommodate the degrees of site experience that the students possess.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Prior interest in undertaking site visits

Students with at least some site based experience have a tendency to look forward to site visits and tend to understand the associated difficulties. These students are in a better position to appreciate the educational experience, compared to those without previous site exposure. The implications of these results are that site visits should be introduced as early as possible in the course. This maximises the time available for site visits latter in the course, and introduces the environmental difficulties associated with construction sites.

Tabulated results and discussion

Table 1 below indicates that on all four sites, the students found the visit to be at least useful in improving their understanding of the topic, with two site scores in the very useful range. From analysis of the responses to other questions, there appears to be no clear reason as to why sites 2,3 and 4 received a low score for those 11 students with 4-26 weeks experience. All students with less than 4 weeks experience scored the "Industrial ground slab" site as useful (average 3.05), compared to (average 3.7) for the other three sites. One reason for this may be that the students only saw a one hour snapshot of the construction process, whereas the total concrete pouring and trowel finishing of the slabs would take a minimum full day on site to observe. The other three sites allowed students to observe the total construction process. This would also explain the corresponding lower score for the group total.

Table 1: Was the site useful in improving student understanding of the topic?

SiteConstruction site experienceGroup
total
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
MeanMeanMeanMeanMean
Q7-Site 13.84.13.33.63.8
Q15-Site 23.53.52.03.63.4
Q24-Site 33.03.12.43.33.0
Q33-Site 43.73.62.43.73.6
Likert Score from 1 (Not useful) to 5 (Extremely useful)

The results from Table 2 have low scores again for sites 2, 3 and 4 for those 11 students with 4-26 weeks experience. All students with less than 4 weeks experience scored the "Industrial ground slab" site as useful (average 3.0), compared to (average 3.5) for the other three sites. The one hour snapshot only during the site visit, compared to the total construction process, could again explain these lower results. This would also explain the corresponding lower score for the group total. Overall, the students perceived that the site visit was Useful in contrast to showing overheads of construction details.

Table 2: Was the site better than the overhead details in showing actual construction methods?

SiteConstruction site experienceGroup
total
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
MeanMeanMeanMeanMean
Q8-Site 13.63.63.33.83.6
Q16-Site 23.33.41.93.43.2
Q25-Site 32.93.12.63.73.0
Q34-Site 43.53.62.63.63.4

Table 3 results again have low scores for sites 2, 3 and 4 for those students with 4-26 weeks experience. All students with less than 4 weeks experience scored the "Industrial ground slab" site as useful (average 2.95), compared to (average 3.3) for the other three sites. The one hour snapshot only during the site visit, compared to the total construction process, could again explain these lower results. Students with less than 26 weeks experience had a ranking of (average 3.0), whereas those with over 27 weeks experience had a ranking of (average 3.65). It would appear then, that these site experienced students actually receive a greater benefit from site visits as they are already aware of site conditions and construction methods and can compare there existing knowledge with the new site experience. The students overall, ranked the site visit as at least Useful in contrast to slide presentations of construction details.

Table 3: Was the site better than the slide presentations in showing actual construction methods?

SiteConstruction site experienceGroup
total
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
MeanMeanMeanMeanMean
Q9-Site 13.43.32.93.53.3
Q17-Site 23.33.11.83.53.1
Q26-Site 32.83.12.43.72.9
Q35-Site 43.43.52.63.93.4

It should be noted that the video presentation question was omitted from the site 1 series of questions, but the comparative results have been included for comparison with the other visual modes of learning.

The results from Table 4 again have low scores for sites 2, 3 and 4 for those students with 4-26 weeks experience. Students with less than 26 weeks experience had a ranking of (average 2.7), whereas those with over 27 weeks experience had a ranking of (average 3.5). Site experienced students still perceive the site visits to be Useful as their previous exposure to sites allows them to perhaps go into self learning mode, whereas those with minimal site experience find that video presentations are the preferred media to show construction methods. It should be noted that the videos shown during lectures are narrated and construction processes explained during the showing. The videos also have high quality pause/still facilities. The construction sites are generally quite noisy in contrast, and students have indicated in later responses, their inability to hear on site explanations. These issues might explain of the differences in responses. The students overall, still ranked the site visit as just verging on Useful in contrast to video presentations of construction details.

Table 4: Was the site better than the video presentations in showing actual construction methods?

SiteConstruction site experienceGroup
total
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
MeanMeanMeanMeanMean
Q18-Site 22.92.91.93.32.8
Q27-Site 32.83.02.23.52.8
Q36-Site 43.33.32.43.73.3

Question 10, related to site No.1 was unintentionally missing from the questionnaire, hence only three results are included in the above table.

The results from Table 5 have the same characteristic low scores for sites 2, 3 and 4 for those 11 students with 4-26 weeks experience. There appears to be no valid reason that can be extracted from the questionnaire responses to indicate why this grouping scores these three particular sites so low in comparison to site 1. The students overall, still rate all four of the site visits as being at least a Useful (Average 3.4) experience.

Table 5: How would you rate the construction site visit experience overall?

SiteConstruction site experienceGroup
total
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
MeanMeanMeanMeanMean
Q12-Site 13.63.83.23.83.6
Q21-Site 23.43.51.93.53.3
Q30-Site 33.13.32.63.73.1
Q39-Site 43.63.62.63.43.5

Table 6 shows the overall summary group total averages of the means from all four sites. When asked how students rate the construction site visit experience overall, the results showed that most enjoyed the experience. All the group total scores shown in Table 6 are above a score of 3 out of 5 and therefore indicate that students perceive that all four of the site visits were in the range of Useful to Very useful.

Table 6: Student perceptions of site visits

QuestionMean
score
Was the site visit useful in improving your understanding of the topic?3.4
Was the site visit better than viewing an overhead projected presentation?3.3
Was the site visit better than viewing a slide presentation?3.2
Was the site visit better than viewing video presentations?3.0
How would you rate the site visit experience overall?3.4

Students enrolled in the subject had the opportunity to comment on any difficulties that they had experienced with site visits. The results (Table 7) contain coded comments made by the students. A total of 28 students provided extra qualitative information about their experiences with the site visit. These comments were then coded into five categories namely; Time consuming, Too far to travel, Noisy, Inconvenient time, and Very useful. The results in Table 7 show that students did not always have a negative attitude to site visits. A total of 10 (of 28) commented that the experience was considered Very useful. However, the remainder (18 of 28) expressed some reservations commenting that the time, distance and noise associated with the site visit created negative impressions. The least impressive characteristic of the site visits (9 of 28), was that it was Too far to travel. As previously mentioned, sites 1, 3 and 4 were not accessible by public transport. Of the total 18 comments raised concerning difficulties with the site visits, 11 (61%) were from students with no site experience at all which was to be expected.

Table 7: Student comments on their experiences with site visits
Site visit issues-comment code* site experience cross tabulation

CommentsConstruction site experience
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
Major site visit issue - comment codeTime consuming1100
Too far to travel4041
Noisy3000
Inconvenient time3100
Very useful8002
Total19243

The next section of the questionnaire asked students to consider the benefits of enrolling in a subject that contained ONLY site visits (Table 8). This question was used to determine the value of site visits as a learning mode. Once again the majority of students derived some benefit from site visits, a total of 62 (of 77) indicated that it was at least Useful or better. However, it may be worth noting that of the students that did not find the experience at least Useful most had no experience on site and together with the results in Table 7 above. This tends to indicate that they prefer the alternative visual modes of delivery, particularly with video presentations as previously discussed.

Table 8: Student perception of a subject containing site visits only
Subjects containing only site visits - site experience cross tabulation

Student perceptionConstruction site experience
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
Subject containing only site visitsNot useful2000
Somewhat useful10030
Useful15653
Very useful15711
Extremely useful3204
Total451598

Students were also questioned on their preferences for site visits compared to class-based learning. The results of (Table 9) indicate that the students who prefer lecture-based education over site visits are those with the least previous work experience.

Table 9: Impressions of usefulness of site visits compared to class-based learning experiences.
Student impressions - Site experience cross tabulation

ImpressionsConstruction site experience
No experienceLess than 4
weeks experience
4 to 26
weeks experience
More than 27
weeks experience
Student impressionsNot very helpful at all2000
Prefer classroom experiences6010
Somewhat helpful17664
Greatly useful201124
Total451798

Female students ranked all four sites lower than male students as indicated in Table 10. Further analysis needs to be done to find the causes of these statistically different results.

Table 10: Gender differences in rating the construction site visit and experience overall

SiteGenderGroup total
MaleFemale
MeanCountMeanCountMeanCount
Q12-Site 13.8463.5313.677
Q21-Site 23.4463.1313.377
Q30-Site 33.4462.7313.177
Q39-Site 43.7463.2313.577

The students were also asked to comment on the benefits of the site visits, and many interesting responses were given. The comments were divided into two groups, those which were generally positive and those that were negative. Comments that indicated that the site experience enhanced student learning were classed as positive and those comments that were critical of some aspect of the experience were considered negative. Typical comments and anecdotes provided by students are included in Table 11 below. The results indicated that students were generally pleased with role of site visits as a learning experience. A number of positive and negative comments pointed out areas which need consideration in order to improve learning outcomes.

Table 11: Typical examples of supportive and critical comments

Positive commentsNegative comments
Getting out [of the lecture theatre] and having a look at what happens on site helps; better than following lectures.It is difficult to attend site visits, when there are lots of assignments, the travel time takes up too much time.
Seeing the actual size and dimensions of portal frames, ground slabs and tilt up panels gave me a good understanding of what was presented in lectures.Transportation to site was a problem, particularly for overseas students without cars; a bus should be provided.
Site visits are good for the people who want to be involved in the industry (in the future). I found it interesting and informative.If the group is smaller you can get more out of the site visit.
Site visits are good, but should be done in conjunction with lectures.Smaller groups would be better. It was hard to take notes, if you weren't in the front you can't hear.
Being able to see the construction sequence happening is very helpful.I left early for the floor slab [site visit] and waited for over an hour without anything happening.

The effects and implications for teaching staff

Since 1997 the University of Melbourne construction management course has more than doubled in size, and much higher levels of occupational health and safety have been introduced within the industry. The organisation and staff time commitment of site visits have become much more difficult over the last seven or so years as a result. This has meant that in some subjects, site visits have become less frequent and other forms of teaching utilising; movies, slides and computer simulations have increased.

This research suggests that site visits can still provide important educational experiences for construction students. However, the site visits need to be better organised and structured to gain the maximum learning potential.

It has become obvious from this research that the best sites to visit are those that are close to the university thus minimising the travel time and distance. However, these sites are often difficult to find, may not be appropriate to the lecture topic and as a result the sites are located further away than staff and students would like. One student suggested that a bus should be arranged for students without cars. This seems like an excellent idea and would also allow the students time to hear audio and/or view videos while travelling.

In addition, it seems appropriate to provide a opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences through a debriefing session. This should occur after the site visits and requires the student to "unpack" their experiences through group discussion or presentation. As previously mentioned, this approach to teaching is very time intensive to teaching staff and requires them to be highly motivated, particularly with large class sizes.

University support

Site visits take up longer amounts of time particularly when the sites are far from the campus. This means that timetabling for site visits become are more difficult. Nevertheless, the benefits of site visits are important to construction management students, and the cost of this aspect should be an essential part of the educational experiences offered. It may be worth suggesting to external bodies that review construction courses, that site visits become a requirement of accreditation.

Conclusions

The aim of site visits is to give students some insights into the complex nature of construction, it is hoped that these visits provide an opportunity to learn from the observation of real world examples. Site visits should be introduced as early as possible in the course. This maximises the time available for site visits latter in the course, and introduces the environmental difficulties associated with construction sites.

Site visit teaching requires a considerable amount of planning before commencement of the subject, and the time commitment is not insignificant. It is possible that time and resource limitations are one of the key issues facing the future development of construction site visits within universities. The implications are that site visits should be better organised and guided, this may lead to the development of specific subjects devoted to site visits.

The aim of this research was to determine how the benefits of site visits can be maximised and to determine the effectiveness of construction site visits as an educational tool. The disadvantages of using site visits has been identified and further use of site visits is unlikely to be useful unless the associated problems can be minimised. The results of the survey indicate that previous site experience can impact on the level of ability of students to appreciate site visits.

Time and resources should be allocated to provide a opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences through a debriefing session including group discussion or presentation.

References

Baldwin, A.N., Thorpe, A., Carter C. & Taylor, G. (1999). Conference systems with construction organizations. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICS) UK, ICE, November 1999, Paper 11824, 174-180.

Kajewski, S. (1999). Virtual construction site visits via the world wide web. In K. Chen (Ed), Australian University Building Educators Association Conference. Proceeding of the 3rd and 4th electronic conference, pp. 125-129.

Kamaraswamy, M., Kay, N.J., and Hart, I. (2000). Simulating site visits in Hong Kong. In P. Davis & D. Bacarini, D. (Eds), Australian University Building Educators Association Conference. Proceedings of the 25th Annual conference. Curtin University Perth WA.

Malhotra, N. K. (1993). Marketing Research: An applied orientation. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA.

Menser, N. (2001). Learning via the Internet. Engineers Australia, pp. 28-31.

Mills, A. & Ashford, P. (2003). Factors impacting on the effectiveness of computer assisted courseware. Australasian Association of Engineering Education Conference, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia.

Ramsden, P. (Ed) (1988). Context and strategy: Situational differences in learning. Plenum Publications, New York.

Author: Peter Ashford is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. He lectures in structures and construction technology related subjects and received a Universitas 21 teaching award in 2003. Contact details: Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, Grattan Street, Parkville, Vic 3010. Tel: 03 8344 4231 Email: ptashf@unimelb.edu.au

Dr Anthony Mills is an Associate Professor in the School of Property, Construction & Project Management, RMIT University, Melbourne. He lectures students in construction economics and has produced many papers in construction education conferences both in Australia and overseas.

Please cite as: Ashford, P. and Mills, A. (2006). Evaluating the effectiveness of construction site visits as a learning experience for undergraduate students enrolled in a built environment course. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/ashford.html

Copyright 2006 Peter Ashford and Anthony Mills. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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