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Teaching and Learning Forum 2009 [ Refereed papers ]
Value of field trips for student learning in the biological sciences

Touhidur Rahman and Helen Spafford
School of Animal Biology
The University of Western Australia

Field trips are considered essential in biological science education. The focus of this study was to understand student and teacher attitudes towards field trips and the importance of field trips for student learning. This paper describes the outcomes of a survey used to assess attitudes of students and teachers in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, at The University of Western Australia. Results from this study indicate that students and teachers agree that field trips are important for student learning but they have different perceptions about field trips including the importance of field trips in professional career development, the optimum number of trips, duration, and group size of field trips. The value of field trips to learning and ways of improving field trips are discussed.


Introduction

Field trips offer the sort of enriching experience that is considered central to successful education. The definition of a field trip used in this research is taken from Krepel and Duvall (1981), "a trip arranged and undertaken for educational purposes, in which the students go to places where the materials of instruction may be observed and studied directly in their functional setting...". Traditional field trips usually involve a teacher directing or constructing an event to produce similar student observations and experiences. Field trips engage and even entertain students, helping to make educational experience more relevant, memorable and meaningful (Scarce, 1997). The Swiss psychologist Piaget (1964) said that 'to know an object is to act on it'. Before Jean Piaget, John Dewey an American philosopher stated,
Mere activity doesn't constitute experience. To 'learn from experience' is to make a background and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like; the undergoing becomes instruction - discovery of the connection of things (Dewey, 1964).
Learning in biological sciences traditionally takes place in one or more of three different environments, the classroom or lecture theatre, the laboratory and the field (outdoors). In biological science education, the field trip is considered a key component of the curriculum, and when combined with lectures, problem sets, readings and workshops, provides vital experience necessary for converting students into successful professionals. Field trips offer students the opportunity to learn what is involved in on-ground management, make comparisons with other management cases, and sharpen their own integrative ability, insight and judgement without actual real-life costs of being wrong. The main principles of field trips are common; (1) use of a natural environment for exploring phenomena and objects of the nature; (2) use of real scientific methods (collecting data, observation, creating hypotheses, performing experiments), (3) improve active student engagement; (4) naturally integrate knowledge and reinforce inter-disciplinary relationships, and (5) support of social learning processes (discussion, co-operative learning) (Zoldosova & Prokop, 2006).

However, there is controversy whether each unit in the biological sciences needs field trips and whether the learning outcomes of a field trip are worth the time and money. Are these superficial activities or bona fide learning experiences? Furthermore there are questions about the length of the field trip and how often field trips should be conducted. Mirka (1970) and McKenzie et al. (1986) refer to three sources for the reason a gap exists between the educational potential of field trips and its realisation. These are (1) logistic limitations, (2) lack of adequate teaching/learning materials, and (3) teachers' unfamiliarity with the outdoor as a learning environment. It is evident from the literature that lack of curriculum design, planning and implementation in field trips often results in poor outcomes in student learning. This paper presents the outcome of a preliminary survey, which allowed both students and teachers to express a range of opinions regarding the value of field trips in students learning to clarify its need, numbers, duration, and group size.

Materials and methods

The population targeted for this study were undergraduates, postgraduates and teachers (academic staff) in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (FNAS) at The University of Western Australia (UWA). To investigate the objectives of this study, two surveys were constructed: one for undergraduate and postgraduate students and another questionnaire for teachers. The survey consisted of both closed- and open-ended questions. Questions addressed the (1) value of field trips to learning, (2) value of field trips to future career, (3) integration of field trips within units/courses, (4) optimal duration of field trips, (5) appropriate numbers of field trips per unit, and (6) appropriate number of participants on a field trip.

Surveys were distributed to all students and teachers in FNAS via email. In addition, an online questionnaire was available to undergraduate and postgraduate students. A total of 112 undergraduates, 22 postgraduates and 24 teachers participated in this study (Table 1). All participants were informed about the purpose of the survey. Participation in the survey was anonymous and voluntary.

Table 1: Total numbers of participants

Participant categoryNumber of responses
Complete surveyIncomplete survey
Undergraduate10111
Postgraduate184
Teachers24

Results

Student responses

The majority of students believe that field trips helped in increasing their knowledge (Figure 1). Similarly, 97% students strongly agreed that field trips are necessary (Figure 2A) and that field trips helped them to understand the subject material better (Figure 2B; Table 2). Students also believed that their experience on field trips would help their future career (Figure 2C; Table 2). There was a greater diversity of opinion about the level of integration of field trips with the other unit activities. While, the majority of students thought that field trips were well integrated with the units they attended, a larger proportion disagreed or strongly disagreed (Figure 2D)

Figure 1

Figure 1: Student responses to the question: Field trips have helped to increase my knowledge base.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Students' responses to survey questions: (A) field trips are necessary to improve learning, (B) field trips helped me to better understand the subject materials, (C) experience on field trips will be helpful in my future career and (D) field trips have been well integrated with the classroom learning.

More than 90% of students expressed that field trips in biological science must be compulsory (Figure 3A). More than 81% of students responded that units had field trips they attended but 15% of students believed there were insufficient field trips (Figure 3B). The majority of students thought there should be one or two field trips per unit and some thought there should be more (Figure 4A). The majority of students considered 10-20 numbers per group on a field as an appropriate group size but some believed that numbers of students per group in a field trip is not important (Figure 4B). There was variation by students in the favoured duration of field trips (Figure 4C; Table 2). Students also indicated via comment that they disliked logistical aspects of field trips e.g. long travel times, poor meals and accommodation (Table 2).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Student responses on field trips towards (A) Field trips should
be included and (B) units have had sufficient field trips.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Students' responses towards (A) optimum numbers of field trips per unit,
(B) appropriate group size in a field trip, and (3) the best length of a field trip.

Table 2: Summary of student comments about field trips

Aspects students liked most about field tripsAspects students disliked about field trips
  1. Getting experience what it would be like working in the field and also doing some practical work to add to theory
  2. Helped to learn presenting findings that achieved in field trips
  3. Able to use the techniques in future career learnt during field trips and it made the subject come alive
  4. Lots of fun when getting knowledge
  5. Field trips are invaluable to gain an insight into the kind of things that actual go on in future profession
  6. Experiencing things hands on
  7. Group work and being able to see what we are studying first hand and not just random stats on a computer
  8. Seeing the methods used in sampling and how this info is then collated into a report
  9. To better understand the theory we taught
  10. It is essential to have field trips to learn necessary practical skills and to gain understanding of what it will be like to work in the field after graduation
  1. Poor organisation
  2. Too short
  3. Too Lengthy
  4. No enough information
  5. The frequency of field trips
     a. Lots of field trips
     b. Not enough field trips
  6. Very large groups
  7. Very long travel times
  8. Weekend field trips
  9. Accommodation and meal problem
  10. Often background knowledge is not given to the field trip
  11. Some field trips require to go on your own, it's very annoying and troublesome
  12. No pre-and post field trips activities
  13. No clear objectives
  14. Lack of activities during field trips
  15. No active participation of the teachers/instructors

Teacher responses

The majority of teachers strongly agreed that field trips are important in the units they have been teaching (Figure 5) and they believe that field trips increase student knowledge (Figure 6A). Results indicated that 71% of teachers thought field trips are necessary (Figure 6B). Around 50% teachers agreed that field trips increase students' confidence, while 17% disagreed and 33% were not sure (Figure 6C).

Figure 5

Figure 5: Teacher response to: "Are field trips an important part in units they have been involved?"

Figure 6

Figure 6: Teacher responses to questions whether field trips (A) increase student knowledge (B) are
necessary to improve student learning and (C) increase student confidence with the subject matter.

Results indicated that 50% of teachers agreed that field trips would be helpful in students' future career, while 8% disagreed that field trips would be helpful in future career (Figure 7A). On the other hand, 42% of teachers are not sure about the importance of field trips in students' future career. Among teachers, 83% considered that field trips are well integrated with their units (Figure 7B). More than 90% of teachers thought field should be compulsory (Figure 8A). There was a diversity of opinion about the appropriate number of field trips in each unit (Figure 8B), the appropriate group size (Figure 8C) and the duration of a field trip (Figure 8D).

Figure 7

Figure 7: Responses of teachers to whether (A) field trips will be helpful in
students' future career and (B) field trips are well integrated with units/courses.

Figure 8

Figure 8: Responses of teachers as to whether (A) field trips should be compulsory, (B) the optimum
numbers of field trips per unit, (C) appropriate group size in field trips and (D) the best length of field trips.

Discussion

With very few exceptions, respondents on this survey considered field trips to be an important educational experience for students. Other studies have indicated that fieldwork boost students confidence in learning subject matter and helps improve social skills (Rickinson et al., 2004). The research also showed that students are much more confident in meeting academic challenges as a result of participating in field trips (Boyle et al., 2003). Rickinson et al. (2004) stated,
Fieldwork can have a positive impact on long-term memory due to the memorable nature of the fieldwork setting. Effective fieldwork and residential experience in particular, can lead to individual grown and improvements in social skills. More importantly, there can be reinforcement between the affective and the cognitive domain, with each influencing the other and providing a bridge to higher order learning.
However, the present study revealed that there is disagreement between students and teachers regarding the specific value of field trips. For example, students responded that in field trips they learn to develop problem-solving skills, enhance constructive social relationships, work in groups and get hands-on experience in ways that add value to their everyday experiences (Table 2), which would be helpful in developing a professional career. Teachers in FNAS expressed mixed opinion about the importance of field trips in students' future career. Dilon et al. (2006) reviewed 150 studies from 1993 to 2003, and found substantial evidence that fieldwork, properly conceived, adequately planned, well taught and effectively followed up, offers learners the opportunities to improve their knowledge and skills in ways that add value to their everyday experiences in classroom and their future career as well.

Fido and Gaford (1982) and McKenzie et al. (1986) reported that teachers often avoid outdoor activities because they were unfamiliar with philosophy, technique and organisation of field trips. Lack of teacher commitment and poor organisation might jeopardise the benefits that could be derived from field trips. To make field trip an effective learning tool and therefore have a positive impact on future career, careful consideration of the field trip must be carried in three steps: preparation before the tour, activities during the tour and evaluation after the tour (Bozdogan, 2008). In this way, learning objectives and skill development can be clearly articulated and evaluated. Students in FNAS believed that field trips were not well integrated with units (Figure 2D) and not well-organised (Table 2), although more than 83% of teachers had a different perception (Figure 7B). Studies of the impact of the field trips on student learning showed that role of teachers in pre- and post field trips activities were factors that have the potential to enhance students learning (Anderson, 1999; N. Orion & Hofstein, 1994). Gennaro (1981) found that students introduced with pre-visit instruction showed greater overall knowledge acquisition from field trip, while, Anderson (1999) reported that post-visit activities associated with a field trip are more effective catalyst for continued insights in students learning.

The majority of both students and teachers responded that field trips should be compulsory in units/courses offered by FNAS but disagreed in how field trips should be organised in terms of the numbers of field trips per unit, duration of field trips and optimal size in a field trip. Teachers have a significant role in organising an effective field trip, therefore teachers should take into account factors such as students' prior experience and preferred learning styles while organising a field trip.

Teachers must design and organise field trips in the way that help students to address and learn in a flexible adaptive manner. Anderson et al. (2006) stated that the key factors influencing the effective learning in field trips involves teachers' frequently cited effective pre-planning, appropriate curriculum and engaging/hands on experience for students as being most influential. Based on earlier studies of several workers, Orion (1993) proposed a model for the development and implementation of field trips effectively based on the following criteria,

  1. A process-oriented approach focuses on an active interaction between the students and the environment.
  2. A field trip as an integral part of a particular curricular unit should be placed as early as possible in the learning sequence to provide a more robust basis for understanding the abstract concepts.
  3. Students should properly prepare for the field trips. The preparation should employ concrete activities to reduce the effect of the 'novelty space' of the outdoor event.
Dilon et al. (2006) also recognise several factors that influence outdoor learning. These are (1) fear and concern about health and safety, (2) teachers' lack of confidence in teaching outdoors, (3) curriculum requirements, (4) shortage of time, resources and support and (5) wider changes within and beyond the education sector. Teachers and/or instructors generally think that in field trips students see interesting things and enjoy themselves.

Conclusion

Similar to the laboratory, field trips have the potential to enhance student learning. Field trips in biological sciences are an essential component for professional education. This small-scale preliminary study reveals that both students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and teachers in FNAS expressed positive attitudes to field trips. However, students and teachers have different opinions regarding the potential of field trips in students' future career, improved learning, optimal numbers, length and group size of field trips. From the present findings, it seems that there are several ways that teachers in FNAS could improve the field trip experience. Firstly, curriculum should be well planned that clearly states the objectives, numbers and duration of field trips. It also needs to be available to students before enrolment, so that students decide whether unit/course is suitable for them. Numbers of field trips and duration may vary from unit to unit. Nevertheless, numbers and duration should be reasonable so that it would not be stressful to students. Secondly, teacher/instructor should ensure that the teaching and learning objectives for the field trip are well articulated and supported by the field trip activities, before, during and after the trip.

Limitations and recommendations for further research

The survey was conducted by email/online forms which restricted the participation. Extending this study to include a greater population and using personal or classroom survey would provide more precise and concrete outcomes that might be different from the present findings. From a biological sciences perspective, it could be refined what it means by "Value of field trips" and hence assess this in a uniform way. For example, practical tests of learning could be established for a range of field trips in corresponding units. This process might involve two groups of students (1) classroom learners and (2) classroom and field trips learners. Both groups could be asked similar questions and the results studied to determine if any differences attribute to the groups of students. It is hoped that teachers and administrators will take the present findings in to consideration to improve the field based learning environment.

Acknowledgments

Thank to Lee Partridge for her assistance with University research project procedures, Kerry Knott for her great help to make the survey forms available to the population targeted in this study, Patrick Finnegan and Sue Miller for their help in developing the questionaries.

References

Anderson, D. (1999). The development of science concepts emergent from science museum post visit activity experiences: Students' construction of knowledge. Unpublished PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Anderson, D., Kisiel, J. & Storksdieck, M. (2006). Understanding teachers' perspectives on field trips: Discovering common ground in three countries. Curator, 49(3), 365-386.

Boyle, A., Conchie, S., Maguire, S., Martin, A., Milsom, C., Nash, R., et al. (2003). Fieldwork is good? The student experience of field courses. Planet, Special edition 5, December. http://www.gees.ac.uk/pubs/planet/pse5back2.pdf

Bozdogan, A. E. (2008). Planning and evaluation of field trips to informal learning environments: Case of the energy park. Journal of Theory and Practice in Education, 4(2), 282-290.

Dewey, J. (1964). Democracy and education. New York, USA: Macmillan.

Dilon, J., Rickinson, M., Teamey, K., Morris, M., Choi, M. Y., Sanders, D., et al. (2006). The value of outdoor learning: Evidence from research in the UK and elsewhere. School Science Review, 87(320), 107-111.

Fido, S. H. & Gayford, G. C. (1982). Field work and the biology teacher: A survey in secondary schools in England and Wales. Journal of Biological Education, 16, 27-34.

Gennaro, E. A. (1981). The effectiveness of using pre-visit instructional materials on learning for a museum field trip experience. Journal of Research in Science Education, 24, 121-128.

Krepel, W. J. & Duvall, C. R. (1981). Field trips: A guide for planning and conducting educational experiences. Washington DC: National Education Association.

McKenzie, G., Utgard, R. & Lisowski, M. (1986). The importance of field trip: A geological example. Journal of College Science Teaching, 16(17-20).

Mirka, G. D. (1970). Factors which influence elementary teachers use of out-of-doors. Ohio State University, Ohio.

Orion, N. (1993). A model for the development and implementation of field trips as an integral part of the science curriculum. Journal of School Science and Mathematics, 93(6), 325-331.

Orion, N., & Hofstein, A. (1994). Factors that influence learning during a scientific field trip in a natural environment. Journal of Research in Science and Teaching, 31, 1097-1119.

Piaget, J. (1964). Development and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2(3), 176-186.

Rickinson, M., Dilon, J., Morris, M., Choi, M. Y., Sanders, D. & Benefield, P. (2004). A review of research on outdoor learning. NFER, Field studies council occasional publication 87. [Executive summary] http://www.nfer.ac.uk/research-areas/pims-data/summaries/fsr-a-research-review-of-outdoor-learning.cfm

Scarce, R. (1997). Field trips as short-term experimental education. Teaching Sociology, 25(3), 219-226.

Zoldosova, K., & Prokop, P. (2006). Education in the field influences children's ideas and interest toward science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(3-4), 304-313.

Authors: Touhidur Rahman and Helen Spafford, School of Animal Biology, Faculty of Natural & Agricultural Sciences, The University of Western Australia. Email: rahmat01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Rahman, T. & Spafford, H. (2009). Value of field trips for student learning in the biological sciences. In Teaching and learning for global graduates. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 29-30 January 2009. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2009/refereed/rahman.html

Copyright 2009 Touhidur Rahman and Helen Spafford. 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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