August 7th, 2012

Making the Most of Fieldwork Learning Experiences

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Fieldwork refers to any component of the curriculum that involves leaving the classroom and learning through firsthand experience. Most instructors incorporate fieldwork to help students understand theory, develop skills, integrate knowledge, build tacit knowledge, develop meaning in places, and work with peers and instructors in alternate settings.

Despite our best intentions, fieldwork experiences can fail miserably for many reasons. For example, an unexpected traffic jam can reduce time at a study site, a sudden rainstorm can send everyone running for cover, or a guest naturalist can fail to show up at the appointed time and place. Conditions in the field are often unpredictable and can affect learning outcomes. Even so, there are practices that do improve fieldwork experiences.

First, fieldwork assignments should have clear and integrated goals. I recommend choosing a few key objectives and sticking to them. Expecting a field experience to accomplish too many objectives can dilute the experience and leave students frustrated. We wrongly assume that students will learn simply by engaging in field experiences; these experiences need to be an integrated part of the larger curriculum. I recently heard this loud and clear from students doing an individualized community-service learning assignment in a large introductory environmental studies course. They decried the lack of time taken in the course to analyze and integrate their field experiences.

Second, successful fieldwork requires preparation by students and instructors alike. Successful fieldwork builds on and extends competencies gained in earlier in-class or field experiences. For that reason, students need to understand and appreciate the underlying theory, past studies, and methods related to their upcoming trip. This context enhances learning, deepens insight, strengthens critical thinking, and increases adaptability. Instructors prepare students to make efficient use of their time during the field exercise by providing clear instructions and expectations for assessment. Instructors also need to prepare their equipment, anticipating all manner of safety and logistical contingencies as well as the range of site conditions (such as weather) that will affect fieldwork. Instructors must also balance the need for structure, comfort, and familiarity (e.g., traditional lab experiences) with the need for excitement and novel experiences (e.g., new environments).

Third, instructors should be flexible so they can take advantage of spontaneous opportunities that may arise. For example, if a flock of swans fly, students may be frustrated if they can’t stop to take a look because they are supposed to be staring at the ground, madly trying to measure vegetation characteristics for a biology lab. If an instructor is flexible, unexpected events can contribute directly to, or provide context for, the objectives of the field exercise.

Fourth, students and instructors should reflect on all aspects of their field experiences. Reflection increases learning because it provides an opportunity to examine the meaning and significance of experiences, sightings, data, or encounters. This reflection might take the form of a required journal, a group “debrief,” or a sharing circle at the end of an afternoon trip. Reflection immediately after an experience is most productive and relevant. Both the instructor and the students might want to create a list of “recommendations” that could improve an activity for future students.

Fifth, choosing a location for a field experience is important.
On one hand, local choices are relatively inexpensive, are relevant to students, and give them an opportunity to provide a finished product for community use. For example, my biogeography students have conducted regular riparian health assessments of the local stream system, providing a useful indicator of change to the municipality. On the other hand, more distant options can provide a more novel set of experiences. If possible, choose scenic locations for fieldwork. On a three-hour field trip in my geomorphology course, I plan the last stop at a beautiful spot on a high bank overlooking the Battle River of central Alberta. We linger there, eat snacks, and summarize insights from the trip.

Sixth, assessment sends a message about the importance of fieldwork. The frequency and rigor should be appropriate to the time and energy that students are able to apply to the experience. Field assessment can take many forms: journals, group insights, and trip-specific exam questions are among the possibilities to reward students who engage fully in field experiences.

Carefully planned field experiences help students develop skills and insights that are the mark of a well-rounded education. That careful design can be challenging, but as these suggestions show, it is a manageable task, and the work involved is offset by the learning potential inherent in good fieldwork experiences.

Dr. Glen T. Hvenegaard is a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Alberta, Augustana campus.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 25.2 (2011): 4.