Initial Publication Date: November 29, 2012

The Benefits of Field Instruction

Many geologists have made the assertion that "Field work is good" and is essential for the training of young geoscientists. The following is a compilation of claims that have been made about why field work has been valued as an integral part of the geoscience curriculum.

Jump Down To: The Value of Fieldwork in the Geosciences | Attributes of Geoscience Expertise Gained through Field Work | Evidence Supporting the Value of Field Work | References

Learning Opportunities Afforded Through Field Instruction

  • Exploration of 3- and 4-dimensional relations in Nature; provides a sense of scale (spatial and temporal) of Earth phenomena and processes that provides an important context for the creation of interpretive models;
  • Presents a holistic view of Earth that reveals the interconnections among the many components of the Earth system (Ireton et al., 1997); the field setting provides the ability to see relationships among parts, and not just parts. In the lab it is very hard to learn how things are embedded in larger contexts.
  • Allows students to see relationships that demonstrate or validate theory, and to critically evaluate the adequacy of model output in comparison with the complexities of Nature;
  • Allows students to engage "authentic" activities done by professionals as first steps towards their development as geoscientists; and
  • Allows students to make their own observations, order their experiences, make decisions and set their own priorities as to what to focus on and what to ignore, (Isen, 2000) towards becoming autonomous, self-directed learners.
  • Field studies require integration of cognitive, affective, and psycho-motor skills (Bloom et al., 1956; Bloom, 1965; Krathwohl et al., 1973; Simpson, 1972). Active learning is required for "deep learning."
  • Learning in the field is integrative, requiring holistic thinking that applies information and skills from multiple investigative approaches (theoretical, analytical, experimental, and modeling) to interpret, explain, predict, or confirm assertions about natural phenomena.
  • Learning in the field is also iterative, as field observations suggest new lines of inquiry in these related approaches, and lab-based results inform (and often require) reinterpretation of field observation (Trop, 2000; Noll, 2003; Ernst, 2006).
  • In nature, the observer is confronted with the full range of natural variability. Decisions must be made regarding what is important to observe and interpret

The Value of Field Work in the Geosciences

  • Fieldwork provides an 'unparalleled opportunity' to study the real world;
  • Student perceptions of field work tend to be overwhelmingly positive;
  • Fieldwork provides the opportunity to reinforce classroom-based learning; and
  • It increases students' knowledge, skills and subject understanding.
  • In the field setting, students have the opportunity to learn FROM Nature and ABOUT Science as a social enterprise (Frodeman, 2003).
  • Field-based inquiry brings learners into direct experiential contact with the raw materials of Nature and provides the fundamental platform on which hypotheses about the Earth are formulated and tested.
  • Field work has lead to the development of an epistemology which is heavily focused towards observation and interpretation of natural phenomena and historical relations (Frodeman, 1995). This provides a strong complement to methodologies used in the experimental sciences, and greatly enriches the ways in which we understand the universe around us.
  • Field studies require integration of content knowledge, observation and interpretation, analysis, experiment and theory and all their representations (e.g. Ernst, 2006). All lines of evidence need to come together to form a coherent, internally consistent interpretation.
  • Practices that are emphasized in the field instruction such as question-asking, observation, representation, and communication (e.g. Niemetz and Potter, 1991; Carlson, 1999; Rowland, 2000) are important to the formative training of all geoscientists.
  • Field studies can be an effective mechanism to recruit and retain students in the geosciences (e.g. Kern and Carpenter, 1984; Manner, 1995; Karabinos et al., 1992) and to introduce non-traditional students to the geosciences (e.g. Gawel and Greengrove, 2005; Semken, 2005; Elkins et al., 2008). Alumni report strong support for field geology learning experiences (Kirchner, 1994; Plymate et al., 2005) and many departments showcase their field programs (e.g. brochures, web pages) to recruit new majors (e.g. Butler, 2008).

Attributes of Geoscience Expertise Gained through Field Work

  • Knowing how to "read" and "tell the story" of Earth, using all the knowledge, skills, and tools available to geoscientists;
  • Application of multiple working hypotheses (Gilbert, 1886; Chamberlain, 1890) and integration of numerous lines of evidence into internally consistent arguments;
  • Knowing what to look for, and what to exclude in complex natural settings (a process known as disembedding; Goodwin, 1994; Reynolds et al., 2006);
  • Pattern recognition, in the field, on topographic and geologic maps and other data representations;
  • Being able to better visualize the results of experimental or modeling outcomes through ground-truthing in natural phenomena or events;
  • Simultaneously interrogating the Earth system from a reductionist/analytical and synthetic/integrative points of view; and
  • The ability to cope with the unexpected, to have a "fertile mind" that is well-prepared to make new observations, integrate this with extant knowledge, and formulate new hypotheses and tests.

Evidence Supporting the Value of Field Work

But, what is the evidence? It is essential that we provide solid evidence about the role that field instruction plays in the development of ALL geoscientists in order to make the case to deans (who want to cut budgets) and perhaps skeptical colleagues (who may view field instruction as begin old-fashioned, too costly in terms of time and money, and generally not worth the effort).

The Synthesis of Research on Learning in the Geosciences project sought to address some of these questions during its work. The project's Field-Based Learning page sets out the rationale and the research goals for the project in relation to learning in the field. Results from this research are available through a few avenues:


Many of the references mentioned here as well as others can be found in one or both of these collections: