Initial Publication Date: October 26, 2012

Designing Effective Field Learning Experiences

David Mogk, Montana State University and Steve Whitmeyer, James Madison University
Additional material for this page was contributed by participants in the 2012 GSA Workshop Design an Effective Field Experience..

Field instruction has traditionally been at the core of the geoscience curriculum. It is a pedagogically exciting way to introduce students to geology in an engaging, hands-on way. Field experiences have also been used for recruitment and retention of students to departments and as portals to geoscience careers. Similar to designing any teaching activity or course, designing field experiences requires attention to a number of important issues. The purpose of this module is to guide you through a number of topics you should consider to help you design and conduct a field learning experience for your students. We advocate the activity design principles of Wiggins and McTighe (2000) in which learning outcomes are identified, followed by development of evidence-based assessments and instructional and learning activities that are fully supported with appropriate background, technical, and logistical information. This module will provide step-by-step advice to help you design and run a safe, effective and fun field experience for your students.

Jump Down To: 0: Before We Start | 1: Define Learning Outcome Goals | 2: Assessing Student Learning in the Field | 3: Preparing to Go in the Field | 4: During the Field Trip

Background Resources

As in any scholarly activity, it is important to be aware of the literature that informs the topic of study. There is a rich literature on teaching in the field. You'll find abundant examples of successful field activities, practical tips, and the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of why field work should be a central part of the geoscience curriculum.

0. Before we Start, Why is it Important to Take Students Out Into the Field?

It's useful for instructors to reflect on the special attributes of the field setting that may promote learning in better or alternative ways compared with the standard classroom or lab. As master geoscientists and educators, we may lose sight of factors that are either novel to students or may present barriers to learning in the field environment. What do you think?

  • What is unique, special, or emphasized by studying Earth in a field setting?
  • What is the scope of field instruction--both traditional and modern?
  • What are the types of activities that might be done in a field exercise:

1. Define Learning Outcome Goals

There are a number of important goals you may have for your students in going out into the field. Depending on your student audience, geologic setting, level of instruction, these goals may vary. What are the goals for your field instruction activity?

2. Assessing Student Learning in the Field

How will you know if student learning has occurred as a result of a field experience? The learning goals, assessments, and instructional activities (preparatory work, in the field work, and post-field trip write-ups and reflections) must be well-aligned from the start. What are the expected outcomes from your field exercise and how will you measure the extent to which students have achieved the stated learning goals?

You can learn more about assessing student learning both as part of the Course Design Tutorial and through our module on Assessing Student Learning.

3. Preparing to Go in the field

An ounce of prevention...The more preparation you put into designing your field exercise the better the chances for success. Here are a few items to consider to help plan your field exercise.

Field Trips v. Field Exercises

For clarity, we make a distinction between

  • Field trips; typically a road log or field guide is followed to see a variety of sites of interest, or perhaps to visit a given site where information may be presented, e.g. a visit to a mine, etc. where you might expect to have a guided tour. We encourage you to go beyond a show'n'tell trip and have students actively involved with tasks assigned at each stop following the road log/field guide, or creating some sort of interpretive product related to guided sites you visit.
  • Field Exercises; experiential learning where there is an assigned task that requires a variety of field observations, measurements, data collection, etc. designed to create a product as the result of these activities, a map, cross section, graphs, field notes, etc.

There is a place for both field trips and field exercises. Just be sure to clearly distinguish when guided instruction will take place in the field, and when the expectation is that students will be expected to ask, design, explore, record, and produce.

Select the Appropriate Field Site to Meet your Goals


What do you have to plan for to ensure a safe and effective field experience?

Instructor Preparation

You can never do enough preparation for a field exercise. Bob Dylan had it right: "And I'll know my song well before I start singing." Careful planning by the instructor, and preparation by the students, is essential for a safe and effective field trip. Here are are a few suggestions:

Student Preparation for a Field Trip

For students, preparation for the field experience is essential. No learning can occur if students are unsure about what they should know, what they should do, what is expected of them, or if they are concerned about their personal comfort and safety. The concept of "novelty space" (Orion and Hofstein, 1994; Rudman, 1994; Hurd, 1997; Mogk, 1997) addresses students' concerns and uncertainty about three important dimensions:

  • Geographic space: where are we going?
  • Geologic space: what is the geologic context, what are we doing, what do I need to know, what will I do, what will the product look like?
  • Personal space: concerns about comfort and safety

How would you reduce "novelty space" in your own field activity?

Activity Design Principles

Here are some additional things to consider as you design your field exercise:

Use of Technology in Field Instruction

The use of digital equipment in the field has become increasingly common, and many would argue that we do a disservice to our students if we don't provide some exposure to digital field equipment and methods. However, this is a fast moving field, and equipment, software, and techniques can quickly become obsolete. This is not a topic that can be quickly and casually added to a field experience. If you plan to use digital field equipment, consider your learning objectives. Do you want the students to "learn" the equipment and software, or do you just want the students to be exposed to digital methods? Will the students be collecting their own data using digital devices? Will you be using an easy to use interface (e.g. handheld GPS devices), or will you be using a more complex software interface (e.g. ArcGIS)? It is often vital for students to become familiar with the hardware and software before they will be required to collect their own field data. These and other issues are covered in more detail here:

Select Pedagogical Strategies and Methods

The pedagogic resources highlighted below can provide inspiration as you consider various approaches that will help you achieve your course goals. The resource collections are organized to provide a rich set of materials to draw from in constructing the specific set of learning experiences you want for your students. Finally, explore the more in-depth information and ideas available in special topics. Check out these resources for ideas to support your own field instruction:


Safety first. Field work is an integral part of much of the geoscience profession, and safe practices that adhere to professional standards must be adhered to at all times in the vehicles and with boots on the ground. Make sure that first aid equipment is available on-site, and that emergency contact numbers are known.

Finally, A Word About GeoEthics!

We (as a discipline) are in danger of losing our best field sites. This may be due to landowners shutting us out of our favorite sites, permitting issues with federal land managers (USFS, BLM), concerns about liability, development of property...We really must do all we can to make sure our favorite sites are preserved and available for exploration by future generations. What can you do to be sure that we can preserve these sites?

4. During the Field Trip

You're finally on the road. What will you do en route? What will you do on site? Remember that you are a role model, and students will emulate your behavior. Think ahead. What image do you want to project?

Closing Thoughts

This tutorial was created to help you design and plan for an effective field experience. We hope that the steps above have given you some ideas to help you design and run field trips in your own setting. We welcome feedback on this exercise: was it helpful? Do you have other suggestions to add to this module? Let us know by submitting your comments to the Discussion Thread below. Have fun, be safe, and we'll hope to see you out there!

Designing Field Experiences -- Discussion  

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