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?

  • The field tradition employs the historical and interpretive traditions of geology which rely on the direct, methodical observation of Nature. (See: Frodeman, 1995)
  • The physical scale of study in the field is large with respect to the observer. So, the observer is internal to the expansive natural setting, rather than external looking at small items (e.g. in a laboratory setting).
  • Natural systems are open, heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex. Novices are challenged to know what to look for, what to do, when facing this natural complexity. Students will encounter an incomplete geologic record, have to conceive of processes and environments that are far beyond direct human experience, must deal with ambiguity, and learn to reason by inference.
  • Students must learn to make decisions about what is relevant (or not) as they make observations in the field; in the lab, objects of study are pre-selected by someone else.
  • Learning in the field is integrative and iterative with other geologic approaches: theoretical, analytical, experimental,
    and modeling
  • The field setting promotes a strong affective response (attitudes, motivations, emotions, perceptions, awe and wonder, curiosity, self-confidence). Immersion in a natural setting engages all senses. Cognition, learning, long-term memory are all closely connected with the affective domain.
  • The field setting provides a strong social learning environment where master-novice or peer-to-peer relations are established. This is important for initiation of students into the "community of practice".
  • Physical movement through a natural setting cannot be reproduced in the lab or other virtual media. Embodiment, the immersion of the body in both the physical and social environments where we work, imparts knowledge about how to interact with the natural world.
  • In the field, students come in contact with the raw essence of Nature in their full, primal and complex contexts. Students must learn how to make representations of Nature, known as inscriptions, by way of creating field notes, sketches, maps, etc. The first inscription, translating Nature into a social artifact, is the most important and often the most difficult.
  • The field setting has a strong metacognitive aspect, as students must self-monitor and self-regulate their actions.
  • What is the scope of field instruction--both traditional and modern?
  • A local trip adjacent to campus (~an hour or two)
  • All day visit to a site of interest
  • Regional reconnaissance to investigate large-scale relations in a region

  • Extended "in residence" field camps
  • Deployment and use of dedicated instrumentation
  • Repeated visits to a given locality throughout a course or curriculum
  • International settings
  • Focused on a sub-discipline in geology or other Earth science disciplines (geography, oceanography, geophysics, paleontology, geohydrology,....)
  • Inter-disciplinary (e.g. integrated studies including ecology, environmental science, public policy, etc.)
  • Embedded in a class
  • As an informal learning opportunity; work with local parks, museums, aquariums, nature centers...
  • Service-learning projects (using field based studies for civic engagement about resources, hazards, ...)
  • A "capstone" learning event; commonly the senior field camp, or possibly an REU experience
  • What are the types of activities that might be done in a field exercise:
  • Collecting (e.g. for future study or analysis in the lab)
  • Measuring (e.g. a stratigraphic column)
  • Monitoring (e.g. long term research at a given place)
  • Documenting (e.g. a photographic record of an event or place)
  • Sketching
  • Note-taking
  • describing, identifying, listing, comparing, correlating, recognizing objects or phenomena in the field
  • Mapping (on many scales, outcrop to regional)
  • Synthetic activities (e.g. regional overviews, preparing reports)
  • Learning geologic skills (e.g. measuring a strike and dip)
  • Use of instrumentation in the field (e.g. ground penetrating radar)
  • Use of other technology in the field (e.g. ruggedized computers, tablets, or other portable computational devices)
  • Field-based research (or research-like activities)

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?

  • Reinforce concepts or content delivered in the classroom setting; put theory into context
  • Build confidence within a student in his/her abilities
  • Develop practical geologic field skills (note-taking, sketching, map making)
  • Introduce students to a geologic/geographic setting
  • Do a focused exploration of a given topic
  • Be part of a regional overview
  • Develop higher-order thinking skills (comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation)
  • Perhaps simply introduce a sense of awe and wonder for new students
  • Create a positive social environment, networking, collaborative and cooperative learning

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?

Consider using some of the following strategies:

  • Use pre- and post-activity quizzes designed to show learning gains as a result of the activity.
  • Surveys (e.g. knowledge surveys, confidence logs)
  • "Road checks" (aka formative assessments) of field notebooks, maps, sketches while in the field to check for completeness, inaccuracies, format, etc.; catch mistakes in progress!
  • Make direct observations of students at work in the field (use a rubric to record behaviors and activities of the students)
  • Interviews with the students in real time in the field (asking "what are you doing", "what is interesting or important", "why are you doing that--talk me through your reasoning")
  • Videotape students in the field to record their actions, running commentary, etc. for future analyses
  • Develop a scoring rubric to check for completeness, neatness, essential information recorded, etc.
  • Final written reports explaining methods and outcomes
  • Final maps (with or without report); accompanying cross sections, stratigraphic columns, etc. (are these internally consistent, or even possible given the data that are presented?)
  • Reflective exercises--daily journal entries that record what was learned that day, what was interesting, important, confusing; looking ahead to future work, what are the goals and priorities?
  • Concept sketches and concept maps--used to demonstrate an integrated understanding of the essential components of the field exercise.
  • Use of technology--use GPS instruments to track traverses in the field; social media used to record daily field activities; create a web page to showcase field results
  • The evaluation of field course experiences: A framework for development, improvement, and reporting (Acrobat (PDF) 393kB Nov2 12)--Eric Pyle, in Whitmeyer, Mogk and Pyle, 2010, Field Geology Education: Historical Perspectives and Modern Approaches, GSA Special Paper 461]

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

  • Is this site a good example of the central theme of the field experience (it shows well-defined phenomena, relations, etc.)?
  • Is it likely that the features at this site will be intellectually accessible to the students (i.e. will they be able to "get it")?
  • Does the time required to get to this site justify the learning outcomes?
  • Can the site safely accommodate your students?
  • Is there sufficient information (maps, reports, etc.) available to support the Science you hope to present in the field?


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

  • Access issues--do you have permission from the landowner to visit the property; permits for access (e.g. USFS, BLM)?
  • Transportation Issues--What types of vehicles will you use? Check closely your institution's travel policies regarding vans, use of personal vehicles, etc.
  • Meals--will individuals be responsible for their own meals? Stops at restaurants (bring money)? Will meals will be cooked by small groups or will meals be prepared for the whole group? Are there any dietary restrictions?
  • Housing--for extended trips, where will you be staying overnight, at what cost, will you be camping?
  • Gear:
    • Personal gear: what do students need to stay safe and comfortable; appropriate clothing and footwear, sunscreen, sun glasses, layered clothing, rain gear, bug spray...
    • Work gear: field note books, writing utensils, hammers, compasses....
  • Make sure all policies are clearly explained with consequences for violations: safety on the outcrop, driving safety, alcohol, smoking (prohibited in many field areas), sexual harassment, abusive or disruptive behavior...Know ahead of time what you will do if situations arise, be vigilant and try to prevent.

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:

  • Do a dry run of the field trip beforehand. Make sure you have a clear knowledge of the route, travel times between sites, and key features to be explored at each site.

  • Do your own homework. Be familiar with the local geologic maps, cross sections, and literature.

  • Prepare a clear itinerary so students know what to expect--intellectually and logistically. Provide all essential background information (readings, maps), and examples of what final learning products should look like

  • Have a contingency plan--stuff happens. But even if the primary plan is not possible, significant learning can occur by pursuing alternative opportunities or in the face of adversity.

  • 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. Field trip safety guidelines and forms can be found on the Field Trip Safety page.

    • It is optimal if field instructors have first aid and/or wilderness first responder training
    • It is also prudent for field instructors to know the location of the nearest hospital
  • Strive to make the field experience accessible to all students. Be aware of any disabilities that students may have, and make appropriate accommodation.

  • Access issues: it is increasingly difficult to get access to field sites that are geologically instructive and logistically practical, and we simply must preserve the field sites we use for instruction. Be sure to contact public (BLM, USFS) and private land managers to secure all appropriate permissions. Infuse in your students an ethic of preservation of these special places. Some sites are appropriate for making collections, but if in doubt, keep the rock hammers in the vans.

  • Organize graphs, charts, other "props" that may be needed.

  • Make sure all equipment is working; you have all the parts, batteries are charged, ...

  • Make sure all group gear is ready to go; e.g. cooking gear, water containers, coolers, fire equipment (shovels, buckets are required in the arid west); bear spray....

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?

  • Have the students help plan the itinerary and find any background resources;
  • Present slide shows of the field area;
  • Develop virtual field trips;
  • Use Google Earth to explore the area beforehand; identify targets of interest.
  • Download digital resources: geologic maps, LIDAR coverage, etc.
  • Assign road logs and field guides as required reading;
  • Conduct thorough demonstrations and practice trials if equipment is going to be used;
  • Develop simulated experiences in a controlled environment on campus.
  • During the field trip, consider use of programmed mobile audio/visual media devices.

Activity Design Principles

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

  • Address big challenges to learning in the geosciences: temporal thinking, spatial thinking and complex systems. Related learning goals might include topics such as helping students to see process in geologic features that might otherwise appear to be static (e.g. rocks, landscapes), make reasonable interpretations of complex Earth phenomena from data that are incomplete, ambiguous and uncertain, and to integrate numerous independent lines of evidence towards a coherent and internally consistent interpretation.
  • Develop an experiential learning exercise that emphasizes inquiry and discovery.
    • What is discovery for students is often rediscovery of what is already known in the geologic literature. But it is still important for students to go through the steps of constructing their own knowledge. Discovery exercises may require a certain amount of scaffolding, and "guided discovery" may be needed to help initiate students into the practices of geoscience.
  • Use constructivist activities where students (re)discover for themselves the fundamental principles and concepts of Earth science, and actively construct knowledge by means of interaction of the student with the environment
  • Design activities that transfer basic content knowledge from the classroom or lab to the field setting
  • Design a problem-based learning exercise that results in outcomes that can be applied to answering a geological question or issue of societal importance.
  • Use the affective domain to your advantage by increasing students' motivation to learn, curiosity, or sense of awe and wonder about the world; cooperative and collaborative learning; optimizing mentor-student or peer-to-peer relations.
  • Metacognitive learning goals can be designed to help students "think as a geologist" and to be able to self-monitor (being aware of their own thinking) and self-regulate (e.g. make informed decisions) in the field. Field instructors can readily use "talk-alouds" on the outcrop to externalize what you are seeing, what you are doing, why you are collecting a particular sample or taking a strike and dip measurement at this place; this is a great way to help students become self-aware of what they should be thinking and doing in the field.
  • Butler (2009) recommends that these types of activities are particularly amenable for field instruction:

    • setting student-led tasks
    • reinforcing scientific method through hypothesis-testing
    • developing integrative skills
    • problem solving, particularly through the interpretation of incomplete data-sets and managing uncertainty
    • dealing with real-life, real-time interdisciplinary problems
    • showing the limitations of observations / measurements in problem solving
    • developing self-reliance amongst students, taking personal responsibility for safety practices.

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:

Pedagogic Resources

  • Research in the Field: This resource was developed jointly by members of the Cutting Edge and CUR communities to aggregate knowledge, experience, and materials related to conducting student research in the field in the geosciences.
  • Using Field Labs - This pedagogic module, from Pedagogy in Action, describes field labs and their use, including logistical tips and suggestions for effective implementation. It includes a searchable collection of example activities and a reference list.
  • Field-Based Learning - From the Research on Learning in the Geosciences Synthesis project, this synthesis of the research on learning in the geosciences related to learning in the field focuses on the cognitive strategies necessary for learning in the field, how students learn these strategies, what methods are most effective in helping students to learn these strategies, and how to assess the impact of field experiences on student learning.

Resource Collections

  • Courses - a searchable database of field-based course descriptions, syllabi, and related materials, contributed by faculty members in the geosciences and beyond.
  • Assessments - approaches to determining whether students have met the learning outcome goals you set for them at the beginning of the field experience.
  • Field Teaching Activities - field, lab, and classroom-ready exercises, problem sets and projects, complete with handouts, instructor notes and supporting materials, browseable by subject and activity type.
  • Recommended Resources - a hand-picked list of references and resources related to teaching geoscience in the field.
  • Internet Resources- a comprehensive collection of useful web-based learning materials, searchable by topic.
  • Using Field Observations and Field Experiences to Teach Geoscience: An Illustrated Community Discussion - a searchable collection of posters from the 2004 GSA annual meeting that describe various field experiences.

Special Collections

  • Teach the Earth Site Guide: Teaching in the Field: This Site Guide pulls together resources from various project that contribute to the Teach the Earth Portal. The resources all speak to some aspect of teaching and learning in the field in the geosciences.
  • Field Trip Safety: This resource provides sample field trip policy documents and forms plus a short rationale for adopting policies to address the issue of the risks inherent in taking students into the field.
  • NAGT's Teaching in the Field website contains a collection of field trip descriptions as well as links to guidebooks and field publications developed by various NAGT sections. In particular, the field trip descriptions focus on the design aspects of the experience. Why were they designed that way? How could they be adapted to work in other locales?
  • The Montana-Yellowstone Geologic Field Guide Database - The Montana-Yellowstone Geologic Field Guide Database is a pilot project for making the field guide literature more accessible and useful to geoscience educators, students, and researchers. While the database is not an exhaustive listing of every published field guide, nor does it provide direct links to the full text of each reference (except for a few unpublished field guides which are reproduced as pdf files), the database is a fully-searchable listing of 50 of the best references for exploring the geology of this fascinating region.
  • Field Guides - Illustrated field guides for sites near Bozeman and Big Sky, MT.
  • Geologic Guidebooks of North America Database: This database from AGI and the Geoscience Information Society contains bibliographic references and location for published field guides.
  • The University of Texas at Austin has compiled a substantial e-library of field trip guides (more info) on their Walter Geology Library website.


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.

  • Field Safety in Uncontrolled Environments A Process-Based Guidebook, by Stephen R. Olivieri and Kevin Bohacs, 2005, published by AAPG with support from ExxonMobil
  • Field trip safety guidelines and forms can be found at the Field Trip Safety page.
    • It is optimal if field instructors have first aid and/or wilderness first responder training
    • Students also commonly have Wilderness First Responder or EMT training;
    • It is also prudent for field instructors to know the location of the nearest hospital, emergency numbers to call (Sherriff, Forest Service)
    • Know ahead of time if any students have known medical conditions (e.g. allergies to bee stings...)
    • Have all participants fill out medical forms, insurance forms, contact information ahead of time. (We place these in sealed envelopes to be destroyed after the trip--but absolutely essential at a time of crisis).
  • A Departmental Approach to Addressing the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Assault in Field Experiences
    Dr. Walter Robinson (North Carolina State University) describes work the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences has taken to address the problem of harassment and assault during field experiences department wide and what he has learned in the process.

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?

  • Work with land owners and land managers to secure all necessary permissions.
  • Explain to land owners and land managers what you're doing, why this site is special and important; these folks will have a keen interest in their land, and will appreciate learning more.
  • Obey all land access rules: stay on roads, close gates, don't chase livestock....
  • Be sure that collecting is OK...
  • If in doubt, keep the hammers in the car; take pictures, draw sketches, but leave the outcrop intact!

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?

  • How much will you say to the students: to get them started, during the activity, after the activity?
  • How much will you demonstrate?
  • How much autonomy will the students have?
  • Will you engage a dialogue about what you're doing and why?
  • How will you balance showing and finding out?
  • How can you best support student learning?

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!

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