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Investigating the student experience of field work

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Dr A.P. Boyle University of Liverpool
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This project investigated the student feelings towards residential field work in geology and geography disciplines. They mostly like it!
GSA Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 2.7MB Nov5 04)

Learning Goals

This project was not concerned with what students actually studied in the field: it varied from introductory geology to the role of shopping malls in Toronto (human geography). Rather, it was concerened with student's perceptions and experiences in the social domain as well as the academic domain. The project used pre- and post- field work quyestionnaires to obtain data, and then processed these statistically (for Likert scale responses) and by collation for text responses. The project was one of 5 field work pedagogic projects supported by LTSN GEES in the UK, and published in preliminary form at http://www.gees.ac.uk/pubs/planet/pse5back.pdf

Geologic Skills:

Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Other Skills:
Social interaction


Instructional Level:
Equivalent of undergraduate major

Skills Needed:
Varied because the students varied from first week of year 1 to end of year 2.

Role of Activity in a Course:

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

Logistical Challenges:
getting all the forms filled in anonymously while still being able to pair them up.


Evaluation Goals:
Students enjoy and value field work, but many are apprehensive before it commences.

Evaluation Techniques:
Used SPSS to statistically analyse pre- and post-field wok student responses: http://www.gees.ac.uk/pubs/planet/pse5back.pdf


Fieldwork in higher education encompasses a wide range of activities from an hour-long local walk to a lengthy overseas project. Following Gold et al. (1991) fieldwork can be defined as any component of the curriculum that involves leaving the classroom and learning through first hand experience. Fieldwork is treasured within all UK-based earth science and related disciplines, as indicated by both practice and benchmark statements. Many teachers believe fieldwork to be an effective and enjoyable teaching method (Kent et al., 1997).

Despite the affection with which fieldwork is held, there remain suggestions that its role is set to diminish within universities in the UK and elsewhere. There are a number of drives for this:
· Firstly, it is argued that some earth science and related disciplines have been moving away from the need for fieldwork; partly due to changes in curriculum, but also development of technological alternatives to fieldwork, such as remotely sensed data, GIS and virtual 'field' exercises.
· Secondly, it is argued that the growth of student numbers, combined with declining unit-funding, makes fieldwork too expensive. The subsequent need to charge students for fieldwork raising questions about whether field courses are equitable: Kent et al (1997) find that they can be 'manifestly unfair'.
· Thirdly, it is argued that the teaching time commitment of staff on field courses detracts from their ability to conduct research.

There is some evidence that fieldwork is holding its own (Gold et al, 1991, Kent et al, 1997), but there is also a growing view that it is not sacrosanct. In a nutshell, there is a lack of rigorous research findings that can be called upon to support claims that fieldwork is good (Gold et al, 1991; Kent et al., 1997; Winchester-Seeto & Hart, 2000; Johnston and Cooke, 2001; Healey and Blumhof, 2001), which makes its demise a popular target for University accountants.

Kern & Carpenter (1984, 1986) demonstrated the benefits of geological fieldwork in the academic domain. This poster reports on a project that investigated the "affective domain" as well as the "academic domain" through soliciting the student view of residential fieldwork across a range of geology, geography and environmental science programmes in the UK. The project collected evidence using pre- and post-class questionnaires addressing student perceptions of their experience. Statistical analysis of closed responses together with review of open text responses indicates that fieldwork is indeed good.

Gold, J., Jenkins, A., Lee, R., Monk, J., Riley, J., Shepherd, I., and Unwin, D. (1991) Teaching Geography in Higher Education: a manual of good practice, Blackwell, Oxford.
Healey, M. and Blumhof, J. (2001) Mapping the territory: the nature of fieldwork and fieldwork research in geography, earth and environmental sciences, paper presented to the National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences workshop, the Geological Society, London, 5 June 2001.
Johnston, R. and Cooke, R. (2001) Standing and delivering: views from the trenches, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25, 5-14.
Kent, M., Gilbertsone, D. and Hunt, C. (1997) Fieldwork in Geography Teaching: a critical review of the literature and approaches, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21, 313-332.
Kern, E and Carpenter, J. (1984) Enhancement of student values, interests and attitudes in earth sciences through a field-oriented approach, Journal of Geological Education, 32, 299-305.
Kern, E and Carpenter, J. (1986) Effect of field activities on student learning, Journal of Geological Education, 34, 180-183.
Winchester-Seeto, T. & Hart, D. (2000) Field-teaching just a nice day in the sun? Presented at 3rd International Conference on Geoscience Education, Sydney, Australia.
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