Initial Publication Date: November 20, 2007

Field-based Learning

Most research on school-based learning has focused on learning that occurs in a classroom, laboratory, library or computer room. But in earth science, ecology, and environmental science, a different venue is important: field-based learning. In these disciplines, working "in the field" means going outside and making observations and taking samples of objects, structures, processes and phenomena, using the human senses and instrumental sensors. The features of interest include rock formations, soil, weather, plants, animals, landforms, bodies of water, the interrelations among these, and the processes by which they change through time or vary across space, either naturally or due to anthropogenic influences.

Since at least 1911 (Anonymous, 1985), field courses, field camps, field trips, field labs and field investigations have been part of the foundation for careers in geology, ecology, environmental sciences, and archeology (Kirchner, 1997; Manduca & Carpenter, 2006). Scientists in these disciplines claim that field experiences help students develop a feel for Earth processes, a sense of scale, an eye for significant features, an ability to integrate fragmentary information of different types from different localities (Turner, 2000), to reason spatially (Orion, Ben-Chaim & Kali, 1997), to visualize changes through time in geological structures (Dodick & Orion, 2003), and to analyze the quality and certainty of observational data supporting geoscience theories (Manduca, Mogk & Stillings, 2004).

Learning in the field differs along multiple dimensions from learning inside a school building (Kastens & Liben, in prep.). The scale of the study is typically large relative to the student, on the scale of meters to kilometers, as contrasted with the micron- to meter-scale objects studied in the laboratory. Thus the features under study are perceived from an internal spatial viewpoint (Bryant, Tversky & Franklin, 1992) rather than the external spatial viewpoint from which one views small objects. In a school laboratory, most objects on the lab table are relevant to the inquiry at hand, whereas for a field-based inquiry most objects in view are not relevant, and it is not obvious to the novice which are relevant and which are not (C. Goodwin, 1994; Reynolds et al., 2006). Rather than controlled experiments, field-based science often relies on methodical observation of existing variability between field sites or along gradients where hypothesized forcing factors are thought or known to vary. Field-based inquiry brings students into direct experiential contact with the raw materials of Nature. In contrast, most school-based learning begins with more distilled products, such as words, maps, diagrams, graphs, or equations, and thus the student does not experience the full cascade of inscriptions (Roth, 1996; LaTour, 1986) from the most local, concrete and material to the more abstract and mathematicized.

On the topic of learning in the field, we wish to know:

  • What cognitive strategies are used in the field by master geoscientists to inform their decision-making, for example, what traverse to follow, what samples to collect, where to draw the border between map units (Broderic et al., 2004)? Amid the visual complexity of nature, how do they pick out the signs, patterns, contrasts, and aberrancies that have causal significance (Frodeman, 1996)? By what processes of observation, integration, and interpretation is new knowledge constructed in field science (e.g. Ernst, 2006)?
  • How do students develop these skills? How does immersion in a field setting and the kinesthetic experience of field work affect student learning? How can geoscientists' cognitive strategies be translated into effective instructional practices, such that students can learn science by doing science in the field?
  • How do students' prior life experiences influence field-based learning? What kinds of field-based learning are most effective for urban students with limited experience in Nature? Can essential aspects of field-based learning be made accessible to students with limited mobility?
  • How can we assess the impacts of field experiences on student learning (e.g. concepts, content, skills), and attitudes about science?
Much of the research to date on field-based learning has been in the form of educational evaluation of specific field programs in earth, ecological and environmental sciences. For example, Hemler and Repine (2006) used pre/post instruments, group interviews, journals, artifacts, performance assessments, and constructed response items to investigate the development of skills, understandings, and attitudes across a three-week field geology course for in-service teachers. They documented what techniques and concepts the participants reported as most difficult (e.g. measuring dip and strike), and the participant's growing understanding of a geological map as an interpretive construct. As an example of action research, Lieder and Riggs (2004) tagged students with GPS receivers and mapped their trajectories and dwell time at key localities, and then correlated student field practices with outcomes such as quality of geological maps and field notes.

Another promising research approach is cognitive anthropology. Through painstaking analysis of the words, gestures, and artifacts of professionals and students in an archaeological field school, Goodwin (1994, 2003) documented the intricate interactions through which a student learns to divide the complex visual field into features of importance in the profession of archeology, and then to "see" those features as embedded within a complex layering of space and time. A broad arsenal of communicative tools, including use of coding schemes, highlighting, articulation of graphic representations (Goodwin, 1994), postural orientation, tracing, inscription and collaborative pointing (Goodwin, 2003) are brought to bear on the challenge of helping the novice develop "professional vision."

Browse our Growing Resource Collection Addressing Field-Based Learning

Cited References

Anonymous (1985). A pioneer in Wyoming, Earth Science, 38. Electronic version retrieved December 13, 2006, from

Broderic, B., Gahegan, M., and Harrap, R. (2004). The art and science of mapping: computing geological categories from field data. Computers & Geosciences, 30, 719-740.

Bryant, P. E., Tversky, B., and Franklin, N. (1992). Internal and external spatial frameworks for representing described scenes. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 74-98.

Dodick, J., & Orion, N. (2003). Cognitive factors affecting student understand of geological time. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40, 415-442.

Ernst, W.G. (2006). Geologic mapping - where the rubber meets the road. In C. Manduca and D. Mogk (Eds.), Earth and Mind: How Geoscientists Think and Learn about the Earth. Geological Society of America.

Frodeman, R. (1996). Envisioning the Outcrop. Journal of Geoscience Education, 44, 417-427.

Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional Vision. American Anthropologist, 96, 606-633.

Goodwin, C. (2003). Pointing as Situated Practice. In S. Kita (Ed.), Pointing: Where language, culture and cognition meet (pp. 217-241). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hemler, D. and Repine, T. (2006). Teachers doing science: An authentic geology research experience for teachers. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54, 93-102.

Kastens, K. A. and Liben, L. S. (in preparation). Children's strategies and mistakes in positioning field-based observations onto a basemap. For submission to Cognition & Instruction.

Kirchner, J. G. (1997). Traditional field camp: Still important. Geotimes, 42(3), 5.

Latour, B. (1986). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Lieder, C. C. and Riggs, E. M. (2004). Problem solving strategies of geology students during independent field examinations shown by GPS tracks. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Program, Abstract 240-245.

Manduca, C. and J. R. Carpenter (2006). " 06). Special issue on "Teaching in the Field." Journal of Geoscience Education.

Manduca, C., D. Mogk, and N. Stilling (2004). Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences: report from the Science Education Resource Center, online at:

Orion, N., Ben-Chaim Chaim, D., and Kali, Y. (1997). Relationship between Earth-Science Education and Spatial Visualization. Journal of Geoscience Education, 45, 129-132.

Reynolds, S.J., Piburn, M.D., Leedy, D.E., McAuliffe, C.M., Birk, J.P., and Johnson, J.K. (2006). The Hidden Earth - Interactive Computer-based modules for geoscience learning. In C. Manduca and D. Mogk (Eds.), Earth & Mind: How Geoscientists Think and Learn about the Earth Earth. Geological Society of America Special Publication 413

Roth, W.-M. (1996). Where is the context in contextual word problems?: Mathematical practices and products in Grade 8 students' answers to story problems. Cognition & Instruction, 14, 487-527.

Turner, C. (2000). Messages in Stone: Field Geology in the American West. In R. Frodeman (Ed.), Earth Matters: The Earth Sciences, Philosophy, and the Claims of Community. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.