Research Summary

Road to collaboration: Experiential learning theory as a framework for environmental education program development

Short field trips positively effect student beliefs about the environment

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

There are many benefits associated with outdoor field trips for students, including: increased ecological knowledge, connection to nature, cognitive skills, and student interest and motivation. Field trips are conducive for discovering information and exploring concepts outside of the classroom. However, educators may resist field trips for a variety of reasons, such as lack of funding, liability concerns, curriculum inflexibility due to focus on standardized testing, fear of poor student behavior, logistical challenges, and lack of time or training. Research on the benefits of field trips to both teachers and students, as well as a deeper understanding on how to enhance field trip design, may help promote more field trips. The study aimed to understand how an outdoor field trip influenced fifth graders’ beliefs about the environment and the roles of nonformal and formal educators had in the learning process.

The researchers used Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) to guide their learning about field trip experiences in this study. ELT focuses on experiential learning, which is learning by doing. It consists of four steps: children’s exposure to a new topic, experiences within that topic, reflections on the topic, and finally opportunity to apply the learning to other scenarios. However, integration of this process needs to occur between the classroom (formal environments) and non-field trips (nonformal environments) for success. The researchers note that using the four-steps in ELT can help connect the exposure and experiences common on field trips with deeper learning by reflecting and applying the new experiences in the context of classroom content.

This study took place on a 300-acre private nature preserve in south-central United States that functions as a destination for field trips. The nature center regularly collaborates with schools for science education programming. They deliver curriculum materials to teachers at the beginning of the school that may be used by teachers for field trip preparation for them and their students. This research studied programming with fifth grade classes (students ages 10-11 years) that attend two 4-hour field trips at the nature preserve each year. In this study, 7 elementary schools participated by attending field trips; 508 students attended a field trip in the fall and 465 in the spring (411 of the students attended both) in the 2016-2017 school year. Data collection included a pre- and post-trip student survey, interviews with teachers and program staff on site, observations of students and staff during activities, and review of curriculum materials. The survey was a drawing study, the instrument used was the Draw an Environment Test and Rubric (DAET-R). The DAET-R was administered one week before the field trip and within one week after the field trip. The DAET-R evaluated the amount of living, nonliving, “built” elements (elements constructed by humans), and humans in the picture.

The drawing study showed that students featured more living factors and fewer human and “built” elements in their post-field trip drawings compared to pre-field trip drawings. The researchers noted that the change in drawing focus may have shown that the students developed increased awareness of the outdoors during the field trip, plus an emphasis of living and abiotic factors in the curriculum. In the interviews with program staff and teachers, there was a large emphasis on the value of exposing children to nature and having a positive learning experience. However, it seemed pre- and post-trip discussions with students were insufficient and inconsistent in covering material, which are important in the 4-step ELT process. Observation of instruction showed that state science standards were not wholly addressed in the pre-lessons, post-lessons, or during the field trip, suggesting there was not adequate connection between the field trip experience and the classroom content. There were also inconsistencies among lesson plans and instructors, particularly with respect to what instructors communicated to teachers to do before and after the field trip. There was a clear accepted importance of outdoor experiences addressed by all teachers and staff, but the inconsistent focus on state science standards and incongruencies between expectations for specific content to be covered and what was actually discussed during the field trip created a less effective experience. The researchers were concerned about the effectiveness of short field trips on student learning outcomes, but this study showed even short field trips can positively impact student beliefs about the environment.

This study had limitations. The study design also did not allow for a randomized control and experimental group. The lack of these groups added to the difficulty of comparing the results of this study, which limited their application to other situations. Lastly, an inability to control external variables made it difficult to determine if results stemmed from the field trip or other factors.

The authors recommended that field trip curricula should include activities aligned with the four stages of the ELT cycle, including on-site activities and pre-/post-classroom activities. Students should have a clear understanding of the field trip’s value and purpose prior to attending the field trip, clearer connections between the classroom curriculum and field trips will improve learning. Classroom teachers should work collaboratively with environmental education staff to develop pre and post field trip classroom activities that complement the field trip experience to enhance student learning.

The Bottom Line

Field trips offer great value in providing an outdoor experience allowing students to interact and develop their own ideas and observations. Positive impacts of field trips include improved cognitive abilities, environmental awareness, independence, greater understanding of facts and concepts, and increased curiosity. The researchers aimed to use experiential learning theory (ELT) to identify benefits of field trip experience to students and teachers. They found that, though teachers and environmental educators emphasized the importance of field trips for learning, pre- and post-field trip lessons were unable to cover material, and science standards were not adequately addressed in the lessons. The researchers recommend formal teachers work collaboratively with environmental education staff to develop pre- and post-trip lessons to ensure students understand the trip’s value and purpose to enhance learning.