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Field Study

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Reflective Writing during Field Study.mp4

In this video, Riley Nelson, BYU, trains field-study directors in the benefits of reflective writing with their students.


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Fieldwork can be effective as an experiential component of a traditional course; fieldwork can improve students’ content knowledge and attitudes, especially when reflective writing is used to help students process what they’re experiencing. Many science teachers also have established field study programs where students live in the field for a semester or longer, which more closely approximates the kind of field work they may perform in their profession.

Theoretical background

Field study is a natural application of experiential education, but less often do educators use writing to connect field work to academic knowledge. Science teachers have long used field study as an alternative to lecturing. Many of these studies show that experiences in the field improve knowledge, behavior, and attitudes more rapidly than learning from texts. Using only texts, students may have difficulty imagining, for example, the environment of the plant or animal being studied, but through field study, students observe directly how organisms function in an ecological system. Gary Nabhan (1995) an ethnobotanist and natural history essayist, writes that the threat of climate disruption demands that every young person should engage in field study in order to appreciate biodiversity and ecology. Many studies show that field work is effective in giving students the ability and motive to make good environmental decisions. Emotions change minds, and reflective writing on field study programs helps students observe and empathize with the complex beauty of plants and animals living in their natural setting. Specifically, fieldwork promotes deep learning that transfers to other contexts and continues after schooling is finished. Excellent results can come from field study programs that prepare students for the experience (framing), mentor students during the experience, and require students to reflect during and after the experience (see “The Role of ExW in EE”).

Basics of Practice


Having a solid field study experience takes careful planning. Goulder and Scott (2009), who are biology teachers and researchers, wrote that a good design for field study doesn’t cram in too much course material or too much lecturing. Good field programs don’t give examinations that depend only on memorization.

Field study should be at least partially self-directed, so students participate in following their own interests, creating a methodology, designing a problem to investigate, perform the research without oppressive oversight, and communicate their own findings (Eves, et al., 2007; Goulder and Scott, 2009).

Field study requires students to interpret data and construct meaning (McLaughlin, 2005; McLaughlin & Johnson, 2006) However, it may not work well as a situation for memorizing information (Fine, et al., 2016).

Directors should arrange the study so that students work with other students, because most scientific research is collaborative (Boxerman, 2013; Hammer, 2001).

Integrated programs (for example, human and natural history) allow students to see their professors using multiple perspectives to examine a problem rather than viewing the data from one perspective (Eves et al. 2007).

Other kinds of interdisciplinary programs (such as art, writing, and biology) might help students draw and write descriptions of what they observe.

Field study programs may combine field and in-class components. McLaughlin and Johnson (2006) proposed the “Field Course Experiential Learning Model,” which is a paradigm for combining the best aspects of both the lecture/lab and the field study models. Students

  • receive web-based instruction and completing open-ended assignments, 
  • participate in field study experiences, and 
  • process and write-up findings in a web-based environment.

Field study programs may have students keep two kinds of journals—field notebooks for recording data and personal journal for recording experiences, reflections, emotions, and opinions. Both kinds of writing are important (see emotional intelligence)


  • Connect your field trip or field study plans to course objectives, especially concerning reflective writing in the field.
    • What do you want your students to accomplish during the study? 
    • How will reflective writing help the students achieve these outcomes? What other forms of writing will they use? Possibly include a journal for reflection, a field journal for data, and a final project that synthesizes and presents their research. [Link to Genres]
    • What equipment will you supply and what should students bring? 
  • Communicate these objectives to students in advance, so they know clearly what you expect on the field trip. In the case of a long-term study, they know what is expected every day—information shared through the syllabus, lesson plans, calendar, and/or itinerary. This will help students know when they will have other responsibilities and when they can accomplish personal writing. 

Teaching Materials and Resources


Boxerman, J. Z. (2013). Echoes from the field: An ethnographic investigation of outdoor science field trips. Northwestern University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing. 3563696.

DfES (2006). Learning outside the classroom. Nottingham. UK: DfES. Economic and Social Research Council/Association for Science.

Easton, E., & Gilburn, A. (2012). The field course effect: Gains in cognitive learning in undergraduate biology students following a field course. Journal of Biological Education, 46(1), 29 – 35.

Eves, R. L., Davis, L. E., Brown, D. G., & Lamberts, W. L. (2007). Integration of field studies and undergraduate research into an interdisciplinary course: Natural history of tropical carbonate ecosystems. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(6) 22 – 27.

Fine, L., Peterson, T., Duerden, M., Nelson, R., Bennion, J. (2016). “The Function of Field Study: Comparison of Limited and Full Field Experience Courses.” Research in Outdoor Education 14 (2016) 86–106.

Goulder, R., & Scott, G. W. (2009). Field study of plant diversity: Extending the whole-class knowledge base through open-ended learning. Bioscience Education E-journal, 14. doi:10.3108/beej.14.1

Hamilton-Ekeke, J. (2007). Relative effectiveness of expository and field study methods of teaching on students’ achievement in ecology. International Journal of Science Education, 20(15), 1869 – 1889.

Hammer, S. (2001). Enhancing biological understanding through undergraduate field research. The Journal of General Education, 50(3), 192 – 201.

Hart, P., & Nolan, K. (1999). A critical analysis of research in environmental education. Studies in Science Education, 34, 1 – 69.

Kinchin, I. M. (1993). Teaching ecology in England and Wales — A survey of current practice. Journal of Biological Education, 27(1), 29 – 33.

Lock, R., & Tilling, S. (2002). Ecology fieldwork in 16 to 19 biology. School Science Review, 84(307), 79 – 87.

Magntorn, O., & Hellden, G. (2007). Reading new environments: Students’ ability to generalize their understandings between different ecosystems. International Journal of Science Education, 29(1), 67 – 100.

Manzanal, R., Barreiro, L., & Jimenez, M. (1999). Relationship between ecology fieldwork and student attitudes toward environmental protection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(4), 431 – 453.

McCormack, A. J. (1974). Outdoor biology instructional strategies (OBIS). Science and Children, 12(2), 9 – 12.

McLaughlin, J. S. (2005). Classrooms without walls: A banana plantation, a turtle nest, and the random fallen tree. International Educator, 14(1), 52 – 54.

McLaughlin, J. S., & Johnson, D. K. (2006). Assessing the field course experiential learning model: Transforming collegiate short-term study abroad experiences into rich learning environments. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 13, 65 – 85.

Nabhan, G. P. (1995).The rapture of discovering (how wrong we can be). Trumpeter, 12(2), 59 – 61.

National Conservancy. Study Group on Education and Field Biology (1963). Science out of doors: Report of the Study Group of Education and Field Biology. London: Longmans.

Nelson, C. R., Bennion, J. S., Graham, M. A., and Lim, K. S. (Eds.). (2015). Insects of the Mojave Desert, Lytle Ranch Preserve, a field guide. Brigham Young University Press.

Sagan, C. (1990). Why we need to understand science. The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(3), 263 – 269.

Taraban, R., McKenney, C., Peffley, E., & Applegarth, A. (2004). Live specimens more effective than World Wide Web for learning plant material. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, 33, 106 – 110.

Zervanos, S. M., & McLaughlin, J. S. (2003). Teaching biodiversity and evolution through travel course experiences. The American Biology Teacher, 65(9), 683 – 688.

Further Reading

Alagona, P., & Simon, G. (2010). The role of field study in humanistic and interdisciplinary environmental education. The Journal of Experiential Education, 32 (3), 191 – 206.

Barker, S., Slingsby, D., & Tilling, S. (2002). Teaching biology outside the classroom: Is it heading for extinction? A report on biology fieldwork in the 14–19 curriculum. Shrewsbury, UK: Field Studies Council.

Bennion, J., Duerden, M., Whitehouse, A. (2016) Global explorers journaling and reflection initiative. Journal of Youth Development, 11:2 (Fall ), 44-51.

Carr, D. (2004). Moral values and the arts in environmental education: Towards an ethics of aesthetic appreciation. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(2), 221 – 239.

Clark, B., & Button, C. (2011). Sustainability transdisciplinary education model: Interface of arts, science, and community (STEM). International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12(1), 41 – 54.

Coulter, S. E. (2012). Using the retrospective pretest to get usable, indirect evidence of student learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(3), 321 – 334.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dettmann-Easler, D., & Pease, J. L. (1999). Evaluating the effectiveness of residential environmental education programs in fostering positive attitudes toward wildlife. Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 33 – 40.

Drennan, J., & Hyde, A. (2008). Controlling response shift bias: The use of the retrospective pre-test design in the evaluation of a master’s programme. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(6), 699 – 709.

Duerden, M. D., & Witt, P. A. (2010). The impact of direct and indirect experiences on the development of environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(4), 379 – 392. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.03.007

Fisher, J. A. (2001) The demise of fieldwork as an integral part of science education in United Kingdom schools: A victim of cultural change and political pressure? Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 9(1), 75 – 96.

Hanson, W. E., Creswell, J. W., Clark, V. L., Petska, K., & Creswell, J. D. (2005). Mixed methods research designs in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(2), 224 – 235.

Lindquist, J. L., Fay, P. K., & Nelson, J. E. (1989). Teaching weed identification at twenty U.S. universities. Weed Technology, 3, 186 – 188.

MacEachren, Z. (2005). Examining art and technology: Determining why craft-making is fundamental to outdoor education. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 9(1), 23 – 30.

Malewski, S. , Sharma, S., & Phillion , J. (2012). How international field experiences promote cross-cultural awareness in preservice teachers through experiential learning: Findings from a six-year collective case study. Teachers College Record , 118(2), 1–44.

Payne, P. G. (2015). Critical curriculum theory and slow ecopedagogical activism. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 31(2), 165 – 193.

Pratt, C. C., McGuigan, W. M., & Katzev, A. R. (2000). Measuring program outcomes: Using retrospective pretest methodology. American Journal of Evaluation, 21(3), 341 – 350.

Salkind, N. (2010). Field study. Encyclopedia of research design. SAGE publications.

Sibthorp, J., Paisley, K., Gookin, J., & Ward, P. (2007). Addressing response-shift bias: Retrospective pretests in recreation research and evaluation. Journal of Leisure Research, 39(2), 295 – 315.

Spranqers, M. A. G., Rozemuller, N., Vanden Berk, M. B. P., Boven, S. V., & Van Dam, F. S. A. M. (1994). Response shift bias in longitudinal quality of life research. Quality of Life Research, 3(1), 49. Retrieved from

Warren, K., Mitten, D., & Loeffler, T. (Eds.). (2008). Theory and practice of experiential education. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.

Writing a scientific explanation using the explanation tool. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History.

This article describes helping students follow a specific process to write a scientific response to observed data. The museum site also includes other teaching resources

Writing with scientists. (n.d.) Scholastic Books. This article contains instructions for writing a scientific paper.

Yang, C. (2015). Education for appreciating environment — An example of curriculum design of natural aesthetic education in Taiwan. International Education Studies, 8(5), 88 – 100.

Zelezny, L. C. (1999). Educational interventions that improve environmental behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 5 – 14.