Projects / themes

Fieldwork is Good? The Student Experience of Field Courses


Project Members

Sarah Maguire (University of Ulster) (Project Leader), Alan Boyle (Liverpool University), Stacey Conchie (Liverpool University), Adrian Martin (University of East Anglia), Clare Milsom (Liverpool John Moores University), Rhu Nash (Southampton Institute), Steve Rawlinson (University of Northumbria at Newcastle) ,Andrew Turner (Coventry University), Sheena Wurthmann (Glasgow Caledonian University)

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This paper describes the results of the 'Student Views of Fieldwork' project, as part of the wider LTSN-GEES pedagogic research and fieldwork programme. Research was conducted across Geography, Earth and Environmental Science disciplines to examine the effect of fieldwork on students' affective domain. The project aimed to monitor changes in student’s attitudes to learning that occurred as a result of attending residential field courses. In addition, the changes in how students value the
fieldwork experience were examined and differences in attidudes and values between different groups of students (for example age and gender) were explored.

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Questionnaires were given to students before a field course experience (the pre-questionnaire) and on their return (the post-questionnaire) across 7 UK HEIs covering Geography, Earth and Environmental Science departments, including both pre-and post-1992 universities. The field courses surveyed included examples held in the first, second and final year of undergraduate degree programmes. Field courses held as part of the first-year induction programme were also included in the survey. All the field courses were 'process-orientated' and involved students in active learning covering project planning, data collection, interpretation and presentation. The questionnaires were designed and piloted by the research group before full use on field courses from 2001 - 2002.

The pre- and post- fieldwork questionnaires comprised a number of sections which examined the following aspects of students' attitudes, perceptions and feelings towards the fieldwork experience (their 'affective' domain):

1. Feelings. Students were asked to rank three out of 10 descriptions which best described their feelings before and after going on a field course.

2. Knowledge. Students were asked whether they agreed with a series of statements relating to the development of subject knowledge during a field course experience. Responses were recorded on a 5 point Likert scale (totally disagree to totally agree).

3. Anticipation. Students were asked to comment on the anticipatory aspects of fieldwork and the accuracy of these feelings post-fieldwork. A three-point scale was used to assess views that included, getting to know staff, visiting a different place and sharing rooms.

4. Perception. Students were asked to comment on the perceived usefulness of fieldwork. A five point Likert scale was used to assess agreement with a series of statements relating to problem - solving, career choice and enhancing understanding of the topic/subject.

5. Student Collaboration. Students were asked to comment on the level of collaboration, enjoyment and motivation on fieldwork. Assessed using a three-point scale (agree - neutral - disagree), students indicated agreement with a series of statements relating to collaboration, enjoyment and motivation.

Open questions were also included in the post-fieldwork questionnaire including "What was you most memorable fieldwork experience?" and "How has your relationship with the other students and with staff changed as a result of the field course?".

All the questionnaire responses were inputted to a standard office database and analysed with SPSS statistical software using appropriate parametric and non-parametric statistical tests.

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In total, 300 students completed the questionnaires.

Although, prior to going on a field course, approximately one third of students ranked being "apprehensive" in their top three feelings, students were more likely to select feelings of "relaxed" and "happy" as those best reflecting their feelings. Those least likely to be selected were "concerned", "worried" and "don't want to go". After attending a field course, students are more likely to select "thoroughly enjoyed it", "worthwhile" and "learnt a lot" as those best reflecting their feelings. Those least likely to be selected included, "didn't enjoy the fieldwork", "lived up to my fears" and "wish fieldwork was not compulsory".

The questionnaire responses show students have more positive than negative feelings about fieldwork both before fieldwork. An important finding was a significant difference between males and females for the feelings "worried" (p=0.026) and "don't want to go" before fieldwork (p = 0.032). Females were significantly more apprehensive than males. These initial concerns were not apparent in the post-field course feedback with no significant differences found between males and females in their rankings of feelings after fieldwork. As such, we are able to infer from these data that the fieldwork experience changed some students' overall views on the value of fieldwork, in a positive direction.

Moreover, after the fieldwork was complete only 5% of students (<20) did not enjoy the experience. Over two thirds of the students indicated that they thoroughly enjoyed the experience and perceived that they learnt a lot.

The overwhelming sentiment from the student feedback was that fieldwork was useful and beneficial which was perceived in a number of ways such as: learning a lot, group work and putting theory into practice. After a field course, students were significantly more positive in their attitudes to "liking challenges in their academic work", "being confident in working with others" and "coping with the physical challenges" (Table 1).

Table 1
Question Before After
Achieving the academic demands of the work 58% 72%
Getting to know other students 81% 92%
Getting to know staff 71% 86%
coping with the physical challenges 81% 92%

Table 1. This table shows self-confidence in aspects of fieldwork: a comparison of before and after the course. For each row the change in response is significant (p<0.001)

An important finding was that fieldwork boosted confidence, with students indicating that they were much more confident in meeting academic challenges. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of fieldwork was evident in how relationships between students and between staff and students changed as a result of going on a field course . When responding to the question: "How has your relationship with other students and with staff changed as a result of the field course? " the responses of the students indicated a high degree of social integration during the field course (Box 1).

“Bonded more with both groups - students/staff ”

“I have got to know the staff a lot more. Good friendships have been made with people I have hardly spoken to before”

“Developed closer relationships with both friends and staff. Got to know people who I haven’t met before”

“I have got to know the other students better and staff. I feel I have worked well in a team”

“Got to know people a lot better and have not experienced any conflict. Think maybe the fieldtrip could be closer to the beginning of the year, so that working relationships are better.”

Box 1. Selected typical student responses to the question “How has your relationship with other students and with staff changed as a result of the field course?”

In terms of the knowledge gained during a field course, students indicated that they expected that fieldwork would increase their knowledge and this was reflected in the post-questionnaire responses. The significant positive shift in attitudes to fieldwork and learning in general was evident in every section of the survey.

The benefits of induction field courses

A separate analysis was undertaken of a subset of 50 students (out of the total 300) who attended an induction week residential field course. Results indicated that prior to attending the field course the feelings most students were likely to select were "don't know what to expect" (58%), "relaxed" (56%), "happy" (46%), "eagerly anticipate" (42%) and "apprehension" (36%). After the fieldwork was complete; "thoroughly enjoyed it" (66%), "worthwhile" (66%), "learnt a lot" (48%) and "glad we had to go" (46%) were those most likely to be selected as representative of students' feelings. Despite 36% of students listing apprehensive as one of their main feelings before fieldwork, in the event, only 4% of students did not enjoy the field course. The levels of anxiety were significantly higher than that expressed by non-induction students attending other field courses. Analysis of responses to the questions on memorable experiences and skills learnt during the field course indicate that meeting new people and forming new friendships was a particularly key aspect of the student experience on an induction field course (Boxes 2 and 3). Familiarisation with members of staff and group work were other common responses.

“meeting new people”

“working in groups, meeting new people”

“ecology and meeting new friends”

“making friends”

“geology - enjoyable but challenging”

“groupwork especially in Donegal”

“meeting people/making friends”

Box 2.Typical student responses to the question “What was your most memorable experience?” after attending an induction field course.

“meeting lecturers, classmates and insight into course”

“new friends and met new classmates”

“easier settling, meet new people”

“meet new people”

“meet colleagues, staff and introduction into course topics”

“new people and insight into what standard expected at uni.”

Box 3. Typical student responses to the question “What skills have you learnt or developed during the fieldwork?”after attending an induction field course.

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