Rocks and a hard place

May 23, 2003

Although fieldwork is often the most memorable part of undergraduate study, Pat Leon warns that it can also be beset by problems, while Rob Butler (see below) identifies the main pros and cons for the lecturer

Fieldwork conjures up images of Indiana Jones lookalikes tramping barelegged across deserts and seashores, sifting soil, chipping at rocks or searching for hidden treasures. University fieldwork, however, extends far beyond exotic stints abroad or drizzly weekends in the Lake District. A stroll through an area of interest is as much a fieldtrip for a geologist, linguist, townplanner or conservationist. Educational visits to factories, quarries or other locations can throw up material for avid project and dissertation writers.

Students might rapidly forget lectures and practicals after graduation, but few forget fieldwork, especially if it involved being pitched together with peers. Whether it involves identification of flora and fauna or who is the heaviest drinker in the group, the character-forming qualities of fieldwork are long established. It gives students the chance to immerse themselves in their subject. Exposure to problems in the natural world builds self-reliance and self-confidence. In education parlance, fieldwork helps students’ experiential, cognitive, reflective and affective learning - the transferable skills so valued by employers.

Brian Chalkley, director of the Geography, Earth and Environmental Science Subject Centre, based at the University of Plymouth, says: “Fieldwork may be experiential, but at a cost that is more and more borne by the students. Therefore the experience must be effective and add value to their degree programme.”

All learning is a mixture of first-hand experience and received information and ideas, Chalkley says. Only a limited part of this can be acquired in the classroom.

David Nash, an arid-zones geographer from the University of Brighton and honorary secretary of expeditions at the Royal Geographical Society, says traditional teaching is changing. The emphasis now is on learning through, rather than from, fieldwork. Students are expected to hone skills acquisition - through presentations, groupwork, communication, research and time-management - before, during and after fieldwork.

Dundee University’s School of Town and Regional Planning sends students to Holland as part of a spatial planning module. Senior lecturer John McCarthy says the fieldwork is a counterweight to UK insularity, gives students broader understanding and makes them think about how things can be improved. Lectures set the context for the trip, but fieldwork has a 40 per cent weighting.

For language students, residence abroad is fieldwork. Not only are they sharpening language skills, but also interpersonal and work-related ones. Most students say the experience has changed them. They feel more independent, self-reliant, self-aware and confident, says Jim Coleman of the Open University languages department. “Unfortunately, most students are too scared to put that down as a learning experience. Yet employers are interested in graduates as people - not as a skills list,” he says.

Coleman coordinated the 1997-2001 residence abroad project for the Higher Education Funding Council. “Some 1,100 language graduates were asked if the experience abroad was worth it. The huge majority said ‘Yes’. We mischievously asked whether it was the most important part of their degree. They still said ‘Yes’.”

But logistical problems are starting to dog the agenda for teachers running fieldwork trips. More students mean bigger groups, and legislation on health, safety and disability has to be taken into account. Organisers have to think carefully about the local culture and language so there is no offence. It is no longer acceptable to jet in and out again. Host countries might want greater involvement, a role or a spin-off.

Many fieldwork trips are linked to lecturers’ long-standing associations with an area. Lynne Brydon of Birmingham University’s Centre of West African Studies takes second and third-year students on an optional one-month trip to Ghana every second summer vacation. “They’re not look-and-see excursions. Students work on assessed projects.”

Brydon uses local contacts to arrange transport, accommodation and visits, which is cheaper than using an outside company to do the organising. Trips are self-catering and students are left to get on with things. “Students don’t want to be lectured. I give a brief history on the plane and a test on arrival. The two winners get dinner bought for them. I see them twice a day, more if needed.”

Students learn how to manage abroad, to network, travel and manoeuvre. They acquire data and interview people. But Brydon has to build in safety nets: safety waivers, deposits, insurance, healthcare provision, internet, email and phone links to the UK and contingency cash.

Modularisation has also presented difficulties. If fieldwork is run as a separate module, it can become divorced from the core curriculum. Students from a number of disciplines, such as biology, botany, anthropology or disaster management, may take it. For some it is fundamental to the discipline and compulsory; for others it’s not. This makes it tough for curriculum designers and assessors to strike a happy medium.

Rob Butler, an earth scientist at Leeds University, says that when students are taking joint-honours degrees they complain that fieldwork is taking them out of timetabled activities. Others say it hits paid employment. The university’s annual fieldtrip to Cyprus has had to move with the times. “We thought of going somewhere cheaper, but the university doesn’t want us to. The fieldtrip has become a marketing tool.”

When the trip was compulsory, Butler found a few students were more interested in partying in Ayia Napa. When it was made optional, some students complained the £175 was too expensive. Others say it is too close to exams. Now, about 50-60 per cent go. “It’s still not perfect,” Butler says. “But you know what they say: ‘The best geologist is the one who’s seen the most rocks.’”

Fieldwork: friend or foe?


  • It’s fun, real
  • A place to appreciate the subject
  • Easy-to-set
  • Student tasks
  • Reinforces scientific methods
  • Improves staff-student interaction
  • Good marketing strategy


  • Costs can exclude students
  • Staff-student intensive
  • Safety issues
  • Damage to sites

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