It's bottoms up and heads down

August 26, 2005

How can you ensure that students get the most out of field trips? Start the experience by treating them to a couple of pints - all in the name of furthering their knowledge, of course. Harriet Swain explains

It's the trip of a lifetime - two weeks in an exotic sun-drenched location observing the rare rock formation that has been your obsession since childhood. It is just a shame that you've got to drag all these tedious students along with you.

Chill out. And buy them a pint or two while you're at it. Alan Jenkins, a researcher on higher education at Oxford Brookes University, has written extensively on fieldwork. He says the social side of study trips is an essential ingredient. "It isn't just going out and having a piss-up," he says. "It's about making sure the social connects to the academic."

To this end, he advises organising evening events that explicitly make the link - games and pub-style quizzes, for example, and encouraging discussions that spill over from the day's work into the bar.

Brian Chalkley, director of the Higher Education Academy subject centre for geography, earth and environmental sciences, says the social side of field trips helps students to develop networking skills and to work as a team.

But you have to ensure that everyone understands the ground rules in advance. Students should also be encouraged to work with peers they have not worked with previously.

Claire Hancock, who has just completed a BSc in geography at Leicester University and has been on three field trips, recommends putting people in groups for first-year trips so that they do not stick with their own friends. But she says that in later years, when work starts to count towards students' final degrees, those who work well together should be allowed to do so.

Jenkins says that no one should feel left out. "Watch for students who are on the fringe of the group," he says. "Pull them into it. Make it easy for them to come in." While you must respect their boundaries and their right not to join in if they don't want to, you have to be careful not to lose them from activities that are benefitting everyone else, he says.

David Baume, a higher education consultant, says this is something you need to consider before you set off. He says a study trip may involve costs that some students will find hard to cover or may require them to miss or reschedule paid work or their responsibilities as a carer. All this needs to be taken into account early on. You also have to bear in mind the needs of disabled students and consider cultural sensitivities - pub-quiz evenings may not be suitable for some religious groups, for example.

Liz James, head of the department of art history at Sussex University, says the further ahead you plan, the easier the trip will be. But you should be prepared to abandon the plan if necessary. "Once you get there, be ready to improvise," she says. "And always have a back-up plan."

David Nash, reader in physical geography at Brighton University, says that if you are taking a trip to a new location, it is vital to do your homework. He recommends talking to other people who have led groups there and joining a trip run by another university before attempting your own.

"The only way you can do risk assessment accurately is if someone has done a reconnaissance visit," he says. He recommends getting students to complete a risk assessment, which raises their awareness of the environment and gives them a skill they will need later in their degrees.

Baume says you have to make sure that both you and your students know broadly what the study trip is for before you go, and how it fits into the course, "as well as being prepared for fascinating surprises". He advises getting students to find out about the site and decide beforehand what they want to discover once they get there and how best to record it.

Chalkley says you have to embed fieldwork in the wider curriculum, making clear connections between what students have studied before the trip and what they will study after it. This means ensuring they are thoroughly briefed and have done preparatory reading so that expensive time in the field isn't spent on tasks that could be done on campus.

"There is no point studying topics you could have done as well in the classroom and there is no point going to Hong Kong to do things that could have been done on Dartmoor," he says.

He also suggests making use of contacts you have on the ground when you go on a trip. "Through your research interests you may have contacts with academics, planners and environmental managers whom you can call on and who will add real local detail and give the inside story," he says.

Hancock warns that you should co-ordinate your objectives for the trip with your colleagues. She recalls confusion on one field trip where different lecturers asked different things of the students.

Her best experiences were those when she was encouraged to work independently, come up with a theory and a way of resolving it with support from lecturers.

Jenkins says that it is important to include some kind of assessment in a study trip. "It has to be special but clearly it also has to connect to the curriculum," he says.

James's students have to produce a workbook at the end of the trip, which is assessed. If it is not produced to a reasonable standard, they fail the unit. If they fail the unit, they are charged for the trip.

Further information:

Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education: A Guide to Linking Teaching with Research , by Alan Jenkins, Rosanna Breen, Roger Lindsay and Angela Brew, RoutledgeFalmer, 2002

Royal Geographical Society: www.rgs.org

Higher Education Academy subject centre for geography, earth and environmental sciences: www.gees.ac.uk

TOP TIPS

Plan early

Know all about where you are going

Make sure your students know all about where they are going also

Give students responsibility and encourage mutual respect

Have fun

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