Field Trips in College Biology and Ecology Courses: Revisiting Benefits and Drawbacks

By Lei, Simon A. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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Field Trips in College Biology and Ecology Courses: Revisiting Benefits and Drawbacks


Lei, Simon A., Journal of Instructional Psychology


Learning is best served when students are mentally and physically (actively participation) in the process. Most college and university instructors consist of lectures, discussions, instructional videos, computer simulations, online teaching, guest speakers, but also include active learning components of laboratories, greenhouses, and field trips. This paper reviews the benefits and drawbacks of off-campus (traditional) field trips and offers suggestions to a major instructional alternative that is an effective supplement to classroom instruction. Campus field trips may provide an ideal solution to many of the drawbacks of traditional field trips, while retaining most of the benefits of traditional field trips.

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There are a wide variety of instructional techniques available for instructors to use at the college level. In addition to lectures, class discussions, instructional videos, computer simulations, laboratory activities, online teaching, off-campus (traditional) field trips are a useful, valuable teaching tool. Field trips have long been recognized as a teaching tool in education, particularly in the biology and geology curricula (Orion, 1993). Nevertheless, instructors seldom use outdoor activities, including field trips, as an integral part of the curriculum (Orion, 1993).

Field trips are an excursion outside the classroom, laboratory, or greenhouse and can be used to complement material taught or be a primary teaching activity for students in a semester-long, field-oriented course in order to learn and apply content taught from previous coursework (Tan, 2005). Field trips may span one morning or afternoon, or stretch for a week or more overseas (Tan, 2005). Many students enjoy traveling to various field sites, and consider these events the highlight of their college experience (Tan, 2005). This paper briefly reviews the benefits and drawbacks of class field trips and offers a major alternative to traditional field trips.

Benefits of Traditional Field Trips

Traditional field trips are an important teaching tool. Field trips are the viable method of extending the traditional classroom environment to outdoors. From an instructor's perspective (Table 1), he or she may test some of the biological and ecological hypotheses and theories discussed in class by introducing appropriate field research methods to students. Students, in turn, will learn how to properly operate certain field instruments and equipment and when to use which field methods with a proper explanation (Table 2).

From a student's perspective (Table 2), field experiences enhance synthesis of information, cognitive reasoning ability, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and research collaboration skill. Being an important member of a research team, with significant contribution, can elevate students' self-confidence and self-efficacy. Some of major benefits of traditional field trips include observing a natural setting first-hand, making learning more interesting and enjoyable, providing opportunities for students to gain field research experiences, learning through active participation (hands-on experience), and exploring practical or pressing biological and ecological issues onsite.

In introductory college biology and ecology courses, students can observe plant and animal communities occurring in natural settings that cannot be duplicated in classrooms, laboratories, and greenhouses (Table 2). Students can observe and appreciate the following naturally-occurring phenomena: The diversity and complexity of local and regional ecosystems, interaction among living organisms, interaction between organisms and their immediate environments, various stages of ecological succession, how individual organisms and populations respond to environmental stress, how communities respond to various types and intensities of disturbance, as well as why certain species can tolerate or recover from severe disturbance substantially more than others.

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