Concreting the Student Learning Experience in Agricultural Economics through Field Research Projects1
Curtis, Kynda R., Mahon, Jennifer, NACTA Journal
In this study we evaluate the impacts of an experiential learning assignment in the form of a field research project on undergraduate student learning perceptions in an agricultural economics program. Data included a survey of all students completing the project and voluntary, open-ended interviews conducted by a non-course instructor. Results indicate students perceived the field project enhanced their learning over other assignments, especially with a higher frequency of interaction with industry professionals. Additionally, students stated an improved depth of content knowledge, improved professional understanding, and a deeper awareness of their strengths as a result of the field work project.
Walk the halls of any university campus building or strike up a conversation at the student union, and it probably will not take very long until some student disparages his/her university studies in one (or all) of the following ways: "If s not the real world, " "Its just a bunch of hoops to jump through, " "Those professors haverit been out in the real world since the middle ages, " "It's just a bunch of useless theories, " "Im never going to use this stuff, " or "When Iget out in the real world and get a job, that's when Im really going to learn something. " The common denominator of such statements, the unifying theme, is the concept of university learning as being separate from the "real world." Anecdotally, it appears that many students simply do not see a connection between their university studies and their future career. Clearly, such comments do not apply to all coursework, and when pressed, most students would probably admit they have a certain course or professor in mind. Perhaps the grade they are receiving in that course is representative of less than their best efforts, and again when pressed, they might be able to recount some examples that in fact do relate to "reality." On the other hand, examples to the contrary do exist. We would (having witnessed a few ourselves) that there are professors who do not feel a need to make such "real world" connections explicit, or are wrestling with course content.
According to Jiggins and Roling (1994), academic institutions have traditionally left professional work practice and skill development to employers, rather than incorporating it into university coursework. Experiential learning, where students are placed in a situation that allows them to interact and learn in and from a "real world" environment, is one instructional/teaching method which can be used to encourage student skill development for future employment (Dewey, 1938). KoIb (1984) stated that experiential learning is the critical link between the classroom and the "real world." Experiential learning is recommended and used successfully in agricultural education at all levels (Knobloch, 2003; Roberts, 2006; and Retallick and Steiner, 2009), as well as in university forestry and engineering programs (DeGiacomo, 2002; and Miles et al, 2005). Parr et al. (2007) note the importance of experiential learning in university agricultural education. Developers of a new undergraduate major in sustainable agriculture at the University of California, Davis surveyed faculty members from across the U.S. to determine the most important program content components and teaching approaches. The survey results indicated that the top three teaching approaches should include "experiences in the classroom and field," "experiential learning," and "opportunity to apply learned theory into practice." Hawtrey (2007) surveyed 500 students in a 300-level undergraduate economics course regarding the importance of 20 different learning activities. Sixty percent of the students rated experiential learning as "important" or "very important." The learning activities which were rated highest included a media presentation, class presentations, and intervarsity competitions. Overall, implementing experiential learning increases student enthusiasm and motivation for assignments (Koontz et al. …