- John Dewey
We often think of college and higher education as preparation for engagement in different professions or fields of study. There is a long tradition, however, of engaging students in fieldwork as part of the learning process. A range of different disciplines regularly employ fieldwork as a critical component of the program study. Whether out in nature or in community or professional settings, there is much that students can learn as they apply their knowledge in the field.
Key features of the strategy
Students can be encouraged to participate in fieldwork in a variety of disciplines. These experiences may be designed to provide them with exposure to field-based work, practice skills, shift their understanding from theory to practice, and develop mastery in core competencies. In Tools for Teaching, Davis (2009) reminds us, however, that these field experiences do not necessarily translate into effective learning experiences. She offers a number of key elements for faculty to consider in designing meaningful experiences for their students, including: clarifying the student’s role and expectations prior to work in the field, assessing both the knowledge and skills that students bring to the experience and that they should develop, linking the experiences with academic inquiry suited to the discipline, and requiring students to keep a log or journal. Other strategies, like those noted below, offer alternatives to student logs.
Examples and Variations
In a discussion and study related to a 7-10 day field trip to Scotland, Hope (2009) describes a three-pronged approach he utilized to help students make meaning of the experience. In order to study sustainability practices in the Western Isles, Hope arranged a series of interviews and encounters with key community members during the trip. Students kept a diary or log of interviews they conducted as well as observations in the community. Like many fieldwork projects, he required his students to develop both an academic and reflective essay at the conclusion of the experience. Additionally, however, he asked the students video record interviews with community members in order to develop a video production that explored the people and issues they encountered.
In our teacher preparation program in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary, students engage in more than 450 hours of fieldwork in public school classrooms as part of their training. Beginning with brief practica experiences early in their programs and culminating with a full-time, ten-week internship, our students develop their skills in real classrooms with real students. To help them to reflect on their experience and develop the habits of mind to become reflective practitioners, students develop a digital portfolio (eFolio) of their work throughout these field experiences. By documenting their experiences through structured reflections and demonstrations of their work connected with the major competencies required, students continually and systematically learn from this valuable fieldwork in education.
Across campus in the Business School, Chris Adkins regularly supervises business students during their externships with companies around the country. Rather than relying on end of the semester papers and projects for students to synthesize and share what they’ve learned, he builds an online community through regular video conferences with his students in small groups. Each session is preceded with a reading and/or discussion prompt to guide students in sharing their experiences with each other. In this way, he makes sure to connect the externship experience with the discipline and also provides students with opportunities to learn about the same topic from multiple perspectives.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
As students participate in fieldwork, they are provided with authentic and real-world opportunities to construct knowledge, an important dimension of 21st century learning design. In order to make sense of what they experience, they often must translate and/or apply what they’ve learned from the fieldwork in their academic study – a key skill in the knowledge construction domain. In addition, to the extent that they are called on to share their developing understandings with others, they may engage in skilled communication. By drawing on evidence from their experience and using multiple forms of media (e.g., images, video, audio), they can communicate a sophisticated, nuanced view of the topic of study.
As noted in the examples above, digital technologies can help students both capture elements of their fieldwork and to demonstrate their learning. Digital audio and video recorders can help students both collect data and document their experience in the field. Simple word processing tools, note taking applications (e.g., OneNote and Evernote), and blogs can help students to capture their emerging thinking along the way. Students can then share their understanding by developing digital products of their learning, including papers, digital presentations, videos, and physical or virtual exhibits (perhaps using a wiki tool).
What other ways do help students to learn from their experiences in the field?
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