Learning in the field

What do students learn when being involved in learning activities outside the classroom, how do they learn and how can we assess the learning process? These questions interest me both in my role as a teacher and a researcher.


We define field-based education by physically going out into the natural environment, using the human senses and sometimes instrumentation, to interact with the environment. In the field we get a unique opportunity to bring theory and concepts from the classroom into a practical context, this helps us to gain a better understanding of our subject. There is a consensus among instructors that learning in the field is beneficial for understanding geology. Still, there is a lot that we do not know about learning processes in the field and about what students actually learn.

When I am in the field I read landscapes. The landscape that surrounds us holds a lot of information about how mountains, valleys and coasts have evolved and how the environment has changed through time. These are all things that interest a geologist. The tricky part about reading landscapes is that there are so many layers of information out there. In the field, we are confronted with the full range of natural variability. Some of these layers of information are relevant for a geologist and some of them are not. To make sense of all this we need to filter out what is important to us. When I am in the field I am often interested in finding out more about how glaciers have changed through time. To do this I need to wear my “glacial geology filters”, or “glasses”. It takes time and practice to develop these filters. It is a craft and fieldwork is essential for learning it.