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Teaching Strategies for Effective Field Trips

James Paterson

Some tips on how to get them started and make them pay off

In an age of tight school budgets, heightened safety concerns, and online alternatives, students today are not as likely to be excitedly piling into a yellow school bus for a trip to a museum or a local farm or factory.

But two professors who have carefully studied the school field trip tradition say that change means we’re missing a special opportunity to give students unique teaching strategies that benefit them in a number of ways, and sticks with them for years.

Their most recent study, just released last month, showed a variety of benefits for students who see a live theater presentation, and prior to that their recent work showed how field trips improve critical thinking skills.

Jay Greene, an education professor and department head at the University of Arkansas, and Brian Kisida, an economics professor at the school, initially teamed up in a comprehensive study that surveyed thousands of students to assess what they learned in these real-life experiences, and how such hands-on teaching strategies affected them.

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“I don't think anything can adequately replace the intensity of having the peak experience of visiting a cultural institution,” says Kisida. “The context and the surroundings and the buildings themselves have been designed specifically to enhance the experience, and the educators are trained in their topics and educational approaches. It all makes this very valuable.”

The two report, however, that the number of such school tours in the U.S. has declined, citing recent data from specific museums and a survey of school administrators showing more than half of schools eliminated student trips at the height of the recession and many haven’t replaced them.

They say that in addition to saving money, the decline is connected to increased concern about student test scores.

“Some schools believe that student time would be better spent preparing for the exams,” Greene says. “When schools do organize field trips, they are increasingly choosing to reward them for working hard to improve scores rather than to provide cultural enrichment – going to amusement parks, sporting events, and movie theaters instead of to museums and historical sites.”

They found in their research that veteran teachers believed that field trips should be educational or culturally informative, but younger teachers favored field trips for fun. Many teachers also feel young people enduring long testing sessions deserve to relax and be rewarded, plus the students are happier and easier to supervise for weary teachers at an amusement park or movie than a quiet museum where their interest can quickly wane.

But that means students are missing out, Greene says. “In particular, enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture.”

Their research surveyed more than 10,000 students and nearly 500 teachers at 123 different schools at all grade levels. They used control groups who were questioned about their attitudes and assessed about specific topics in the same way.

Almost 90 percent of students who went on the field trip were able to provide details about material at the site – often as late as eight weeks after the visit, many more than would have if it was taught in class, the two suggest.

“The high rate of recall of factual information by students who toured the museum demonstrates that the tours made an impression,” they write. “The students could remember important details about what they saw and discussed.”

The two also believe it improves critical thinking. They asked students who visited an art museum and a control group to write about a piece of art not on the tour, and a blind assessment of the essays showed the students who experienced the art museum and a discussion about the paintings could much more easily and interestingly write about the new piece of art. They determined the touring students increased their critical thinking skills by 10 percent. “Students who went on a tour became more observant, noticing and describing more details.”

The two also found that students who went on a field trip that covered historical events had a better understanding of what life at those times was like – improving their “Historical empathy” – while also increasing their tolerance for new ideas and people. More students attending said they were likely to visit a museum again and were more likely to personally participate in a performance or become more interested in the subject presented. The study also found that students from rural and high poverty schools often had an even bigger improvement in these results.

“It is particularly important that schools serving disadvantaged students provide culturally enriching field trip experiences,” Greene says. “Students from rural areas and high-poverty schools, as well as minority students, typically show gains that are two to three times larger than those of the total sample. Disadvantaged students assigned by lottery to receive a school tour of an art museum make exceptionally large gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and becoming art consumers.”

From a separate study, the National Education Association reported that youth who take educational trips have better grades, higher graduation rates and greater income later in life. About 90 percent of adults looking back on their own field trips said they had a “Positive, lasting impact on their education and career because the trips made them more engaged, intellectually curious and interested in and out of school.”

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What can a teacher or administrator do to increase the chances that an educational or culturally informative field trip will take place – and be successful?

Start early. It will take time to build enthusiasm, complete the complex plans for a trip thoroughly, recruit chaperones, and, perhaps most importantly, raise money if the school isn’t sponsoring it or if it looks like it will be too expensive for parents to independently pay. Some schools offer a waiver of fees for needy families but criteria for that should be thought out in advance and consistent.

Have a backer. A strong advocate in the district or from the host might help with funding and other backing.

Promote it heavily and creatively. You can get kids and parents (and perhaps administrators) excited with a creative campaign, perhaps with a theme that relates to the destination.

Consider safety. Check out school procedures for field trips carefully and follow them. Consider all the potential scenarios and how they’ll be handled. Communications is key. Get all cell phone numbers.

Communicate with hosts. Make sure the timetable and expectations are clear. Then go over it again.

Involve students. Have students or representatives of the student body help decide on destination and plan the trip. Some schools have students vote on places to visit from a pre-selected list.

Make them relevant. Prepare students with lessons that relate to the site – perhaps through different approaches in each class. Use technology to involve them with visits to the website for the location. Have students individually determine one thing they will seek out and expect them to be able to explain it to others. Often they will.

Follow up. With a debrief and more information that relates to the trip. Use material from it for other activities and lessons later.