Fieldwork involves students studying or exploring something through first-hand investigation. It is used in many disciplines, e.g. Geography, Geology, Physics, Anthropology and Archaeology. It provides students with the opportunity to widen their practical and cultural experience. Students examine a topic in context and collect data for analysis and subsequent discussion at a later point.
Fieldwork is often a compulsory aspect of a course, but can be voluntary, especially if there is a financial contribution on behalf of the student. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) compliance now requires that any additional costs for fieldwork are noted in the course descriptor.
Fieldwork is a key tool in experiential learning, giving students the opportunity to collect data and test hypotheses in the real world, whilst dealing with authentic problems created by the situation. This active learning promotes student engagement and retention.
Fieldwork experience can enhance a student’s employability and opportunities on graduation. Archaeologists often have the opportunity to participate in archaeological digs during their university career (UG and PG), which helps towards completing their Archaeological Skills Passport, noting the hands-on skills and analysis they have completed in the field (see link below).
Effective planning is essential to ensure that fieldwork is inclusive. It can be expensive, so it is beneficial to identify cost-effective locations to ensure the greatest learning potential. Planning a good fieldwork experience is about first understanding the learning outcomes for the event, and ensuring that these address both knowledge and content, as well as skills development. Once the learning outcomes have been established, then developing a plan for the fieldwork is crucial. We recommend a variety of activities during the trip, each addressing a learning outcome. Time for formative assessment and reflection is also important.
Choose venues that are accessible, and if doing a range of fieldwork activities, ensure there are local venues used as well as those more distant from the University. Virtual field trips are also a good way of (1) helping people prepare for real fieldwork and (2) offering those who are unable to participate a virtual experience of the real-world activity. Try to ensure fieldwork is sustainable in terms of staffing, resources, and the environment.
Best Practice Tips
- Always explore the site yourself (if possible) to understand the limitations and what is possible, before planning the trip.
- Prepare for the fieldwork in class, by looking at theory around the issues you will explore in the field. Remember to include students who are unable to participate in the field trip and provide alternative (e.g. virtual) opportunities.
- Be sure to embed research into the field trip, e.g. including data capture.
- Having the students develop a rudimentary theory or hypothesis they would like to test in the field, and that they can present (around 10 days before the trip), can help to focus their investigations. Offer feedback to help them enhance their thinking, bearing in mind the site you’ll be working in.
- In the field, focus on the things that you have agreed to focus on.
- Consider creating a ‘virtual field trip’ for those who cannot go, or for review once back in the classroom.
- Afterwards, evaluate the trip and gain feedback from the students, e.g. via an evaluation form or a focus group.
- Advise students about weather-appropriate clothing in advance. If physical exertion will be involved in the terrain (e.g. climbing, etc.) make them aware in advance, as you might need to make adjustments for inclusivity.
- Complete appropriate Health & Safety risk assessments, health forms and, where applicable, VIATOR insurance forms well in advance of the visit, as students might need an Occupational Health assessment prior to departure. Contact your departmental H&S Coordinator for advice.
- Take a mobile phone and share the number with the students for emergency use. Have a ‘home contact’ in the office in case of emergencies.
- If using PhD students to supervise, give them a brief induction and responsibility for a small group of students.
- Keep the student : staff ratio to, at maximum, 8:1.
- If appropriate, discuss needs with external personnel who may be present at the site and who facilitate access.
- Allow the students to share with you any allergies or worries that may have about the trip and take these into account in your planning.
- Ensure consent is given for any photographs or data about the participants, so that the University complies with GDPR.
Virtual Field Trips:
Davies J, Davies L. Lessons from a virtual field trip: Adapting explorative and immersive learning pedagogy. Journal of learning development in higher education. 2021.
de Paz-Álvarez MI, Blenkinsop TG, Buchs DM, Gibbons GE, Cherns L. Virtual field trip to the Esla Nappe (Cantabrian Zone, NW Spain): delivering traditional geological mapping skills remotely using real data. Solid earth (Göttingen). 2022;13:1–14.