Field trips are often a school-year highlight for students. You may have fond memories of the enthusiasm created by a trip to your local fire department or zoo when you were young. You were thrilled to escape the four walls of your classroom and see something new. Why not bring that same passion for learning and excitement into your collegiate courses?
Students will appreciate the change of pace and new learning experiences that field trips can provide. While the thought of the extra work required to arrange a field trip may deter some instructors, the benefits usually far outweigh the costs. As Rohlf (2015) avers, “With careful preparation, field trips can enhance classroom learning and have a long-term impact” (p. 518). Participation in a field trip can be a noteworthy event that strengthens your course content and leaves a lasting memory for your students. And including field trips in your course may be easier than you think.
Not only can field trips add an interesting, atypical element to your course, but they can also provide new firsthand experiences for your students. Classroom theory can be seen in practice, and some field trips may enable students to transfer theory into direct experience.
Field trip options
Field trips come in a wide-ranging variety of options. Friess et al. (2016) suggest using multiple forms of field trips for maximum learning. Here are some field trip alternatives you may wish to consider:
- Third-party virtual field trips. Since early in the pandemic, many museums, archives, libraries, historical locations, government and aerospace organizations, religious sites, and other conventional field trip destinations have created virtual platforms for academic use. Virtual field trips are available for a multitude of content areas, including science, math, the social sciences, and even accounting. They’re free or low cost, always open, and have no geographic restrictions. You can assign virtual field trip visits as required or optional course assignments. Please recognize, though, that the content quality, target age group, and ease of use can vary widely from site to site.
- Instructor-created virtual field trips. With preplanning, you can produce your own virtual field trips using a number of electronic tools, such as Zoom. You can also incorporate free resources like Google Maps and royalty-free digital repositories, such as Pexels and Pixabay. The only limits on instructor-created virtual field trips are your imagination, creativity, and time. We recommend avoiding references or images that will make your video age quickly. Ideally, instructor-created field trips can be used for several years.
- Self-paced, on-site field trips. With a self-paced field trip, the instructor requires students to visit one or more predetermined locations. This alternative provides flexibility for the students to visit as their schedules permit. For example, a humanities course may encourage students to tour a local art museum, attend a concert, or view a theater performance. Business instructors might connect with local businesses that are willing to let students shadow employees for a few hours.
- Instructor-led field trips. For courses with manageable class sizes, the traditional instructor-led field trip can provide memorable out-of-the-classroom opportunities for students. Field trips may highlight one aspect of a course or incorporate a number of course content goals. For instance, David takes a class of college seniors to a school for children with autism. This is the culminating experience of a course that teaches a behavior management framework used in that school. Students report that it is one of the highlights of their undergraduate experience.
- Flipped field trips. Instead of inviting students to visit somewhere new, either virtually or in person, this field trip brings someone or something new into your classroom. For example, you may invite a graduate or local expert to teach a particular portion of your class from the perspective of an active practitioner. A criminal justice course might invite local law enforcement or penitentiary staff to visit. We recommend including time for a Q and A session. Consider requiring your students to submit questions to you prior to the guest presentation.
This list of field trip variations is certainly not exhaustive. There are many additional ways you can help your students better experience and understand the discipline you are studying together, but a field trip is an outstanding start.
While each course will be different, here are some general guidelines that may be helpful as you consider how to incorporate field trips into your existing courses:
- Determine why you want your students to have that experience. What course objectives will be met through the anticipated field trip?
- Don’t leave anything to chance. Recognize that field trip preparation (regardless of the kind of field trip you’re contemplating) will require additional course preparation time. Check and confirm important details each term you teach the course. Some things never change, but field trips might!
- Decide how you are going to measure and assess student field trip participation. You can use an assortment of assessment formats—ranging from short reflections to traditional quizzes or research papers. You might also assign virtual or self-paced field trips as an extra credit opportunity. More inventive options could include a student-produced photo portfolio providing highlights gleaned from a field trip.
- Try something new. Variety is the spice of life, and field trips can provide you and your students with multiple creative ways to learn—while having fun in the process.
College instructors should regularly look for new and creative instructional opportunities to include in their courses. With their flexibility, variety, and ease of use, field trips can become an excellent addition to your course. Learning can once again be just as much fun as it was in elementary school.
Friess, D. A., Oliver, G. J. H., Oliver, Quak, M. S. Y., & Lau, A. Y. A. (2016). Incorporating “virtual” and “real world” field trips into introductory geography modules. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 40(4), 546–564. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098265.2016.1174818
Rohlf, G. (2015). How to make field trips fun, educational, and memorable: Balancing self-directed inquiry with structured learning. History Teacher, 48(3), 517–528. https://www.societyforhistoryeducation.org/pdfs/M15_Rohlf.pdf
David B. Leitch, PhD, is an associate professor of special education at Cedarville University. After serving as an Air Force officer, he practiced law until earning his doctorate in special education. He previously taught special education in a juvenile correctional facility.
Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Previously, he served as a professor of computer science (U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York) and as a department chair and professor of strategic leadership (National Defense University, Washington, DC).