Scholarship in Learning and Teaching

Scholarship in Learning and Teaching

Exploring field spaces as learning places: optimising the impact of field-based learning on the student experience

Program Extension Grant, Office for Learning and Teaching
Recipients James Cook University
Amount (Year) $30,000 (2014)

Project Overview

Beyond JCU's distributed campuses and virtual learning spaces are its field spaces – those irreplaceable ecosystems and cultures that are part of the economic and social fabric of JCU’s tropical location. These spaces include six field research stations and numerous field sites in the vicinity of its campuses and remote study centres. Field spaces are learning spaces where the phenomenon under study occurs naturally and cannot be adequately replicated in a laboratory or other learning environment. Field-based learning is an integral part of the curriculum in many science disciplines, enhancing motivation and retention, and supporting students on the path to becoming competent professionals and active researchers. However, across the higher education sector, accessibility to spaces, economics, safety concerns and time constraints make it challenging to provide sufficient, authentic, place-based learning experiences for students to develop the necessary practical skills to equip them for their chosen profession.

This study is exploring new ground about the design and use of learning spaces by applying the SKG 7 Principles of Learning Space Design (from the original ALTC project, Spaces for Knowledge Generation) to gather data to illuminate the student learning experience in field-spaces. Building on a synthesis of the data, a university-wide symposium was convened in June 2016 to provide JCU staff with a structured opportunity to benefit from external and local expertise and to share their own and others’ practice in place-based and field-based learning. Principles and guidelines for effective field-based learning and teaching will be developed through the research. The research will be broadly applicable across the higher education sector, especially for universities maintaining field research stations, facilitating field trips and where field-based learning is an integral part of the curriculum.

Project Team

Phil Turner Director, Academic Quality and Strategy, JCU Division of Tropical Environments and Societies
Dr Janet Buchan Director, Centre of Professional Excellence, Lourdes Hill College, Brisbane
Assoc. Prof. Paul Nelson JCU College of Science, Technology and Engineering
Prof. Lin Schwarzkopf JCU College of Marine and Environmental Sciences
Janine Sheaves JCU College of Marine and Environmental Sciences
Dr Orpha Bellwood JCU College of Science, Technology and Engineering
Assoc. Prof. Carl Spandler JCU College of Science, Technology and Engineering
Dr Tanya Doyle JCU College of Arts, Society and Education
Assoc. Prof. Michelle Lasen Teaching Quality and Scholarship, JCU Directorate of Learning, Teaching and Student Engagement

Research Publication Synopses

Field locations as learning environments: academics' perceptions of intentional design elements and value of fieldwork to student learning and the student experience

Lasen, M., Buchan, J., Edwards, L., Doyle, T., Sheaves, J. and Turner, P.

At JCU, field locations are considered to be important learning environments. The JCU Learning and Teaching Blueprint, 2014-16 recognises “place-based learning at our tropical and world heritage field locations as an important aspect of the student experience” (p. 4).

In a broad review of field based activities in biology curricula at Australian universities (Burke da Silva, 2014), JCU was shown to be the university with the highest number of subjects with embedded field work experiences. The literature indicates that, across Australian universities, field based learning is under threat given funding declines, more stringent regulations and approvals processes, increased class sizes, lack of commitment from students as a result of competing responsibilities, and lack of lecturer expertise and time for planning (Durrant & Hartman, 2014; Gill, Adams & Eriksen, 2012; Krakowka, 2012; Lyu et al., 2013; Moore, Kerr, & Hedgraft, 2011). In some universities, field work has disappeared entirely from the curriculum (Burke da Silva, 2014). With ongoing funding cuts to the higher education sector, it is timely then to investigate the value of field work to student learning and the student experience.

This paper interrogates focus group data to identify perceptions of JCU science academics regarding what are the design features of effective field experiences and what students learn and value from these experiences. In order to interrogate academics’ perceptions, we employ two analytical lenses: the COAL FACE principles for design of learning environments (Buchan et al., 2015), based on the work of Souter et al. (2011), and a framework that we have generated from review of the literature, comprising student outcomes relating to a deepening of: [1] peer-to-peer and student-staff relationships; [2] emotional connection to the environment and place; [3] disciplinary knowledge and skills; and [4] student commitment to the course of study and achievement of graduate outcomes (e.g., Durrant & Hartman, 2014; Gell & Brandenburg, 2013; Gill et al., 2012; Moore et al., 2011; Morrissey, Clavin, & Reilly, 2013; Isoardi, 2010; Scott et al., 2012).

In this paper, a first in a series, we aim to investigate the congruence of academics’ perceptions with the existing literature base; further, we seek to evaluate the applicability of a learning space design framework to field based learning. Over the series of papers, we intend to triangulate academics’ perceptions with field based observations and student survey responses, with a view to arriving at best practice principles and strategies for field based learning.

Field based learning experiences: providing an orientation to the field for the field

Doyle, T., Buchan, J., Sheaves, J., Lasen, M., Edwards, L. and Turner, P.

Field-based learning experiences, or field work, is a practice that features in many of the Biological and Earth Sciences courses offered at JCU and, in response to a range of pressures shaping the provision of field-based learning experiences in higher education settings (Smith, 2004), it has been asserted that “if we are to promote and maintain field work in the curriculum, it is important to provide evidence of its value in learning” (Burke da Silva, 2014, p. 65). Much of the extant evaluation of field work is conceptualised in relation to the enjoyment of the field work rather than an ascertainment about affective learning or the cognitive learning (Rickson et al, 2004) associated with the field experience itself. Furthermore, Scott, Goulder, Wheeler, Scott, Tobin and Marsham (2012) state that previous studies have not found sufficient evidence that field work contributes to cognitive learning any more than other modes of learning. Easton and Gilburn (2012) present an exception, with their study reporting students making significant gains in grades as a result of attending a field-based learning experience.

Part of the complexity associated with ascertaining cognitive learning associated with field work is recognised by Stokes and Boyle (2009, p. 292) who state that “field work per se is relatively untheorized”. Scott et al (2012) cite the use of Kolb’s learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) alongside Eiss and Harbeck’s learning model (Eiss & Harbeck, 1969) as useful theoretical tools for investigating the learning processes operating in a field-based learning environment. Moreover, Scott et al state that “taken together, these models suggest that well designed fieldwork enhances learning and involves the developmental interaction of both the cognitive and affective domain of the student” (2012, p. 13). However, the attributes of “well-designed field work” remain unclear in the literature, and, instead, are framed by taken-for-granted assumptions about the intrinsic value of field work. This paper draws on a model of conceptual change, derived from constructivist theory (Driver, 1988) as an alternative theoretical lens with which to assess “learning” and “development of the cognitive and affective domains” that occurs as a result of field work. Theories of learning space design are also employed to explore the relationship between the design of field-based learning experiences and the active learning of students.

In 2011, an Office for Learning and Teaching funded project entitled the Spaces for Knowledge Generation Project (SKG) developed seven principles of learning design that support an active, constructivist learning environment; namely: Comfort, Aesthetics, Flow, Equity, Blending, Affordances, Repurposing (the CAFEBAR principles) (Souter et al, 2011). In 2014, the COALFACE project commenced at JCU, with the goal of developing Communities of Active Learners who are Flexible, Adaptive, Connected and Engaged. The COALFACE project redeveloped and extended on the original SKG CAFEBAR principles, and applied these to learning spaces in three contexts: face to face on the university campus, online spaces, and video-linked spaces (Buchan, Wicking, Smithson, Birks, 2015) so as to create connected communities in multi-campus, multi-modal, dispersed and changing environments. This paper extends on the COALFACE Principles, by applying them to field-based learning experiences so as to evaluate the utility of the principles in shaping field-based learning experiences into field-based learning environments that lead to active learning.

In this paper, we present a series of case-studies which examine the design of four field-based learning experiences, organised for students from first year to third year in a Bachelor of Science degree. These field work experiences varied in duration; from single day trips to residential trips. In these case-studies, we explore the extent to which the field-based learning experiences have been conceptualised as field-based learning environments, by examining their alignment with the COALFACE principles. Moreover, we analyse the ways in which field work that aligns with the COALFACE principles facilitates and mediates field-based learning environments, which result in scope for active learning. The paper concludes by examining the extent to which field-based learning environments function as a mode of learning to effectively develop discipline specific understandings and inquiry processes, as well as dispositions in relation to both cognitive and affective learning domains, which can then be operationalized outside of the field-based learning experience. In other words, we examine the extent to which field-based learning environments allow for inquiry of the field itself for the field, or discipline, under study.


Buchan, J., Wicking, K., Smithson, J., and Birks, M. (2015). At the COAL FACE: A guide to active learning in multi-modal and distributed learning environments. Retrieved from

Burke da Silva, K. (2014). Biological fieldwork in Australian higher education: Is the cost worth the effort? International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, 22(2), 64-74.

Driver, R. (1988). Theory into Practice II: A constructivist approach to curriculum development. In P. Fensham (Ed.), Development and dilemmas in science education (pp. 133-149). Philadelphia, USA: Falmer Press.

Durrant, K., and Hartman, T. (2014). The integrative learning value of field courses. Journal of Biological Education, 49(4), 385-400.

Easton, E., and Gilburn, A. (2012). The field course effect: gains in cognitive learning in undergraduate biology students following a field course. Journal of Biological Education, 46(1), 29-35.

Gell, P., and Brandenburg, R. (2013). Environmental science and experiential learning: A conversation. In R. Brandenburg and J. Z. Wilson (Eds.), Pedagogies for the Future. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Gill, N., Adams, M., and Eriksen, C. (2012). Engaging with the (un)familiar: Field teaching in a multi-campus teaching environment. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 36(2), 259-275.

Isoardi, G. (2010). Evaluating the learning outcomes of an international field trip in postgraduate lighting design courses. Journal of Learning Design, 3(3), 37-44.

James Cook University. (2014). JCU Teaching and Learning Blueprint. Retrieved from

Krakowka, A. (2012). Field trips as valuable learning experiences in geography courses. Journal of Geography, 111, 236-244.

Lyu, X., Hirsch, P., Kimkong, H., Manorom, K., and Tubtim, T. (2013). Cross-boundary peer learning in the Mekong: A case of field-based education in natural resources management. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, 150(1), 41-52.

Moore, G., Kerr, R., and Hedgraft, R. (2011). Self-guided field trips for students of environments. European Journal of Engineering Education, 36(2), 107-117.

Morrissey, J., Clavin, A., and Reilly, K. (2013). Field-based learning: The challenge of practising participatory knowledge. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 37(4), 619-627.

Rickson, M., Dillon, J., Teamey, K., Morris, M., Choi, M., Sanders, D., and Benefield, P. (2004). A review of research on outdoor learning. London: National Foundation for Educational Research and King’s College.

Scott, G., Goulder, R., Wheeler, P., Scott, L., Tobin, M., and Marsham, S. (2012). The value of fieldwork in life and environmental sciences in the context of higher education: A case study in learning about biodiversity. Journal of Science, Education and Technology, 21, 11-21.

Smith, D. (2004). Issues and trends in higher education biology fieldwork. Journal of Biological Education, 39(1), 6-10.

Souter, K., Riddle, M., Sellers, W., and Keppell, M. (2011). Spaces for Knowledge Generation: Final report. Retrieved from

Stokes, A., and Boyle, A. (2009). The undergraduate geoscience fieldwork experience: Influencing factors and implications for learning. Geological Society of America Special Papers, 461, 291-311.

2016 Symposium and Resources    

A symposium titled Exploring Field Spaces as Learning Places was convened in June 2016 to provide a cross-disciplinary forum for JCU academics to share perceptions and experiences regarding effective field work pedagogy. The program included a keynote address by international guest speaker Jacqueline McLaughlin, associate  professor of biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley and founding director of Penn State's award-winning scholarship program CHANCE (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences).

Video: Keynote Presentation Slideshow              

The Story of Penn State CHANCE: Teaching Conservation through Experience
by Jacqueline McLaughlin, Penn State Lehigh Valley (View Bio)        

Download the PowerPoint slideshow

Video: Symposium Showcase Slideshow           

Slides presented during the JCU Showcase 'How do you design field work experiences that promote high levels of student engagement and learning?'

Download the PowerPoint slideshow

Video: Field Trips and Student Interviews

A look at the JCU field spaces as learning places experience plus student interviews