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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

December 18, 2014 at 5:00 AM

How much learning happens on field trips? A lot, a new study says

A field trip group from St. George School on Beacon Hill tours the area around the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center. Photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times 2008.

A field trip group from St. George School on Beacon Hill tours the area around the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center. Photo by Alan Berner / The Seattle Times 2008.

There’s something special about stepping onto a bus, leaving school and walking into a theater that grabs students’ attention more than popping a DVD into a television set.

Much like babies who learn more by watching real people than by looking at two-dimensional screens, teenagers learn better from real humans, too.

But students don’t just enjoy field trips because they’re fun — they can often learn more than they do in the classroom, according to a new study from the University of Arkansas.

To measure just how much students learn from culturally enriching field trips, researchers from the University of Arkansas gave hundreds of high school-aged kids tickets to see one of two plays: Hamlet and A Christmas Carol. Another 340 students who signed up for the trial were randomly chosen to not see the play, but still be in the experiment. Some were assigned to read the play or watch a movie version in class, some were not.

Then, all the students took quizzes on their knowledge of the play and whether they agreed with a series of statements about opinions different from their own. They also took a test often used with autistic children to measure their ability to understand other people’s emotional states.

Researchers found that students who saw the live performance generally:

  • knew more about the plot and vocabulary in those plays than peers who watched a movie version or didn’t see the show,
  • could better read the emotions of others, and
  • were more tolerant of viewpoints that differ from their own.

Teachers today often have a tough time convincing their bosses that interrupting class to go on a culturally enriching field trip is worth the time, said Jay Greene, the University of Arkansas professor who led the study.

“They think that every moment not spent preparing for their test is a moment not well spent,” he said. “Going out of the school to do something else feels like a distraction, and an unnecessary frill that you can easily cut.”

Greene said schools often think the outcomes of field trips can’t be measured.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said, saying his study shows that the effects of field trips — in this case, going to see a play — can be measured much like progress in science or math, and perhaps demonstrate the value of introducing students to new experiences they might not have on their own.

“We’re suggesting that we can broaden our vision of education, just like we can broaden our measures,” Greene said.

Next up, Greene wants to look at how different types of field trips impact knowledge. Do students learn as much from going to science museums and nature centers as they do from seeing a play? He also wants to study the long-term effects of field trips — whether just one field trip can make a lifelong impact or whether a series of field trips is more effective.

Comments | More in News | Topics: Field trips, Jay Greene

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