The powerful benefits of field trips

Can field trips help students to be more engaged in learning?

Dr Patricia Lau, Senior Lecturer at the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia and Professor Christina Lee, Dean of the Federation Business School, Australia, share how they have seen business students develop greater motivation to learn as a result of field trips into tropical rainforests.

The rainforest as a classroom

Designed to take students beyond conventional classroom learning, two 3-day field trips were facilitated by Lau with Dr Ho Chye Kok, a HR consultant with DKSH Hong Kong Limited. The students visited the Belum Rainforest and the Gopeng Rainforest.

“The goal of the field trips was to understand the connection between business management and sustainability. We chose the rainforest as students were learning about the impact of business decisions relating to eco-tourism, hydroelectric dams, logging, and forestry,” Dr Lau explained.

On each trip, students explored a Malaysian rainforest to understand its ecosystem and importance.

Moving from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation

Two years after the fieldtrips, the 12 students (who completed both voluntary field trips) reconnected with Dr Lau and Professor Lee. It was observed that seven students developed the highest degree of motivation - intrinsic motivation.

Initially, students were only extrinsically motivated. This meant that they needed external influence to engage in the activities. According to a theory of motivation - organismic integration - there are four kinds of extrinsic motivation.

The lowest degree is “external”, being driven by reward or punishment. The next degree is “introjected”, which the students initially showed - where they engaged in learning activities to gain approval from their peers. The third and fourth degrees of extrinsic motivation are “identified” and “integrated”. This occurs when students grasp the value of learning. It is only from this stage, that they will then begin to move into being intrinsically motivated.

Ultimately, several students showed signs of intrinsic motivation, in which they were self-motivated to learn. But what exactly caused this change?

Basic ingredients for motivated learning

An engaged student demonstrates two kinds of competencies – emotional and cognitive. Emotional competencies include the ability to express feelings, read others’ feelings, and manage emotions. Cognitive competencies include the ability to reflect on information and apply it to different situations.

These competencies were fostered through five elements: self-efficacy, social support, group harmony, voice, and self-reflection.

Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to succeed at a task, while social support helped increase this confidence. Social support could come in the way of facilitators providing students with the necessary knowledge, or through peer encouragement.

Social support also motivated students to preserve group harmony, which created an atmosphere conducive to learning and a free exchange of ideas. According to one student, “there was no such thing as ‘useless information’. Everyone’s opinions mattered, which is why we had to learn to accept different opinions and criticisms openly without being offended.”

As a result, students developed their voice – giving constructive ideas, with the intention to improve.

The lasting benefits of field trips

Dr Lau and Professor Lee found that even after two years, students continued to practice what they had learned. Whether it was in their new classes or at work, they were more motivated to learn.

A participant wrote, “I thought management is all about theory, which I felt was boring. Now I realise that it can be used in different situations. Personally, learning outdoors is definitely better than learning just through the textbook.”

Another plus point of field trips is the relationships formed through the experience. “Students were able to form close and lasting friendships as they spent a lot of time together. In contrast, while classroom learning is important, it confines relationships,” Dr Lau shared.

Some implications for Malaysian education

Malaysia is a “high power distance culture”, in which teachers are seen as authoritative and students are passive learners, expected to be “seen but not heard”.

Dr Lau, Professor Lee, and Dr Ho suggest that educators, instead of being authoritative figures, should facilitate and encourage learning outside the classroom.