Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 2 of 2)

Following on from Part 1. This was the second piece I wrote for the course. This one expands on some of the material from the first one – discussing Fieldwork explicitly in the language of Education and pedagogies. I particularly recommend checking out the reference list – there are lots of people publishing interesting stuff around geoscience education, particularly in regards to fieldwork (virtual or otherwise), diversity, barriers to participation, and best practices.

My student education practice primarily consists of field-based teaching on geoscience field courses ranging in length from 1 day to 2 weeks. This may seem incompatible with many traditional principles of curriculum design which tend to be applied to classroom or lecture hall environments, however many of those principles do still apply. For this discussion I focus on mapping training courses which tend to be 1-2 weeks in length and involve training students to produce geological maps and associated documentation, culminating in their independent production of a map. This taught exercise is a supervised precursor to an independent 6-week mapping dissertation which is required in a subsequent year of their degree. Thus there is a multi-stage constructively aligned process where students are taught to map, practice mapping in a semi-supervised context, and are then assessed on their independent work. This is what Healey (2005) (and the “Leeds Curriculum”) describes as research based learning – students are engaged in inquiry based activities in which staff are active collaborators rather than didactic instructors. This exercise is notionally also an authentic assessment, as it mimics the kind of work that graduates may do as part of a national geological survey (such as the British Geological Survey traditionally did) or a resource exploration company. However, this is an increasingly outdated model of what Geoscience graduates go on to do. The case can be made that modern geologists are significantly less likely to practice traditional geological mapping in an employment context and some have controversially argued that our educational focus should be elsewhere (Brodie, 2013). Nevertheless, it does still serve as an excellent pedagogical method in several aspects of curriculum design.

This curriculum is by definition a Project Based Learning pedagogical approach, or “learning by doing” (Dewey, 1897). Students are given a real world challenge (understand the geology of an area, produce a map) which is explicitly taught with a research-oriented design. Students are taught how to map at the beginning of the trip via a combination of direct instruction, iterative practice with formative and peer feedback, and managed small group and one on one discussions. Field teaching staff focus on an inquiry based style, emphasising that we’re not there to state facts about the geology, but instead there to train students in techniques which will enable them to gather data and come to their own conclusions. Students are asked to describe and interpret their findings, and often are then asked to defend those interpretations from criticism and challenging questions (Buddington, 2006). This Socratic method challenges students to think deeply about their evidence and reasoning behind their interpretations (Dow, 1999). This also has the effect of creating a “Community of Inquiry” style of learning (Garrison et al., 1999). Students work together in small groups in the field (for health and safety reasons, initially) and discuss ideas, debate interpretations and share skills. The less formal, more relaxed nature of the fieldwork setting also helps students to relax and get to know each other, forming strong communities of learning. Whilst educational, this also has the significant downside of occasionally normalising plagiarism and collusion. Students frequently express confusion about what is specifically allowed in this working environment despite being given explicit guidance on the topic (University of Leeds Library, 2019).

This inquiry based method proves very effective at the stated goals of training mapping students, but can prove to be extremely frustrating for some students. Those who are convinced that there is a “right answer” which they’re being deprived of find dealing with the uncertainty of this kind of fieldwork – where the research methodology being used and documented is what is assessed, not just facts – extremely demoralising and challenging. Staff frequently speculate that this difficulty stems from a secondary level education of rote learning and assessment-led teaching, promoted by certain individuals of questionable pedagogical qualification (Walker, 2012). The inherent uncertainty and ambiguity of results in geoscience fieldwork is an excellent example of a threshold concept which is difficult, yet transformative, in a student’s education. Some cognitive science research has actually suggested that these kinds of frustrations can actually be very effective at promoting learning. “Desirable difficulties”, such as applying knowledge in a new place (the field) or using tests as learning events (e.g. assessing work produced for the first time in the field) can aid in learning and memory recall (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). Some have, rightly, criticised minimal guidance teaching methods as being less effective than direct instruction (Kirschner et al., 2006). However, it should be noted that on these field courses students are provided extensive guidance and instruction on the methodological aspect of the exercise, which is in fact the desired learning outcome. Never-the-less this remains a challenge for educators, who may find it challenging to help students get over this intellectual hurdle, and even more so to maintain an environment of “desirable difficulties” in the face of module evaluation questionnaires which frequently express frustration about those same difficulties.

Overall, our field curriculum is often singled out in student feedback (MEQs, NSS, and anecdotally) as a defining high point of their degrees. Students make statements such as “it brought everything I’d learned together” and discuss how they only really understood geology in 3D once they’d seen it on a fieldtrip. I believe this highlights how effective our curriculum design is, following fieldwork students express far greater understanding and recognise that they’ve understood threshold concepts such as 3D thinking, uncertainty and the magnitude of geological time.

Assessment on this module is split between assessment of work produced in the field and subsequent refinement and presentation of that work as a final report. The fieldwork assessment has several components, principally a field notebook, map and cross section. All three are pieces of Authentic Assessment, which students could be expected to produce in employment. They also comprise work at multiple levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). The field notebook is largely descriptive, the function of the assessment is to determine the student’s abilities to collect data, make observations and accurately describe what they see within the context of their previous education on geological materials and concepts. Students should then demonstrate the ability to apply this data collection to come to conclusions (or hypotheses) about the geology of the area, synthesising this information into an interpretation. First class students should also demonstrate the ability to critically assess their own work with regards to data quality, ambiguity and determine what additional information would be required to falsify or confirm hypotheses.

The maps and cross sections the students produce are “higher” up on Bloom’s taxonomy, involving the creation of new work assembled from students’ individual observations and interpretations to produce a comprehensive summary of the overall geology of the area. They are synoptic exercises which require the application of knowledge and skills from throughout their degree so far. Some educators (e.g. Didau (2015)) have criticised the uncritical application of Bloom’s Taxonomy, pointing out that there are aspects of learning where the “lower” levels of the taxonomy are more appropriate and that it is impossible to do “higher” level creative work without foundational knowledge. In a geological context this would be akin to expecting students to produce a map without having first memorised a great deal of knowledge about rock types and minerals which is necessary to interpret their observations. The comprehensive nature of field skill assessment allows assessment of student performance at all levels of the taxonomy, avoiding the frequent misapplication of Bloom’s work (or for that matter Biggs (1999)) which blindly assumes that “higher” level or “deeper” activities inherently lead to better learning. Instead, students work simultaneously at all levels – using all of their knowledge and skills together to build a complete picture of the geology. They are required and prompted to recall knowledge from earlier in their course, ultimately promoting the recall of this “basic” knowledge via a form of spaced learning (Xue et al., 2010).

This style of in the field assessment also proves very effective at capturing a true picture of student’s actual abilities without reference to texts, internet, or assistance. Field notebooks in particular are essentially impossible to plagiarise from another source. The staff on the trip know where the students have been, and what they’ve seen and been shown. Individuals from one cohort may make different observations than those on a trip the week before as tides or vegetation bury and expose different things. This essentially eliminates the threat of contract cheating, and minimises the potential for plagiarism from previous cohorts. Some degree of collusion may take place in the field, but given that each student must still record their observations correctly this is closer to a form of peer learning than academic malpractice. The subsequent interpretive work builds on these observations and directly refers back to them – again minimising the possibility of malpractice. Indeed, the assessment criteria weight the recording of information, and development and justification of a hypothesis more highly than getting the “correct” answer.

Following the field course students are tasked with completing a final field report, synthesising and presenting their findings in a formalised format (again, an authentic assessment simulating an employment activity). The process of writing this report is accompanied by small group tutorials (see attached Observation of Professional Practice form) designed to encourage students to reflect upon their own field practice and look forward towards their independent mapping projects.

In many ways field teaching has an inherent advantage in promoting student engagement. Students taking part in field courses are engaging in a form of place-based learning (Smith, 2002), an immersive experience where students are removed from their normal environment (and the distractions and routines therein) and set tasks in an unfamiliar environment which demands their complete attention. This gives educators an easier time in promoting student engagement, but in addition to the lack of distractions this environment is extremely conducive to learning. Geology field trips are intense immersive experiences where students spend 1-2 weeks in an environment saturated with geology. Rather than just a couple of lectures per day the students eat breakfast with fellow geologists, spend 7-8 hours in the field, dine with geologists, spend 2-4 hours of the evening working and then sleep only to begin again the next day. Even the accommodation is filled with geology – the Assynt field course stays in a lodge that caters primarily to geological field groups, is run by a geologist and has walls decorated with geological maps and rock displays. Some field courses are remote enough that the only human contact students have is with fellow geologists. Several students have remarked to me that by the end of the trips they dream about geology. Field courses have been described as “liminal experiences” where students go through a transformative rite of passage into becoming geologists (McCay, 2019). Not all aspects of this total immersion are positive however, many students find this intensive experience to be extremely challenging (Giles et al., 2020; Stokes et al., 2019). My personal experience has been that fieldwork can prove particularly challenging for students from a mental health perspective. The stress of impending assessment, challenging threshold concepts, and separation from support networks (and many other psychological stressors (John and Khan, 2018)) can precipitate crises – particularly amongst students with pre-existing conditions. Staff need to be conscious of this and trained to effectively support students in these situations.

In addition to mental health challenges there are of course physical challenges in geological fieldwork. Many students are not comfortable with urinating in the field, and individuals who menstruate or who require privacy to address medical needs find that fieldwork presents difficult challenges (Greene et al., 2020). These challenges are finally starting to be addressed by field trip leaders, but addressing this inclusivity challenge has taken longer than it should have due to entrenched attitudes of privilege.

Though we rarely march students to the top of mountains, field locations are typically in remote rugged terrain and often located off paths. Students with physical disabilities, or even just less experience with exerting themselves in the outdoors can find these trips very challenging (Stokes et al., 2019). In an effort to promote inclusivity there has been a lot of work done by a variety of institutions to attempt to recreate the fieldwork experience in more accessible settings. These range from fieldtrips in accessible terrain (e.g. on campus or along a road/permissive path) through to entirely virtual fieldtrips. Some examples of the former include classroom exercises common to many institutions, campus based exercises such as the University of Glasgow’s “Rock around the university” project (Dempster, 2020), and a University of Leeds field course named “Access Anglesey” designed specifically around accessibility (Houghton and Gordon, 2019). Virtual fieldtrips can be as simple as a webpage collection of outcrop and sample photos, or as complex as a video game or virtual reality experience (Cliffe, 2017; Houghton et al., 2015; Hurst, 1998; Minocha et al., 2014; Stainfield et al., 2000). The general consensus amongst the geoscience community is that these virtual substitutes are not yet equivalent to the real thing (Cliffe, 2017), but nevertheless are “reasonable adjustments” which can and should be made so as to minimise any disadvantages which students with disabilities may face. Stokes et al. (2019), in particular, extoll the benefits of maximising participation in fieldwork for students with disabilities and emphasise the importance of making best efforts to make all field trips inclusive and accessible wherever possible. The best practice, and the one which I personally support, is to maintain “real” field trips as the standard wherever possible, but modify them to enable participation from as broad a student body as possible. Virtual field trips have their place, but cannot be considered truly authentic assessments.

With regards to my own field teaching I am constantly on the lookout for opportunities to develop my skills and abilities as an educator. I believe that it’s very important to look beyond the academic echo-chamber to look for best practices in other fields. The challenges we face in designing effective, inclusive and enjoyable field based curricula are not unique to the geosciences and have been examined previously in a variety of other fields. Outdoor professionals in particular have faced many of the same challenges we do, and as a result their publications contain a wealth of advice (Long, 2003). This includes a great deal of best practice recommendations on techniques for skills training. As part of my own continuous professional development I’ve been working on several Mountain Training qualifications for this very reason (Mountain Training, 2019).

I’m also keen to integrate research informed methodologies into my own field teaching. This ranges from practical teaching aids (Murphy, 2017) to incorporating new areas of thought, such as geoethical considerations (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015). Some of these I have found to be effective teaching tools, such as the use of a laser pointer to contextualise my statements. Others, such as incorporating geoethics education I have found less useful, as it distracts from the main learning outcomes of field exercises. An idea which I have recently been exploring further in my own practice is that of suggested readings pre- and post-trip, which students can digest at their own leisure. Reading lists have a long history in university education, and despite simmering dissatisfaction have remained largely unchanged in that time (Brewerton, 2014). The typical critiques back and forth between staff and students about varying levels of engagement with them and unclear expectations often lead to their regrettable underuse (Stokes and Martin, 2008). Many have, rightly, criticised the canon of many subjects for lacking diversity in multiple senses (Greenbaum, 1994; Peters, 2015; Salami, 2015). In my own teaching I have been experimenting with “suggested” readings, rather than required reading lists. Required reading lists are a formalised process in the University of Leeds, recorded in the module catalogue and coordinated with the library. I am instead interested in encouraging students to read more widely than just the required course text, and have instead been peppering references to a wider array of readings, audio-visual media, and even fiction from diverse authors into my teaching. This is an effort to encourage students to develop a well-rounded education and a broader awareness of where their subject fits within the rest of society. Some of these recent recommendations have included: a webcomic about ecosystem collapse (McMillen, 2011), a TED talk on research in conflict zones (Al-Shamahi, 2018; Al Shamahi, 2019), a science-fiction novel on climate change and geo-engineering (Robinson, 2015), and a historical account of a contentious scientific debate in the area they do their fieldwork (Oldroyd, 1990). My hope is that some students will be inspired or intrigued by these shorter, accessible works and that will increase student engagement.


Al-Shamahi, E. (2018) Fossil fishing in the Yemen. New Scientist 237, 40-41.

Al Shamahi, E. (2019) The fascinating (and dangerous) places scientists aren’t exploring,

Biggs, J. (1999) What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development 18, 57-75.

Bjork, E.L. and Bjork, R.A. (2011) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society 2.

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay, 20-24.

Brewerton, G. (2014) Implications of Student and Lecturer Qualitative Views on Reading Lists: A Case Study at Loughborough University, UK. New Review of Academic Librarianship 20, 78-90.

Brodie, M. (2013) Soapbox – Masters of mapping?, Geoscientist. Geological Society of London,

Buddington, A.M. (2006) A Field-Based, Writing Intensive Undergraduate Course on Pacific Northwest Geology. Journal of Geoscience Education 54, 584-587.

Cliffe, A.D. (2017) A review of the benefits and drawbacks to virtual field guides in today’s Geoscience higher education environment. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14, 28.

Dempster, T. (2020) Rock Around the University,

Dewey, J. (1897) My pedagogic creed (1897). School Journal 54, 77-80.

Didau, D. (2015) What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Crown House Publishing.

Dow, P. (1999) Why inquiry? A historical and philosophical commentary. Foundations 2, 5-8.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (1999) Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education 2, 87-105.

Giles, S., Jackson, C. and Stephen, N. (2020) Barriers to fieldwork in undergraduate geoscience degrees. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

Greenbaum, V. (1994) Expanding the Canon: Shaping Inclusive Reading Lists. The English Journal 83, 36-39.

Greene, S., Ashley, K., Dunne, E., Edgar, K., Giles, S. and Hanson, E. (2020) Toilet Stops in the Field: An Educational Primer and Recommended Best Practices for Field-based Teaching.”. OSF Preprints.

Healey, M. (2005) Linking Research and Teaching to Benefit Student Learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29, 183-201.

Houghton, J. and Gordon, C. (2019) “Access Anglesey”: An inclusive and accessible field course. Teaching Earth Sciences 44, 7-11.

Houghton, J.J., Lloyd, G.E., Robinson, A., Gordon, C.E. and Morgan, D.J. (2015) The Virtual Worlds Project: geological mapping and field skills. Geology Today 31, 227-231.

Hurst, S.D. (1998) Use of “virtual” field trips in teaching introductory geology. Computers & Geosciences 24, 653-658.

John, C.M. and Khan, S.B. (2018) Mental health in the field. Nature Geoscience 11, 618-620.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist 41, 75-86.

Long, S. (2003) Hill walking: The official handbook of the Mountain Leader and Walking Group Leader schemes. Mountain leader training UK.

McCay, G. (2019) Fieldwork: The liminal experience you never even knew you had, Teaching Matters blog. The University of Edinburgh,

McMillen, S. (2011) St Matthew Island,

Minocha, S., Davies, S.-J., Richardson, B. and Argles, T. (2014) 3D virtual geology field trips: opportunities and limitations.

Mountain Training (2019) Lowland Leader Qualification.

Murphy, P. (2017) High powered laser pointers–a useful aid in field teaching. Teaching Earth Sciences 42, 31-31.

Oldroyd, D.R. (1990) The Highlands controversy: Constructing geological knowledge through fieldwork in nineteenth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press.

Peppoloni, S. and Di Capua, G. (2015) The meaning of geoethics. Geoethics: Ethical challenges and case studies in earth sciences, 3-14.

Peters, M.A. (2015) Why is My Curriculum White? Educational Philosophy and Theory 47, 641-646.

Robinson, K.S. (2015) Green Earth. Del Rey.

Salami, M. (2015) Philosophy has to be about more than white men The Guardian. The Guardian, London.

Smith, G.A. (2002) Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi delta kappan 83, 584-594.

Stainfield, J., Fisher, P., Ford, B. and Solem, M. (2000) International Virtual Field Trips: A new direction? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 255-262.

Stokes, A., Feig, A.D., Atchison, C.L. and Gilley, B. (2019) Making geoscience fieldwork inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities. Geosphere 15, 1809-1825.

Stokes, P. and Martin, L. (2008) Reading lists: a study of tutor and student perceptions, expectations and realities. Studies in Higher Education 33, 113-125.

University of Leeds Library (2019) Working With Others.

Walker, P. (2012) Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success, says Michael Gove, The Guardian.

Xue, G., Mei, L., Chen, C., Lu, Z.-L., Poldrack, R. and Dong, Q. (2010) Spaced Learning Enhances Subsequent Recognition Memory by Reducing Neural Repetition Suppression. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23, 1624-1633.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.