From field experiences to experiential learning: The importance of reflection

Image Credit: Pawel Janiak, unsplash, CC0

In this post, Dan Swanton offers an expansive overview of the need for reflective pedagogy in the very ‘rhythm’ of field work. Taking up his own course in GeoSciences, Dan assesses how experiential learning – far beyond a simple CV filler – can be made truly effective through a structural commitment to reflective practice, thereby transforming the way students interact with knowledge and their learning environments. This post is part of the Learning & Teaching Enhancement Series: Reflective Learning.

‘I had a great time, but you didn’t really teach us anything.’

At first I was downhearted and frustrated by this comment from a student on the journey back from a new field course. But as I talked with the student, and later mulled it over with my colleague Eric, the more I understood this student’s response. Field courses often focus on delivering content. Familiar teaching methods honed in classrooms migrate into the field as demonstrations, lectures, or guided tours. And while students learn all kinds of other practical skills during field courses, what often remains is the academic content that has been delivered. They have been taught something. We hadn’t met this student’s expectation of what teaching and learning would look like in the field.

Our course develops skills in the craft of doing fieldwork. Rather than leading with topics or academic content, the emphasis is on learning and practising methods for questioning, listening, observing, documenting, analysis, and writing. The course also emphasises student co-creation. Activities are organised around week-long student-designed research projects, with projects mentored by an academic or a PhD student. During the course the students create an artefact to share their research materials – so far, these artefacts have included podcasts, short films, and comic strips. Producing these artefacts challenges the students to engage creatively with their research materials. It prompts them to think critically about how they share research and engage methods of communication that are not always familiar or, indeed, comfortable.

The rhythm of the field course is organised around activities that involve the students doing, making, and sharing. A key motivation for inviting the students to share their work so frequently was that in our responses, feedback, and discussion about their work, we wanted to model and develop reflective practice. We nudge and we question. We seek clarification. We make connections. We solicit alternative perspectives. We tease out assumptions. The approach is inspired by our studio teaching and project work that provide students with an apprenticeship in reflective practice through rounds of making, responding, and discussing.

As my conversation with the student continued, it became clear that she had got a lot from the trip. She’d gained confidence in using research methods and been challenged with creative ways of sharing research materials. She’d learnt to collaborate effectively. And in the process of doing the research and working with research materials, she’d confronted some of her assumptions. But this chat forced me to reflect more carefully about how I set students’ expectations of what learning and teaching will look and feel like on the field course, and how talking about reflective practice can help students to recognise the range of experiential learning that might take place in the field.

For me, this conversation highlights how reflective practice is key to experiential learning in the field, but also how introducing reflective practice involves shifting staff and student expectations about what field teaching might look and feel like.

Field work is a signature pedagogy in the GeoSciences. Whether you’re studying ecology, environmental sciences, geology, or geography, learning involves getting out of a classroom or lab and into the world. Each discipline in the GeoSciences nurtures different field cultures, but in each the experience of doing fieldwork positions the field as “an exemplary site of scientific knowledge production, a privileged site for knowing natures and cultures, and a setting for place-specific practices knowing” (Crang, 2003, p.251). Learning and teaching in the field do a lot of heavy lifting in our degrees. Fieldwork provides immersive experiences that connect classroom learning and the real world. It encourages place-based learning. It emphasises enquiry-based learning and problem solving. Fieldwork also often requires teamwork and develops a range of communication skills. Just as importantly, the experiences of fieldwork provide opportunities for forging disciplinary and cohort identities. For students, field courses are often highlights of their degree and important experiences for making friends and memories. The anthropologist Bob Simpson makes the point pithily: “You don’t do fieldwork. Fieldwork does you” (2006, p.219).

There’s a risk that we take field experiences for granted. Like other signature pedagogies, they become “proper and customary ways of teaching” (Kelly, 2022) that risk becoming unquestionably a good thing and produce pedagogical inertia. However, the pandemic, the important work to diversify and decolonise curricula, addressing equality, diversity, and inclusion agendas, and the climate emergency have prompted deeper reflection on the value of field experiences in our curriculum.

For me, this questioning demands a fuller articulation of how we value field experiences, and what kinds of field experiences we value. Field teaching aligns with many of the definitions of experiential learning. Students actively engage with learning activities. They process and do, but we can underplay the importance of sharing and reflecting in the experiential learning process. A primary emphasis in field teaching is often academic content. It’s about applying knowledge in the field, or producing or extracting data to analyse. Assessments like field notebooks, presentations, and written reports assess some of what the students learn on a field course.

This downplays other things. The experiences and wonder of being in the field slip away. The learning in the field that can shift ways of seeing, values, and identities doesn’t necessarily register in assessments. The challenges, false starts, dead ends, moments of discomfort, and negative experiences get tuned out. And the practical skills and confidence gained through working in a team, problem solving, or honing communication skills escape attention.

Encouraging reflective practice

Nurturing reflective practice before, during, and after field teaching is key to making more of the field courses. Prompting and promoting reflective practice can help ensure that a field experience becomes meaningful experiential learning. But I’m also wary of limiting reflection on experiential learning to some kind of auditable process. There’s a risk that reflective practice can be reduced to checking off the academic, professional, and personal skills to be called upon in a job application. In our course, the repeated cycles of doing, making, and reflecting create spaces where students observe and practice some of the ‘academic moves’ that constitute reflective practice. An important part of the field experience was developing habits for engaging with, and responding to, other people, ideas, and perspectives critically but also with kindness and generosity. In the course, we’re now much more explicit about our pedagogical approach and talk with the students about the design of activities that encourages them to use research methods, analytical techniques, and reflective practice.

In a number of field courses there are numerous examples of how students are being encouraged to reflect on what they’ve learned about themselves as learners but also to recognise themselves as the architects of their own learning (Gannon, 2020). For example, many field courses require students to keep field notebooks or diaries in which students are prompted to both document and reflect on their experiences. Over recent years, there’s also been a diversification of assessment methods, many of which explicitly make space for and encourage reflective practice. For example, blogging and portfolio assessments offer frameworks and guidance for reflection on field experiences. More conventional assessments like reports or essays also carry expectations that students will reflect on the experiences and challenges of fieldwork, or how field experiences encourage a questioning of our assumptions, ways of seeing, values, and intentions.

Finally, reflective practice needs to take place beyond courses. Conversations with students about learning journeys, or discussions focused on programme learning outcomes, help students to recognise and reflect on the academic, professional, and personal skills they have gained from fieldwork. These conversations, and the reflection they engender, help shift field experiences to experiential learning.


Crang, P. (2003). ‘Field cultures’, cultural geographies, 10(3), pp. 251–252.

Gannon, K. (2020). Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Morgantown: University of West Virgia Press.

Kelly, T. (2022). ‘Signature Pedagogies – A Cautionary Tale’, Imagining SoTL, 2(1), pp.10-17.

Simpson, B. (2006). ‘‘You don’t do fieldwork, fieldwork does you’: between subjectivation and objectivation in anthropological fieldwork.’ In D. Hobbs, & R. Wright, The SAGE Handbook of Fieldwork. London: Sage, pp. 126–137.

photograph of the authorDan Swanton

Dr Dan Swanton is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the School of GeoSciences. He’s a Senior Fellow of the HEA and is particularly interested in the uses of creativity and play in learning, teaching, and assessment, as well as experiential learning in the field.

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