Field trips are an important aspect of many academic disciplines (1) and have been shown to be positive for learning (2). Evidence indicates that generally, field trips enhance students’ understanding of the subject area, improve their connection to peers and build disciplinary identity (3). However, research has suggested that field trips do not always support positive student mental wellbeing and can be challenging for some students (4). Staff in academic and Student Services roles have raised concerns about student mental health on field trips – particularly residential field trips. These reports recounted instances of students experiencing panic attacks, episodes of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and overwhelming distress (5) (Please also see case study). Concerns have also been raised that some students experience additional barriers to inclusion on field trips (6).
To better understand the experiences of students on field trips, we conducted some research for this project. Focus groups with held with academic staff and Student Support Services, to better understand the relationship between field trips and mental health – particularly to gain narrative understanding of times when students have experienced poor mental health on field trips. In addition, two observational studies were conducted of Geology residential field trips to further explore students’ experiences. The following reflections are drawn from this research:
Environment and equipment
Access to equipment can be an equality issue and have significant bearing a student’s experience. Many of the items required require significant investment in relation to a student’s available finance. For those students who can afford the equipment, there can also be inequality in terms of the quality purchased. Those with the least expensive equipment can be more susceptible to getting wet, overheating, etc. This can have negative physical consequences but can also impact on a student’s sense of status, belonging and identity, in ways which undermine their wellbeing more generally.
Staff focus groups and observational studies highlighted the importance of facilities on field trips, particularly access to toilet facilities. Often, in the field there may be little access to toilets, or they may be very different from those with which students are familiar (e.g. they may be a hole in the floor). It was apparent that this impacts differently across genders – of particular note were problems for students who were menstruating and transgender students.
Academic staff and students highlighted the impact of weather on wellbeing. At either extreme, hot weather or cold, wet weather were seen to have potentially negative impacts on student emotions, thinking, learning and behaviour. Students’ ability to manage their own bodies in these conditions, can then become important in their overall experience.
Academics in focus groups highlighted differing impacts between UK based field trips and those in foreign locations. Field trips outside of the UK appear to carry greater levels of complexity, in terms of different cultural norms, laws and weather factors. Students’ prior experiences seemed to have a significant bearing in this regard. Those students who had never flown before or been in a location outside the UK, had an additional level of acculturation and learning to absorb alongside the demands of the field trip itself. For some this increased challenge created a level of anxiety and sense of being overwhelmed.
Dietary issues were also highlighted as potentially problematic, particularly on field trips where choice of food was limited and diet was markedly different to UK norms. If students with additional dietary requirements find it difficult to meet their dietary needs, this can have both a physical impact and create an additional factor to manage, which increases the cognitive and emotional toll for them.
Overall, our research highlighted the need for students to be prepared for a range of aspects of field trips, including practicalities, self-management and their own emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Helping students to visualise the experience in advance can support better preparation; this may be enhanced through peer mentors who have previously undertaken the same field trip. Creating an environment in which practical difficulties (such as access to toilets) can be discussed as simply part of the discipline, may also help to alleviate difficulties on location.
The literature and our research found that there was uncertainty about the boundaries of the academic staff role (7), which can become more problematic in the field, at a significant distance from other university services. Specific staff training may help to more clearly identify where these boundaries should lie and how they can best be maintained, in real situations. This may be supported by the development of field trip protocols, shared between academics and support staff.
Please also see Defining boundaries and relationships
Academic staff wellbeing
Academics are normally the first line of contact for the students when they are on field trips and sometimes face distressing situations. Given that this is a common and predictable event, it is necessary for universities to devote reasonable time and resource in preparing and supporting staff for field trips and after their return, when required.
Students suggested that the following may be beneficial to their wellbeing on field trips
- Allow time for breaks, to rest, acclimatise and absorb disciplinary learning and the culture in which they find themselves
- Allow more social time, to build a sense of cohort identity and a team approach to the trip, enhancing psychological safety and creating a safe, learning community.
- Ensure detailed preparation, in relation to location, environment, required equipment, tasks, practical challenges, accommodation and food and emotional management.
- Encourage group work and use assessment criteria to encourage a supportive culture
- Field trips can enhance students’ understanding of the subject area, improve their connection to peers and builds disciplinary identity
- A range of issues may impact on student’s experiences, which may undermine wellbeing. These include environment, location, preparation and previous experiences, practical arrangements and access to adequate equipment
- Academics identify difficulties in maintaining boundaries on field trips and potential negative impacts on their wellbeing
- Students identified detailed preparation, adequate time on field trips to rest and acclimatise and social interaction and support to be important for maintaining wellbeing
- Allow time for rest breaks, downtime and social time built into the field trip schedule. Building community or planned days off may help students feel less isolated and help to reduce stress.
- Prepare students for all aspects of the field trip in advance, including developing skills to manage their emotions, respond to environmental challenges and support each other
- Consider the wellbeing of academic staff on field trips in planning and management.
Tucker F, Horton J. “The show must go on!” Fieldwork, mental health and wellbeing in Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences. Area. 2019 Mar;51(1):84-93.
Hughes G, Panjwani M, Tulcidas P, Byrom N. Student mental health: The role and responsibilities of academics [Internet]. Oxford: Student Minds; 2018. Available from: http://www.studentminds.org.uk/uploads/3/7/8/4/3784584/180129_student_mental_health__the_role_and_experience_of_academics__student_minds_pdf.pdf
O’Brien T, Guiney D. Staff wellbeing in higher education. Education Support Partnership [Internet]. 2018. Available from: https://healthyuniversities.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/staff_wellbeing_he_research.pdf
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Tucker F, Horton J. “The show must go on!” Fieldwork, mental health and wellbeing in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Area. 2019 Mar;51(1):84-93.
Dowey N, Barclay J, Fernando B, Giles S, Houghton J, Jackson C, Khatwa A, Lawrence A, Mills K, Newton A, Rogers S. A UK perspective on tackling the geoscience racial diversity crisis in the Global North. Nature Geoscience. 2021 May;14(5):256-9.
Greene S, Ashley K, Dunne E, Edgar K, Giles S, Hanson E. Toilet stops in the field: An educational primer and recommended best practices for field-based teaching. 2020.
Lavie Alon N, Tal T. Student self-reported learning outcomes of field trips: The pedagogical impact. International Journal of Science Education. 2015 May 24;37(8):1279-98.