Study: Students Really Do Learn Stuff on Field Trips

New research shows that class trips offer educational value--and that they are in danger of disappearing from American schools.
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Field trips are becoming a less and less common part of the school year in the United States. A study from the University of Arkansas documents the decline the American field trip: A 30 percent decrease in student attendance at Cincinnati arts organizations between 2002 and 2007, a similar decline in the number of students visiting Chicago’s Field Museum, and an American Association of School Administrators survey showing more than half of American schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year. Furthermore, the field trips that are happening are shifting away from “enrichment” trips, like visits to museums and historical sites, to “reward” trips, such as trips to movie theaters, sporting events, and amusement parks.

But the study also finds that cultural field trips offer students, and in particular, disadvantaged students, an important opportunity to add measurable depth to their education.

“Enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture,” the researchers wrote in Education Next.

The study evaluated 10,912 students and 489 teachers at 123 different American schools. Half of the participants visited the newly-opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas, while the other half had their trips deferred to later in the year, after researchers administered surveys to all of the students. Researchers used surveys to evaluate the students’ knowledge about art and measure their critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums.

The large majority of students who had visited the museum were able to recall information about the paintings they had seen. For example, the researchers found that 82 percent of students who saw Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter knew that the painting emphasized the importance of women entering the workforce during World War II. Students who visited the museum were better able to think critically about pieces of art they had not seen before, as well, according to blindly scored essays all participants wrote in response to seeing Bo Bartlett’s The Box for the first time.                      

Students who visited the museum were also more likely to express tolerance and historical empathy when completing their surveys. Researchers evaluated these traits by asking students to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements like “I can imagine what life was like for people 100 years ago,” “When looking at a painting that shows people, I try to imagine what those people are thinking,” and “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.” Students who had visited the museum were also eight percent of a standard deviation more likely to say they were interested in visiting art museums.

Researchers noted that these gains were more pronounced in disadvantaged, minority, and rural school groups. “Students from rural and high-poverty schools benefit even more than other students from visiting an art museum,” they wrote. While 63 percent of rural participants who had not visited the museum said they would “tell my friends they should visit an art museum,” 73 percent of rural students who did visit the museum said they would encourage a friend to go. Students from high-poverty schools experienced an 18 percent effect-size improvement in their critical thinking skills.

The researchers urge schools to reconsider the national trend to cut field trips to balance tight budgets, especially in high-poverty or rural areas. “We don’t just want our children to acquire work skills from their education; we also want them to develop into civilized people who appreciate the breadth of human accomplishments. The school field trip is an important tool for meeting this goal,” the researchers wrote.

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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