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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Geocaching in the Community

Posted by on Friday, December 28, 2012 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor Pedagogy,

I am looking for new, innovative ways of engaging my students with the local history and culture of the city.  As an instructor, I believe that using local, relevant resources for teaching makes the learning for my students more authentic and effective.  However, getting outside the classroom in a structured way seems so daunting and difficult to manage.  Do you have any ideas on how I might get my students engaged in learning about the local history of the community in which our university is located?  Are there ways of leveraging technology, too?  How can I assess that they have learned something if I have them moving around outside the classroom, and can’t be with them at all times?

Thank you for your response,
Learning on the Move


Dear Learning on the Move,

I applaud your efforts in thinking how learning could occur outside the four walls of the classroom, and wanting your students to engage with the local context in which they are both living and learning.  Moving outside the “classroom as container” paradigm (Leander, et al., 2010) can be scary; there seem to be so many unknowns and variables to control.  However, other models of learning (e.g., apprenticeship models) show us that teaching and learning can happen in a variety of different ways that don’t resemble the traditional classroom model (e.g., Lave & Wenger, 1991).  Here, learning occurs within authentic activity, at the elbow of a more knowledge other (Hall & Greeno, 2008), and in spaces that necessitate moving and coordinating bodies (e.g., Hutchins, 1995).  This description is a stark contrast to our traditional image of a student sitting in a chair, legs under a desk, looking at a screen.  All this to say, move forward with your ideas of re-imagining university teaching and learning!  Feel good about yourself for problematizing the lecture-style model and engaging minds within bodies in places bustling with activity and history!

So here’s my idea:  Starting with your objectives of getting your students out of the classroom, learning about the history and culture of the community, providing some structure, and perhaps introducing them to new technologies, you could do a geocache!  Yes, you heard me, a geocache.  If you don’t know what a geocache is, you might want to first visit this website for some very basic information.  Now, I don’t know the exact content area or discipline from which you teach, but connecting your big, disciplinary ideas to the resources of the community through a geocache could be an effective structured way of teaching som  e material “on the move.”

First, think carefully about the learning objectives you have in mind.  Then, do you want your students moving around an area of the community that is walkable?  Do you want them navigating the transit system?  What specific locations will afford your students with new information, and why is it important to actually be in that place?  Will they be in groups?  Will each group member have a particular task?  Do you want to use GPS (global positioning system) technology on smart phones or on devices?  Would you prefer them to use paper maps?  What do you want your students to produce, or bring back with them from this activity?

Once you have answered these questions for yourself, you might:

  • Place some “tasks” around the area in which you want your students to engage.  Tasks could be typed-out on slips of paper, rolled-up in tubes and located in hard-to-see spots.  The tasks could ask your students to do a variety of things, but make sure that the task is location-specific or relevant to actually being in that spot.  Otherwise, the effort of getting to that particular location will seem for naught.
  • Ask students take a picture of the location, do a rubbing of an engraving with trace paper and charcoals, and/or do some written reflection in that place.

Let’s say you have five tasks to which you want groups of students to navigate and complete – one could be a kind of written assignment, two could be more problem-solving tasks, one could be a group interpretation of the meaning of a place, and one could be a simple photo proving that they had arrived and noticed something noteworthy about the location.  You might find that the variety of “task types” will differently engage your students and provide new ways of learning the material.  For some of your students, it will be the navigation and finding the cache that gets them most excited (especially if you have introduced this activity as a race or competition).

In response to your question regarding assessment, you should think carefully about how you debrief this activity in conversation with your students.  Maybe you want each group to share particular artifacts that they have either created or found at locations.  Perhaps you want students to discuss how each location and task relates to bigger disciplinary ideas that are important for the course.  Maybe you want students to do an individual, follow-up assignment at home that synthesize some of the major points you were hoping to get across via a geocache.  Regardless, make sure you do some kind of debrief or wrap-up so you can assess both what your students learned, and how well this activity went for your own pedagogical objectives and toolkit.

Good luck and have fun!

Professor Pedagogy


Hall, R. & Greeno, J. G. (2008). Conceptual learning. T. Good (Ed.), 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook, (pp. 212-221). Sage.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Le-gitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Leander, K.M., Phillips, N.C. & Taylor, K.H. (2010). The changing social spaces of learning: Mapping new mobilities. Review of Research in Education 34, 329-394.

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