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Teaching Outside the Classroom

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by Lily Claiborne, John Morrell, Joe Bandy and Derek Bruff

Teaching and learning can become inherently spontaneous and student-centered when moved from the confines of the classroom into the world at large. From the collaborative learning atmosphere that results from the unique relationships developed outside the classroom, to the deep learning that occurs when students must put into practice “in the real world” what they have theorized about from behind a desk, field experiences are unmatched in their learning potential.  Field experiences early in a student’s career can be formative and can inspire students to continue in a field.

Learning experiences outside the classroom are inherently interdisciplinary.  When we go out into the world, we encounter it as a whole and are forced to engage multiple modalities, no matter which pair of disciplinary “lenses” we intended to wear.  Therefore, scientists and humanists alike do well to consider the ways in which other disciplines might enrich their own disciplinary approach to their field.

There are many ways to make learning extend outside the classroom:

Field Trips

The phrase “field trip” may bring to mind long bus rides, sack lunches and museum tours, but field trips can take a variety of forms that meet a variety of needs and can enhance deep, active learning.  Along with the engagement with concepts that is required by these experiences, the student bonding that occurs on field trips enhances the learning experience and creates a learning community as students continue onward in a discipline.  Teaching in the field also gives instructors the opportunity to get to know their students in greater depth in terms of how the students see the world differently than the instructor.  This insight into student world-views can help the instructor to better communicate the concepts of the course.

Tips and Techniques:

These tips were provided by VU faculty experienced in taking students on field trips.

  • Set up the field trip as a research project that includes data collection.
  • Conduct a theoretical examination of the issue in class long before going into the field.  Students should have a sense of what the field trip is going to be about before they go.
  • At least two weeks before heading into the field, develop the rudiments of basic hypotheses.  At this point the instructor should give details about the field site so that students know what to expect.
  • In the field, focus on the things that you’ve agreed to focus on and let the other stuff be icing on the cake.
  • Take a backpack full of extra warm/dry clothes and snickers to pass out to students as the need arises.
  • If for a large class, prepare TAs well to manage smaller groups of the class.
  • Prepare students for practicalities including appropriate attire, expectations for physical exertion, anticipated rest stops, supplies and materials they should bring

Issues to Consider/Prepare For:

  • Transportation
  • Creating a sampling method suitable for students with minimal previous experience
  • Weather
  • Coordination with external personnel
  • Effective use of TAs as team leaders (management of group dynamics)
  • Student allergies and fears;  safety



Service Learning and Community Engagement

One way to escape the confines of the classroom and to afford students opportunities to grow is to encourage students to learn from and to serve the surrounding community.  In its simplest form, this may involve field trips into a community where students will have occasions to have discussions with community members or local experts on an issue related to course content.  Even greater learning potentials and community benefits rest in more intensive forms of community engagement in the form of service learning projects.  These projects, typically designed by both faculty and community partners, allow for students to learn in highly effective ways while helping a community address its needs.  In all of these experiences, student growth can be extensive, whether it is through improved critical thinking and problem solving skills, greater personal efficacy and leadership development, or enhanced social responsibility and career opportunities.

For more information on the benefits and methods of these pedagogies, as well as step-by-step guides to successful service learning courses, please visit the CFT’s Service Learning and Community Engagement teaching guide.


Study Abroad

These notes adapted from: Gardinier, Lori, and Dawn Colquitt-Anderson.  “Learning Abroad.” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning.  no. 124, Winter 2010.

There are several models for study-abroad programs.  In some, participants enroll in foreign universities as visiting, non-matriculated students.  In other programs, the sending institution retains more control over the curriculum, duration, faculty selection, and experience.  Increasingly, schools are internationalizing their curriculum by offering short-term, faculty-led, study abroad programs. Vanderbilt’s Global Education Office administers many programs available for students to study abroad.


Benefits for Students Who Participate in These Programs Include:

  • increase in student willingness to take courses outside of their major
  • increased confidence to travel abroad in longer-term programs
  • increased interest in interdisciplinary studies
  • Increased skills of inter-cultural communication
  • greater international or comparative understandings of social issues
  • a more sophisticated understanding of global social change
  • greater understanding of inequalities and differences in the world system

Key Factors That Promote Successful Short-term, Faculty-led Programs Include:

  • academic rigor
  • use of mixed teaching methods
  • facilitated reflection synthesizing experiences with academic content

According to Lori Gardinier and Dawn Colquitt-Anderson, “There is no formula for the percentage of time that should be spent in formal class time, seeing cultural/historical sites and events, doing field work, or engaging in peer-to-peer cultural exchange.  Regardless of the mix, students should arrive at the destination with a grounding in both the academic and cultural context through a combination of pre-departure lectures, guided research, online discussions, readings, and cultural events relevant to the trip.” (26)

In study abroad situations, faculty leaders assume a number of roles that extend beyond the classroom, and setting appropriate boundaries becomes critical.   It can be helpful to set specific parameters for how, when, and where you will relate to students during the program.

It is important to identify risks and liability.  Directors must be prepared for expected emergencies involving lost or stolen property, illnesses, and so on, as well as unexpected emergencies involving natural and manmade disasters.

Study Abroad Resources:

  • The Institute of International Education
    Founded in 1919, the Institute of International Education (IIE) is a private nonprofit leader in the international exchange of people and ideas. In collaboration with governments, foundations and other sponsors, IIE creates programs of study and training for students, educators and professionals from all sectors. These programs include the flagship Fulbright Program and Gilman Scholarships administered for the U.S. Department of State. IIE also conducts policy research, provides resources on international exchange opportunities and offers support to scholars in danger.
  • The National Association of International Educators (NAFSA)
    NAFSA and its members believe that international education and exchange—connecting students, scholars, educators, and citizens across borders—is fundamental to establishing mutual understanding among nations, preparing the next generation with vital cross-cultural and global skills, and creating the conditions for a more peaceful world.
  • Journal of Studies in International Education
    The Journal of Studies in International Education (JSI) is a forum for higher education administrators, educators, researchers and policy makers interested in research, reviews, and case studies on all facets of the internationalization of higher education. Each issue brings together the concepts, strategies, and approaches of internationalization, the internationalization of the curriculum, and issues surrounding international students and cross-border delivery of education.


Technology Outside the Classroom


Today’s smartphones and tablet devices (iPads and such) make it relatively easy for students to bring digital technology with them when they leave the classroom.  Once in the field, students can use mobile devices—including ones they already own—to engage in learning activities.  Below are some examples to help you start thinking about how you might use technology outside your classroom.


Location-Specific Content

With the right apps, students can access content that is tied to a particular location and only available when students visit that location.

  • Spanish instructors at the University of New Mexico use an iPhone app from the Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling (ARIS) project to send students on a fictional murder mystery through the Los Griegos neighborhood in Albuquerque that develops and tests their language skills.  Students receive location-specific clues to the mystery by typing their location into the app.
  • The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature iPhone app provides text, audio, and video content about Iowa City authors based on the user’s GPS-determined location.   Instructors at the University of Iowa plan to have students use this app to learn more about Iowa City authors and their connections to particular local environments.
  • CFT director Derek Bruff incorporated QR codes in an end-of-semester “crypto hunt” in his first-year seminar on cryptography.  Students cracked codes and ciphers that led them to particular locations on campus featuring QR codes, two-dimensional bar codes that students scanned with their smart phones to receive additional clues in the hunt.
  • Instructors can also have students create location-specific content.  For example, students at the University of Northern Colorado created a scavenger hunt designed to teach other students about local water rights using the ARIS platform.

Data Collection and Sharing

Mobile devices have a variety of mechanisms for collecting and sharing data.  Even simple “feature” phones can take photos and send text messages.  Students can use these devices to generate location-specific content whether on a field trip or on their own.

  • Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, taught a course titled “Tourism, Culture, and Place” in the spring 2011 semester.  Students in the course visited different tourist sites around Nashville, captured photos of these locations using their cell phones while on-site, and then blogged about their visits and their photos later.
  • Margaret Rubega, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, requires students in her ornithology course to use the social media service Twitter to “tweet” about the birds they see as they go about their lives–what birds they see, where they see them, and any connections to course content that occur to the students.  They tag their tweets with the hashtag #BirdClass to make it easy for all involved to find and read each other’s tweets.
  • Lawrence University students in an introduction to environmental science course collect geotagged water quality data during field trips using GPS devices and tablet PCs.  Students pool their data, then analyze it using geospatial visualization software while still in the field.  Many such specialized data collection and analysis tools are developing mobile apps that run on iPhones and other smart phones.

If you’re interested in using technology in the field in your courses, please contact the CFT’s educational technologist Rhett McDaniel for help getting started.


Peripatetic Pedagogy

An English 211: Writing About Literature class from University of Alaska Southeast experimented with peripatetic pedagogy and created a video documenting the experience.


The Peripatetic Approach to Teaching the Gothic By Sandy Feinstein


Place-Based Learning

Places have both natural and cultural histories, which therefore lend themselves to examination by all disciplines.  Field experiences and research are at the core of many of the natural and social sciences.  The sciences have something to teach the humanities because field experiences are such a core component of their methodology.  In the humanities field experiences might be working in archives, collecting oral histories, performing one’s art for a public audience, but it could also include visiting important historical sites and place-based experiences including using places for inspiration. For more information on place-based learning, see our Place-Based and Project-Based Learning teaching guide.


Assessment of Field Experiences


Resources for Research on Experiential Learning


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This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.