Before, During & After Field Trips: What You Can do To Ensure Effective Student Learning Experiences

Have you ever watched with envy as your colleagues organized and properly executed a field trip with their students?  From a distance, it may seem impossible—the necessary paperwork alone may be enough to keep you from trying.  You may have asked yourself,  “Can I trust my students to behave and engage outside of the classroom? And where would I even take them to create a meaningful learning experience?” Don’t let these fears keep you from expanding the horizons of your students and deepening your practice as a teacher. 

The task of selecting and planning a field trip may not be as daunting as you think.  You can find local museum exhibits that align with your content.  You can also prepare students by communicating expectations, create an activity with the museum educators to facilitate learning on site, and plan a debrief activity to help students apply their newfound knowledge. 

Whether you are a math, science, drama, history or any type of teacher, with a little planning, you can make field trips an effective learning experience for your students.

Selecting a Site: Aligning with Curriculum

When you begin to think about selecting a field trip site (here are some suggestions for NYC teachers), it is key to think about curriculum alignment. Here are a few key questions to think about:

  • Will the trip stimulate or enrich a unit plan or lesson plan?
  • Does it engage my students to think about or examine specific key content?
  • Will it be a meaningful day or just a neat excursion out of the building?

If the trip does not align to your content, it will not be a meaningful experience for your students.

Zachary White-Stellato, a Living Environment teacher at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math & Science II in the South Bronx,  strongly recommends having a clear goal for the field trip.  In some cases, he won’t introduce much background knowledge because he wants to use the trip to pique student interest for an upcoming unit.  In other cases, he may want to leverage the trip to build on what students have already started learning.

Once you have thoughtfully selected a site and determined the goals for the trip, it’s time to prepare.  To help you maximize your impact, we’ve broken down advice for field trips into three phases—before, during, and after.

Before the Field Trip: Prepare for Learning

Take the time not just to collect permission slips, but to also establish student goals and expectations for learning and behavior.  You may consider using a class T-chart to brainstorm what the day might look like or sound like.

Joseph Costello, an eleventh grade History teacher at Eximius College Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx, suggests you “really need to plan the trip out. If you haven’t been to the location, go beforehand and get a sense of what’s there.  See the exhibits and how long each will take and determine if there are special exhibits that only take place at set times.”

Zachary White-Stellato expands upon this advice and recommends creating a planning document that details “exactly what the students are going to be doing, what you’re going to be doing, and what the facilitators at that establishment are going to be doing at all times.”

Depending on your goals, you may want to share some highlights or activities from your chosen destination’s website, create a partial bulletin board or share an artifact from your destination to start sparking student interest.  One of the richest academic preparations a class can do before a trip is to establish questions to answer or hypotheses to test by examining data on site.  This ‘data’ could be artistic representations, documents, samples, activities or mathematical problems.  For example, here you will find an example of student questions for a trip to the Museum of Anthropology & Archeology.

During: Engage Students Onsite

Even the most loosely structured observation or gathering of evidence can boost student engagement on a field trip.  Be sure to model on site as you would in your classroom, preferably in small groups.  If students will be viewing an exhibit, provide clear and familiar protocols for observation.  You can distribute a customized activity guide or an all-purpose primary source tool such as the observe, reflect, question tools provided by the Library of Congress to help keep your students focused and engaged throughout the trip. 

You can also use an activity developed by museum educators for your chosen site.  You’d be amazed at the amount and quality of student-centered activities already developed by museum educators.  For example, educators at the National Archives have created a variety of document-based activities to introduce students to archival research or they can work with you to pull documents from their vast and diverse collection around a particular theme for a day of learning. 

You can even think about how to structure time on the bus ride if it’s a long trip. For instance Joseph Costello distributes packets with background information for students as they first board the bus. The packet highlights key information students should be aware of and also contains open ended questions for students to think about during the trip.

After: Harness Learning

Before you do a well-deserved little dance congratulating yourself on leaving the building and coming back with all your students safe and sound, don’t neglect the post-trip debrief!  Not only can you harness student learning in this stage, but you can also mine valuable feedback about the whole process.

Start by sharing answers to the questions or hypotheses with your students that you collectively brainstormed before the field trip.  If well-aligned with your curriculum, students should be able to use their trip findings as evidence throughout the unit as they answer essential questions.  For example you may ask your students, “Remember that teeny-tiny apartment where 12 people slept at the Tenement Museum? How about the quarters for enslaved people at Philipsburg Manor?”  With any luck, you’ll have created formidable touchstones for student learning throughout the rest of the academic year.

Still on the fence about taking your students on a trip? Take a chance by finding a site that aligns with your curriculum, plan out the various phases, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the results!

What additional tips do you have to help ensure your field trips are a success? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section or join the conversation on Twitter using #FieldTripTips!


About the Authors:

Aruna Patel serves as an instructional specialist responsible for developing and implementing New Visions' U.S. History curriculum in a number of New Visions schools.  Working with partners such as Gilder Lehrman and The City University of New York’s Collaborative programs, she also facilitates monthly professional development sessions for U.S. History teachers that blend literacy skills practice with history instruction.  Prior to working at New Visions, Aruna taught in both neighborhood and magnet schools in Philadelphia for eight years.  She holds a B.A. in cognitive science and economics from the University of Rochester and an M.S. in secondary social studies education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Lee Schere is the Associate Director of College Readiness & Success Initiatives for The City University of New York’s Collaborative Programs unit, where he has served in a variety of capacities since 2006.  Located in CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs, Collaborative Programs work with the NYC Department of Education to prepare NYC public high school students for success in college.  At CUNY, in addition to his other administrative responsibilities, Lee currently directs the Debating US History curriculum project, working with over 20 NYC high schools to implement an 11th grade U.S. History curriculum he developed to support students’ academic and disciplinary literacy.  Previous to his tenure at CUNY, Lee was a social studies teacher for eight years at EBC Bushwick High School for Public Service in Brooklyn where he taught civic engagement classes and directed service-learning activities school-wide.  Lee holds a Bachelor’s Degree in American Studies from Georgetown University and an MA in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society from the University of Minnesota.

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