To my mind, the field study is the new essay. Don't get me wrong, I remain a staunch advocate for teaching essay writing (see the 80-Minute Challenge, the Art of Argument, and The Decline of the English Language), but I believe that students must understand how so much of the knowledge they are taught was actually generated in the first place. I think this will not only help them become better students, but critical thinking members of society as well.
The benefits of teaching students about field studies, as well as involving students in the development of their own field studies, has itself been the topic of scholarly investigation. Dr. Barbara Manner published the results of her own investigation of field studies as a pedagogical approach back in 1995. She discovered that involving students in the creation of original field studies revealed many benefits. "For students, field studies create opportunities for first-hand experiences that encourage critical thinking, long-term retention, transfer potential, positive attitudes towards science, appreciation for nature, and increased scientific curiosity" (Manner, 1995).
I have integrated field studies into my economics programs for at least a couple of decades now. In more recent years, I have implemented a more comprehensive field study project across all of my courses. I find that my students not only enjoy the field study project, but they become far more comfortable with the basic scientific method involved in designing a study, collecting data, and then drawing inferences from that data.
Over the years, my students have discovered so many interesting - even shocking - phenomenon through their own field investigations. Student field studies from my courses have generated data that would suggest:
These are just a few of the interesting inferences my students have discovered for themselves over the years. More importantly, while these students have been designing, implementing, and presenting their studies, they have also been examining and critiquing each other's studies in an effort to isolate possible flaws in study designs, such as post-hoc fallacies, false directions of causality, and composition errors.
Naturally, developing and implementing a field study is not something that students can do overnight. It is critical to first teach students what field studies are, and what they are not. In my program, I focus heavily on five main components of the field study. To my mind, these include the issue, methodology, findings, inferences, and directions for further study. I have included a link below to an activity that helps students explore and summarize field studies before they set about designing their own study. This activity encourages students to listen to online interviews between journalists and researchers discussing the findings of a new study. I have opted to pursue this approach because it requires students to listen to an entire discussion without searching for, or cutting and pasting, information from a web page. Moreover, this activity helps students differentiate between field studies and other things that might easily become confused with a field study, such as an experiment or mere anecdotal observations.
Consider implementing a small field study activity or even a larger field study project in your program. You may be surprised what your students will discover.
Barbara Marras Manner (1995) Field Studies Benefit Students and Teachers. Journal of Geological Education: March 1995, Vol. 43, No. 2, pp. 128-131.
From the Law of Large Numbers to the Rule of Ten: Why Culling Your Classroom Assessment May Be a Good Idea
I'm one of those guys who was forced to take statistics back in university. I didn't want to... I'm not a math guy. But I had to. It was a required course for my psychology degree. While I might not have wanted to take that stats course, I've always been glad I did. It was tough - don't get me wrong - but I really learned some valuable lessons about numbers... as well as the things those numbers have to say about the world around us.
The Law of Large Numbers
Again, it bears repeating that I am not a math guy. However, by my understanding of it, the law of large numbers states that the accuracy of a statistical inference will increase as we draw more samples from a given population. In other words, the more data you collect, the more accurate your statistical inference will be. This is the law that I have traditionally employed in my classroom. I've historically believed that the grades my assessment mix generates for my students will be more accurate if I collected more data on that student.
The Composition Error
We commit a composition error, at times, when we assume that what is true for a part is true for the whole. (Most of the time we're probably pretty safe in making such an assumption... but not always. That's why it's such a darned tempting error to make.) Let's take a look at how a composition error could impact assessment or measurement. Imagine, for a moment, that you're attempting to measure the average speed of a tennis player's serve. If we get that player to make a single serve, and we record the speed of the serve using a radar gun, will we get an accurate depiction of the player's typical serving speed? Probably not. Well then... how about if we measure two serves? How about five? Maybe Ten? As you might guess, the accuracy of our little statistical inference will probably increase as we record more data.
However, let's try pushing this example just a little further. What if we make our tennis player show us - all in a row - twenty of his best serves? How about fifty? How about... a hundred? What do you think is going to happen to our statistical inference? You probably guessed it. The average speed of the serve would go down. The tennis player will get tired, and the tennis player won't be able to give us his best serves in such an arduous and unnatural set of circumstances. We would invariably commit a composition error in assuming that the benefit of a little more data would be amplified by gathering A LOT more data. As we gather more data, the data itself becomes skewed by a measurement effect, where the attempt to measure something exerts an influence on the very thing being measured.
Enter the The Rule of Ten
The composition error and measurement effect described above speaks, in part, to the potential benefit of judiciously planned - and methodically limited - course assessment. As teachers, it's probably a good idea to always multiply our total number of assessments by the total number of courses that our students take at any one point in time. Then divide that number by the number of weeks in the semester or school year. That's the theoretical total number of assessments that your students might have to do per week. Take a good long look at that number, and ask yourself where you are along the statistical measurement road. Are you still within the region wherein you can extract further benefit from the law of large numbers? Are you possibly approaching the composition error zone? Have you perhaps long passed into the dark and tumultuous region of the measurement effect? Crunch the numbers, and have a good honest discussion with yourself and your teaching partners or department colleagues about where you think you stand with respect to your course assessment.
A Change in Goals
Applying the Rule of Ten this year has forced me to change the goals I have for myself and for my students. I'm not necessarily lowering my expectations... but I'm changing my objectives. As a Grade 12 teacher, I've traditionally had a goal of teaching my students every little thing they would need to know for their associated first year university course. If I taught economics, I wanted my students to learn everything they would need to know for first-year economics. If I taught law, I wanted to prepare my students for law school. I mean, for crying out loud, my students hadn't even graduated from high school and I was trying to prepare them for law school!
The bottom line is this: I'm a high school teacher, and my students are high school students. What they really need, I think, is a good high school teacher. Not a good professor... and certainly not a bad one. Another thing they don't need is their lives so crammed full of deadlines, assessment, and stress that they can't learn the things they really need to learn, think about the things they need to think about, or have the high school experience that they would not only enjoy, but perhaps even benefit from the most. I know it's quite trite to say, but there are times when less is more... there really are.
I have integrated field studies into my economics programs for at least a couple of decades now. However, in more recent years, I have implemented a far more comprehensive field study project across all of my courses. I find that my students not only enjoy this project, but they become far more comfortable with the fundamentals of field research, including study design, data collection, and the drawing of inferences. I believe that field studies are now an integral part of a modern liberal arts education, especially for students of social science. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that field studies have become the new essay.
Field studies describe an organized, well-considered effort to collect data from a real-world environment. Field studies generate primary research data through the use of recorded observations, interviews, or surveys. Field studies are not to be confused with experiments, wherein data is generated from within a controlled setting - such as a lab.
The objective of any field study is to make inferences about what happens in the real world.
The Field Study Extended Project
In the Field Study Project, each student (or pair of students) would propose, design, and conduct some form of original field study. The field study must explore a phenomenon that is related to a course's overall topic of study (ex. law, sociology, or economics). The actual field study (i.e. the data collected) would form the basis of a scholarly journal article that can later be published within a journal that the class produces and posts online.
The Field Study extended project includes the following phases:
Students familiarize themselves with the idea of field studies by reading field study articles curated by the course instructor.
III) Ethical Review
Each field study write-up, presentation, and journal article should:
Write-Up: There is no prescribed lower or upper word limit for the study write-up. However, this study should be well considered and well implemented so that it can serve as the foundation for both your presentation and your scholarly article.
Presentation: Ten minutes.
Scholarly Article: Maximum of 1500 words, including the front matter. (Front matter for a journal article generally consists of a title, abstract, key words, and the names of the author or authors.) This is an article intended for publication within a scholarly journal, so it should be representative of the student's very best writing. Single spaced, at font size 12, the article should take up three pages within the scholarly journal.
The New Learner Lab
Exploring the ever-changing, often challenging, and always controversial world of teaching.