Let’s Learn Outdoors!

An NIE study has found that outdoor education helps improve students’ leadership, interpersonal and social skills.

However, their satisfaction with the programme depends on how well teachers prepare them.

ImageOutdoor education is defined as learning activities that take place outside of the classroom. This can cover a variety of activities, from an afternoon of rock climbing to a 5-day obstacle course organised by groups such as Outward Bound Singapore (OBS).

Usually subsumed under the Physical Education curriculum, outdoor education has become a compulsory component in many Singapore schools.

And while there has been renewed attention on how these impact student learning, much remains to be seen in terms of understanding how students experience outdoor education programmes.

A recent effort in this has been undertaken by Associate Professor John Wang from the National Institute of Education. In a study which focused on female students’ experience, John and his research team surveyed 149 students aged 13 to 16 before and after a 5-day OBS course.

His findings reveal that the OBS experience led to significant changes in the students’ leadership, social and interpersonal skills. Their satisfaction with the course could also be predicted based on their motives for participating in the programme. SingTeach talks to John about what this means for teachers.

What are the benefits of outdoor education?

In line with other studies on outdoor education, John’s study showed that there was a significant increase in the female students’ leadership, social and interpersonal skills after going through the OBS course. Among these, interpersonal skills had the highest improvement.

However, there were also interesting findings on many things we often take for granted. One such finding was the link between the girls’ levels of satisfaction and their intrinsic motives for participating in the OBS course. Students are intrinsically motivated when they engage in an activity for its own sake and not for external reasons such as grades or rewards.

How can teachers motivate students?

Given these findings, John suggests that if teachers want their students’ satisfaction levels to be high, they need to be extra careful in the way outdoor education programmes are presented.

“We have to do a lot of background preparation work in order to prepare the female students before they go for the OBS course,” he explains. “You have to slowly let them ‘buy in’, convince them of the benefit, and the moment when they choose to go willingly, that is when they will reap the full benefits of the course.”

While this may all seem like common knowledge, John’s study reminds us of what to prioritise – especially when the pressures of planning and implementing an outdoor course start to pile up. After all, it is easy to assume that students should be naturally motivated to take part in these activities – often discounting the fact that a programme’s success is also dependent on how students are prepared for the experience.

Tips for teachers

So how do we get students to enjoy an activity for its own sake? John has some helpful tips for teachers thinking of taking their students on a similar course:

John stresses that giving students the rationale behind the need to attend an outdoor course is very important. “They need to understand why they have to go through a course like this and what benefits they will derive from the experience.”

He also advises that teachers be understanding towards their students’ needs. “Most of our students live under very comfortable conditions with air-conditioning and beds. To send them to an unfamiliar place to stay for 5 or 6 days will cause them to have uneasy feelings and anxieties.”

The final step in the preparation work is for teachers to provide choices to their students. John says, “They should not feel coerced to go for a programme. If they choose to go for the course willingly, then they will definitely gain the full benefits of the course and enjoy the experience.”

For teachers who are unsure what choices can be made available to their students, here are some examples:

What? Students may be allowed to choose which types of courses to attend. For example, they have a choice of between a 3- or 5-day OBS programme.
When? Students can be allowed to choose when they want to attend the programme.
Who? Students may also be allowed to choose who they wish to participate in the programme with.

by John Wang