Issues in Providing Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities

Role of Fieldwork in Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Why is fieldwork so central to these disciplines?

Most colleagues within these disciplines would see the answer to this question as self-evident. It is rather like asking whether a doctor should learn directly about the human body, or whether they should study anatomy solely through reading a book without being able to touch or observe their subject. For landscapes, whether 'natural' or 'human', are the subject of these three disciplines, an excitement with which brought students to study these subjects. Once on a course of study, an ability to understand and analyse in the field is viewed as central to students succeeding in the discipline.

The pivotal role of fieldwork is clearly reflected in the overview reports of Teaching Quality Assessment, prepared by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Earth Sciences

Fieldwork carried out on day trips and residential fieldcourses is a vital component of the study of geology. The assessors reported that fieldwork provided opportunities for the development of understanding that could not be achieved in the classroom or laboratory. It also encouraged teamwork amongst students, and helped students to integrate course materials with practical experience. It was also seen as reinforcing the good rapport between academic and technical staff and students. In examples of best practice, the assessors noted that group work in the early stages of a course provided a foundation for individual fieldwork at a later stage. Geology students frequently undertake individual mapping projects for which the prior understanding of practical techniques acquired on fieldcourses is crucial.
(HEFCE, 1995a, para. 14)

Environmental Sciences

Fieldwork on day trips and residential fieldcourses is regarded as an essential component of environmental courses; the assessors were critical of one institution where resource constraints had precluded appropriate fieldwork.
(HEFCE 1995b, para. 21)


Fieldwork is a key component of the curriculum. Despite the pressures of tighter budgets for both students and institutions, almost all departments continue to provide some locally-based and some residential fieldwork.
(HEFCE, 1995c, para. 14)

The QAA's Benchmark Statement for Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies states:

The Panel believes that it is impossible for students to develop a satisfactory understanding… without a significant exposure to field based teaching, and the related assessment. Much of the advance in knowledge and understanding in our subject areas is founded on accurate observation and recording in the field. Developing field-related practical and research skills is, therefore, essential for students to pursue careers in Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies.
(QAA, 2000a, para. 4.3)

This view is reinforced by the Geography Benchmarking Panel, who state that:

An education in Geography involves an active engagement with the external world. Fieldwork constitutes an essential element of this engagement and thus has a variety of roles, in:
(QAA, 2000b, para. 5.8)

Box 7: Reasons given for undertaking fieldwork

Reasons for doing fieldwork:

Source: Based on Gold et al. (1991), pp.25-26 and Livingstone et al. (1998), p.3

Page updated 14 December 2001

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