Assessment of Student Learning in a Virtual Field Trip

Assessment of Student Learning in a Virtual Field Trip

Drs Louise Ross and Clare Trinder, School of Biological Sciences


Drs Louise Ross and Clare Trinder, School of Biological Sciences share their experiences of field work learning and assessment during the pandemic.


We converted a seven-day field course titled, “Conservation Issues in Scotland” to an online version in April 2020. The original course addresses key issues in contemporary conservation, including grouse moor management, beaver reintroduction and rewilding, through visits to a range of sites in the Cairngorms National Park. Meetings with land managers and other stakeholders provide a range of perspectives on land management. Exploring the conflicts that arise between conservation and competing land uses underpin the course learning outcomes. We aimed to assess the students’ understanding of these issues by assessing the quality of their engagement with online discussion boards on these topics.


The online version maintained a similar format to the “live” field course in that each day was dedicated to a particular topic. We compiled folders of relevant material for students to work through on Blackboard, including video clips, recordings, journal articles and blog posts, followed by 3-4 open-ended questions encouraging further thought and critical analysis. Students posted their answers on a daily discussion board, and were encouraged to interact with their peers, carry out further research, and share new perspectives. Lecturers acted as moderators and contributed to the discussion where appropriate. Reports were generated through the Performance Dashboard on Blackboard, allowing students to be assessed on the number of posts made, evidence of further research, insightful comments, critical thinking, and interaction with classmates


Use of the discussion boards promoted student engagement and active learning, facilitated greater understanding of complex issues, and provided opportunity for reflection. As the topics covered are often controversial, this encouraged critical and creative thinking as to how alternatives to the status quo may be found. Students were able to reconsider their viewpoints as the discussion progressed through the course of each day and new perspectives and information came to light. Students were also able to improve their writing skills and ability to express their thoughts and views in a way that is accessible to others


Evaluation was carried out through the course feedback form and discussion with colleagues in the School of Biological Sciences. Students found the topics engaging, enjoyed the variety of source material, and appreciated the opportunity to try a different style of written assignment from essays. Difficulties arose when students did not (or could not) log into the discussion boards until later in the day, as most of the issues had already been addressed. This could be addressed by assessing the students’ answers to the questions and contribution to the debate separately. If the course was to be run in an online format again, we plan to include synchronous sessions with stakeholders and, if possible, some day trips in order to facilitate the improved understanding arising from these interactions. We conclude that lessons learnt in developing this online course can certainly enhance its standard format in future.


The assessment described here, along with lessons learnt as a result, were communicated in a meeting of members of staff involved in fieldwork teaching in the School of Biological Sciences. These responses are being collated to form the basis of best practice guidance for running online field courses in future. Outwith the University, this case study will be presented at the British Ecological Society Teaching and Learning Group Enhanced Fieldwork Learning Showcase Event on 8th September 2020, in the form of an oral presentation titled “On the ground to online: a conservation field course in the time of COVID-19”.