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Young people’s cognitive achievement as fostered by hands-on-centred environmental education

by Trumbull Nature and Arts Center on 11/18/16

Direct experiences with nature and hands-on follow-up activities can foster students’ cognitive achievement

This study investigated the influence of a hands-on environmental program within a national park in Germany on 4th and 5th graders’ cognitive knowledge achievement. The sample consisted of 289 students who participated in a week-long conservation course designed to foster their connection to local nature and to support individual enjoyment by spending time outside.

A variety of hands-on activities and affective approaches were used to evoke positive emotions in an outdoor setting. The activities and desired learning outcomes focused on the park’s characteristic forest ecology as well as species conservation. Another focus was on the biology and natural history of the lynx and wolf – two carnivores often perceived in negative ways. Experienced outdoor educators guided the activities with groups of 7 – 12 students. The activities included visiting a variety of exploration stations in the forest, playing simulation games focusing on animal behaviors, and observing wolves and lynx in their natural habitat.

Paper-pencil questionnaires were used to measure cognitive achievement and situational emotions. Three emotions relating to learning situations were addressed: well-being (subjective positive feeling during the lesson); interest (cognitive orientation); and boredom (lack of action and interest). The cognitive achievement test was administered three different times, to provide pre-, post- and retention measurements. The first measurement (the pre-test) was completed at school up to two weeks before participation in the environmental education experience with teachers being instructed to avoid any type of preparation or discussion about the content. The second measurement (the post-test) was completed on site at the end of the conservation program, and the third measurement (the retention test) was completed at school four to six weeks after participating in the program.

The test of situational emotions was completed at two different times: for the pre-test and immediately after playing a board game during the conservation program. The board game was one of two follow-up learning activities. For purposes of this study, one group of students (n = 170) interacted with thematic posters as a follow-up learning activity. A second group (n = 128) completed both the poster activity and a thematic board game. These two follow-up activities were chosen as variations to typical classroom follow-up activities aimed at consolidating knowledge (such as paper-pencil tasks or memorizing facts) and included the most important information covered during the outdoor program. These procedures addressed one of the related research questions: Do the two different follow-up activities enhance  cognitive achievement and if so, do they influence the knowledge gain in different ways?

Results indicated that the conservation program did produce a significant knowledge increase immediately after and over a period of six weeks following the program. Results also indicated that the program helped the students learn factual knowledge about lynx and wolves, changing their prejudices towards these animals. While both follow-up activities – interacting with a poster and completing a board game – supported knowledge gain, the combination produced a significantly higher knowledge increase.

Based on these findings, the authors conclude that direct experiences with nature and additional hands-on follow-up activities can foster students’ cognitive achievement.

Dieser, O., Bogner, F.X., (2016). Young people’s cognitive achievement as fostered by hands-on-centred environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 22(7), 943-957.

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