CDTL    Publications     Mailing List     About Brief



This issue of CDTL Brief is the last of a two-part installment that features the teaching practices of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award winners and nominees.

October 2004, Vol. 7, No. 9 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Reflections on Field-based Teaching and Learning
Dr Carl Grundy-Warr
Department of Geography


In Singapore, students take many things for granted and are often so remote from the very systems and processes that sustain them. This is a serious issue particularly, as Singapore seeks to play not only a global role, but also to be well integrated into this beautiful, diverse and dynamic region. Field studies helps students to better appreciate their own ‘ecological footprint’ as consumers of many environmental resources, develop a more holistic perspective of the myriad connections between our biophysical world and human societies and provides ample opportunities for cultural exchanges with folks who are living not so far away from Singapore’s shores.

However, writing about field studies is difficult because so much of the module is based on classes ‘in the field’: fieldwork, short fieldtrips and a plethora of different experiences that can not be easily or simply explained. The module essentially encapsulates much of what I believe are critical to the teaching—researching—learning process with many pedagogic benefits. It is useful, therefore, to reflect a little on what some of these benefits are and share some ideas about the field studies experience.

Applying methods and skills ‘in the field’

Field studies provide students with (often) the first real opportunities to apply methods and technical skills learnt in the classroom in various fieldwork settings. In the June—July 2004 field studies module, two students, Song Guan and Li Yan, attempted a cultural mapping project for an elevated Akha village called Ban Mae Ter near Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Rai Province. The students soon discovered that relying on their enthusiasm and being equipped with the relevant mapping technology (e.g. Trimble Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographical Information System (GIS) software, laptop) were insufficient for them to work on the project. Other preparatory work such as discussions with a local cultural anthropologist and meetings with contacts (one of who could converse in Chinese, Thai and Akha) from the village was crucial. The need for an accurate map of the village for visitors interested in the Akha culture and specific sites of significance in village quickly became apparent through the project.

Three weeks later, the students produced a series of maps showing the basic local topography, position of village homes and key cultural sites. The students were satisfied that they were able to accomplish the exercise using applied computer cartography that is of potential use and benefit to the community. However along the way, the students also learnt that there were some problems in trying to include indigenous ideas into a ‘modern’ map and some inbuilt limitations with the software used. This kind of learning experience is extremely rich and rewarding for students who have to quickly develop many new theoretical and technical skills acquired in the classroom. It reminds me of Stan Stevens’ (2001:149) remarks about the value of fieldwork: a ‘sense of obligation, a desire to give back to the communities and localities that sustain our academic pursuits’.

Intensive experience-based learning

During the June-July 2004 field studies module, 45 students were divided into 11 groups to work on seven different projects in seven locations around the province of Chiang Rai. After a one-week orientation involving workshops at local academic institutions, meetings with their respective Thai buddies and visits to four of the main field sites, the students had to propose alternative projects and sites for their eventual three-week group projects ‘in the field’. For most students, this was not only their first experience of working intensively (day and night) in small teams, but also and their first at working within a foreign culture away from the comforts of their homes.

The uniqueness and intensity of the students’ field experiences are revealed in their individual and group reports. November and Yangchen recalled their home-stay with a spiritual elder in the Lahu Nyi village of Ban Phu Kai, where they participated in several rituals, such as the full-moon (Si Nnn) festival at the village temple and the mountain-top ceremony (Mo Le Ve) at another Lahu Nyi village, Ban Hui Hock. These first-hand experiences provided the students with valuable insights into the spiritual attachment these villages have with their physical environment, which was an aspect of their project on examining indigenous knowledge. Such direct experiences enable students to ‘think out of the box’, to question and analyse everything around them using all their senses, never taking anything for granted. Of course, such experiences are not just confined to research, but they also became lasting memories that linger long after the fieldwork is over. For instance, November recalls the convenience of wearing the local ‘sarong’ (hair-doo-goh), which enables easy access and privacy while bathing:

“Eventually temptation got the better of me and it was the experience of a lifetime, standing in the open bath area, bathing with ice-cold channelled river water at midnight under the luminous glow of the full moon while the entire village was asleep, shrouded in darkness.”

Field studies provides students with ample opportunities to become active inquirers as fieldwork makes the subject (and other subjects) come alive for the students, enabling them to make connections between what is learnt in the classroom and what is discovered in the field. Students get to see the multi-layered contradictions, limitations, benefits and necessity for primary research, making our students more observant, analytical and curious of the world around them. I couldn’t agree more with Clive Briffett (2000) on the need for more ‘real world’ experiences for our students, particularly within the surrounding regions of which Singapore—a global city—draws in so many of its environmental resources. Yet our students (regretfully this applies also to our geography students) remain so detached from the ecological, agricultural and physical environments that sustain them. As one student, Daryl, mentioned in his individual report:

“This is a rice plant taken from the paddy fields we visited during the first week. It is significant because it is my first physical contact with a rice plant. The urbanised environment in Singapore never permitted me to see real paddy fields that sustain our lives. On numerous occasions during this module, I have seen farmers labouring in the hot sun and heavy rain. I never understood why my parents have always told me not to waste rice. Now I can finally understand. The rice on our plates may seem inexpensive, but the effort taken to produce it is invaluable.”

Cultural and social exchanges

One of the most rewarding aspects of field studies is the wide range of opportunities to interact with people from other cultures. Besides the home-stays, students also get to meet ‘buddies’ from host academic institutions. During the June-July 2004 module, such a student-interaction scheme was arranged with both the Mae Fah Luang University and Chiang Rai Rajabhat University. The warm interaction between the Thai and Singapore students developed into friendships in some cases and spurred others to acquire a different language:

“This calligraphic writing of how my name is pronounced in Thai is written by Ajarn Nualanong. Although simple and done informally, it is a representation of the social ties that have emerged in the course of the field studies module. It is significant because of the friendship that has been forged and it also suggests that in any research project, it is possible to build meaningful and long-lasting relationships which can enhance both your research as well as your life” (Charlene).

More than just the grades

Perhaps, more than any other module, field studies help the students to become lass obsessed with grades as they go through the process of primary data collection and become immersed in teamwork, research and projects. One of the most rewarding dimensions of the ‘learning by doing’ approach is that students get totally absorbed in their projects and begin to see for themselves that the process is just as important, if not more, than the polished end product and the eventual grade it receives. It is not that grades do not matter, but most students taking field studies begin to see the other learning benefits and that the grade is but only one of the many outcomes:

“For me, this field studies module has been a success, not necessarily in terms of the grades we eventually receive. Rather, it is what field studies has managed to teach and train us to work in a group under the most difficult of situations. It is a most valuable skill which would prove to be immensely useful in all aspects of our lives” (Lin Shuqing Carissa Jacinta).

Lifelong learning

Field Studies is a 24-hour a day, seven days a week, intensive ‘collaborative effort’ between staff and students (see Miksic, 2000:36). Clear-cut research, teaching and learning boundaries are often erased ‘in the field’ and teachers often become co-learners alongside the students. As Tim Bunnell, a colleague from a previous field studies module in southern Thailand and Malaysia, put it:

“Learning alongside students, learning from students and with students is so much richer for me than the usual delivery of information, which much classroom-based teaching ends up becoming” (Traversing Borders, a Field Studies 2003 video).

But it is the longer-term benefits for students that interest us most. If we consider, as Yi-Fu Tuan (2001) does, that life is a sort of ‘field-trip’, then undoubtedly, field studies provides exciting, challenging and intensive opportunities along that special journey for all those involved in it. Again, I believe that this is best expressed by some of our students in their final individual reports. For some, field studies has given them a real incentive to study harder and to undertake more primary research in future:

“I am now convinced that as a ‘survivor’ of the field studies module, any doubts of my inability to survive in the field, in a different culture and poor living conditions, can all be thrown to the winds. I can now truly empathise with the enthusiasm and passion that all field researchers proclaim…I would definitely consider field research a priority in my future academic endeavours” (November).

For others, the module has fed their working life aspirations directly:

“As I prepare myself to become a teacher in the Education Ministry, it is my desire to enhance my own learning experience, as well as to garner a unique and special insight into Geography, one which I can share proudly with my students in the future…When I begin my teaching career, I would like to share and teach those under my wing with a background of personal experiences such as these. I would also want to instil in my students the joy of doing fieldwork in Geography and the life-changing experiences it has to offer!” (James Chia).

As a teacher and educator, my primary aim is to help students to become intensely engaged in study, not just for final grades or for the important quest for knowledge itself, but as an on-going lifelong endeavour. I hope that I can be a simple ‘bridge’ to other ways of thinking and seeing, so that my students can explore horizons well beyond my own.


Briffett, Clive. (2000). ‘Real World Experiences Make Real People: A Technique for Running Successful Tutorial Sessions’. Reflections of Teaching: The NUS Experience. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. Singapore: National University of Singapore. pp. 68–69.

Miksic, John N. (2000). ‘Archaeology vs Teaching’. Reflections of Teaching: The NUS Experience. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. Singapore: National University of Singapore. pp. 35–36.

Stevens, Stan. (2001). ‘Fieldwork as Commitment’. Geographical Review, Vol. 91, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 66–73.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. (2001). ‘Life as a Field Trip’. Geographical Review, Vol. 91, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 41–45.

 First Look articles

Search in
Email the Editor
Inside this issue
My Teaching Philosophy and Practices
The Joy of GEM
A Grounded Teaching Practice
Constantly Learning to Teach
Teaching with Passion
Strategies for Effective Teaching
Reflections on Field-based Teaching and Learning