Skip to main content
Dryad logo

A comparative study between outcomes of an in-person vs. online introductory field course


Race, Alexandra; De Jesus, Maria; Beltran, Roxanne; Zavaleta, Erika (2022), A comparative study between outcomes of an in-person vs. online introductory field course, Dryad, Dataset,


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many standard approaches to STEM education. Particularly impacted were field courses, which rely on specific natural spaces often accessed through shared vehicles. As in-person field courses have been found to be particularly impactful for undergraduate student success in the sciences, we aimed to compare and understand what factors may have been lost or gained during the conversion of an introductory field course to an online format. Using a mixed methods approach comparing data from online and in-person field course offerings, we found that while community building was lost in the online format, online participants reported increased self-efficacy in research and observation skills and connection to their local space. The online field course additionally provided positive mental health breaks for students who described the time outside as a much-needed respite. We maintain that through intentional design, online field courses can provide participants with similar outcomes to in-person field courses.


Data for this study comes from three quarters of in-person instruction (Spring 2019, Fall 2019, and Winter 2020) and two-quarters of online instruction (Spring 2020 and Summer 2020). Data collected included reflective journal prompts, end of class focus groups, pre/post surveys, informal course evaluations, instructor interviews, and ethnographic case studies. Data was collected using a mixed-methods, case study approach. Each component of data collection had a set of questions that addressed different aspects of the course and field-based learning experiences.

Qualitative Data:  The focus group questions included those pertaining to student motivations and aspirations and how field-based courses played a role in those goals. We also focused on the barriers that students may have experienced in taking field-based courses. To provide a nuanced perspective on online learning settings, we also conducted interviews with one of the two online instructors and the teaching assistant (TA) from the online quarters. The questions focused on how they felt the online setting affected learning outcomes and student-teacher interactions. Reflective journal prompts were collected online or in written journals from students. Questions aimed to better understand the impact of the field course experience on students. We conducted the case studies using ethnographic approaches including participant observation and field notes (Fall 2019=23 students observed; Summer 2020=15 students observed). 

To analyze our data, we created a codebook looking for themes of community, a sense of belonging, connection to scientific skills, and identity. We also were interested in holistic experiences students may have had in the course, looking to descriptions of emotions felt by students. We coded as a team to ensure consistency. After the codebook was finalized, we used the qualitative software Dedoose to aid in our analysis of the journal entries, interviews, focus groups, and open-ended responses to the surveys.

Quantitative Data: The pre-and post-course surveys (responses in-person pre=271, post=81; responses online pre = 33, post = 7) included Likert-scale questions aimed to capture motivation, self-efficacy, and community, and open-ended questions about the students' expectations for the course as well as their understanding of conservation and environmental stewardship (see Appendix Table 6). Each student was asked to rate their confidence on a 5‐point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Neither Agree Nor Disagree, 4 = Agree, and 5 = Strongly Agree) for each of six questions: (a) I am familiar with the flora, fauna, and ecosystems of California; (b) I have strong experimental design skills; (c) I have strong oral presentation skills; (d) I know how to conduct field research projects from start to finish; (e) I am interested in pursuing a career in science; (f) I am interested in pursuing a graduate degree.

The quantitative survey data was analyzed using a cross-sectional approach (i.e., mean of post-surveys minus mean of pre-surveys for all students, including those that only answered the pre-survey).


Howard Hughes Medical Institute