Research Guide
Research Summary

Outdoor Education Meta-analyses

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Aug 2009



Meta analysis offers a powerful way of helping to answer the broad question: "In what ways, and to what extent, does the experience of an outdoor education program effect participants?".  Meta-analytic studies can also help with regard to specific questions such as about the role of gender, program length, etc. on program outcomes.

Across the available meta-analyses of outdoor education and related programs, the overall effect sizes are small-moderate (approximately .3 to .4). This generally supports claims that outdoor education can be an effective personal and social development training method. However, there is a wide diversity of outcomes and therefore caution should be exercised in generalising from meta-analytic results to any specific program.


Neill (2002) is an update of the Neill and Richards (1998) summary of outdoor education meta-analyses.  A more specific summary of meta-analyses with regard to adventure therapy outcomes can be found in Neill (2003).

Neill, J. T. (2002, January). Meta-analytic research on the outcomes of outdoor education. Paper presented to the 6th Biennial Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, Bradford Woods, IN.

  • Updated version of Neill and Richards (1998).  Summarizes five outdoor education meta-analyses.  Indepth, includes comparisons to related meta-analyses from other fields.  Reasonably up-to-date.

Neill, J. T. (2003). Reviewing and benchmarking adventure therapy outcomes: Applications of meta-analysis. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 316-321.

  • Summarizes available meta-analytic evidence related to adventure therapy and proposes use of benchmarking in adventure therapy.

Neill, J. T. & Richards, G. E. (1998). Does outdoor education really work? A summary of recent meta-analyses. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 3(1), 2-9.

  • Summarizes three outdoor eduction meta-analyses - Cason & Gillis (1994), Hattie, et al. (1997) and Marsh (1999).  Straightforward introduction to these studies, but now somewhat outdated.


There have been seven meta-analytic studies of outdoor education and closely related literature, such as camping and adventure therapy (Bunting & Donley, 2002; Cason & Gillis, 1994; Hans, 2000; Hattie, et al., 1997; Marsh, 1999; Staunton, 2003; Wilson & Lipsey, 2000).  The largest, best-known and most often cited meta-analysis is the one by Hattie, et al., followed by Cason and Gillis (1994) which concentrates on adventure program findings with adolescents.  The studies and their overall findings are summarised in Table 1 and each is briefly described below.

Table 1

Overall results from seven meta-analyses related to outdoor education (adapted and updated from Table 1 in Neill, 2002))

Study Focus d N studies N
N participants
Bunting & Donley (2002) Ropes challenge courses .55 15 na na
Cason & Gillis (1994) Adventure programming for adolescents .31 43 147 ~7,030
Gillis & Speelman (2008) Ropes challenge courses .43 44 390 2,796
Hattie et al. (1997) Adventure education and Outward Bound programs .34 96 1,728 12,057
Hans (2000) Adventure programming locus of control outcomes .38 24 30 1,632
Marsh, P. E. (1999) Camping programs .20 22 37 na
Staunton (2003) Adventure therapy programs .42 17 95 ~1,000
Wilson & Lipsey (2000) Delinquent youth in wilderness programs .18 28 60 ~3,000

Bunting, C. J., & Donley, J. P. (2002).  Ten years of challenge course research: A review of affective outcome studies.  Poster presented at the 6th Coalition for the Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium, January 11-13, Bradford Woods, IN.

  • A meta-analysis of 15 studies, focusing on the team development and self-development effects of ropes challenge courses. Overall effect size = .55
Cason, D., & Gillis, H. L. (1994).  A meta-analysis of outdoor adventure programming with adolescents. Journal of Experiential Education, 17, 40-47. (.8MB)
  • The second-most frequently cited outdoor education meta-analysis, focused on adolescents (~30 studies).  Easy to read, with a good introduction, based on a Masters thesis.  Reports on seven outcome categories, including psychological constructs (Self-concept and Locus of Control) and outcomes categorized in terms of the measurement instrument or techniques (Behavioural Assessment by Others, Attitude Surveys, Clinical Scales, Grades, School Attendance).  Overall effect size = .31.
Gillis, H. L., & Speelman, E. (2008). Are challenge (ropes) courses an effective tool? A meta-analysis. Journal of Experiential Education.
  • A meta-analysis of 44 studies (390 effects) of ropes challenge course-type program published between 1986 and 2006 outcomes (average length of program = 15 hours). Overall, these studies had a medium ES (0.43). Notably Gillis and Speelman only included studies with control groups, thus the estimated effects were relative to controls. Higher effects were found for adult groups and for studies measuring family functioning and group dynamics. Studies with a developmental or therapeutic foci had higher ESs than those with an educational focus.

Hans, T. (2000).  A meta-analysis of the effects of adventure programming on locus of control.  Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 30(1),33-60.  Penultimate draft (.2MB).

  • A small meta-analysis of about 10 studies, focusing on the effects of adventure therapy type programs on locus of control, based on Masters thesis. Overall effect size = .38
Hattie, J., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.
  • The most widely cited and comprehensive meta-analysis of the effects of adventure education.  The introduction and discussion provides insightful commentary on theory, practice and research in the adventure education field.  Reports outcomes in terms of 40 effects organised into six categories of outcome constructs (Leadership, Self-concept, Academic, Personality, Interpersonal, and Adventuresome).  Overall effect size = .34, plus .17 followup effect size.
Marsh, P. E. (1999).  What does camp do for kids? A meta-analysis of the influence of organized camping experience on the self constructs of youth. Unpublished Master of Science Thesis, Department of Recreation and Park Administration, Indiana University, IN.
  • A meta-analysis on the effects of American summer camps on self-esteem and self-concept (about 30 studies).  Overall effect size = .20.
Staunton, N. (2003).  A meta-analysis of adventure therapy program outcomes.  Unpublished Master's thesis, University of New Hampshire, NH.
  • Staunton (2003) conducted a meta-analysis of adventure therapy programs, with data representing 17 studies, 95 effects, and 879 participants conducted between 1969 and 2003. There was a moderate short-term ES of 0.53 (91 effects), and a small-moderate long-term overall ES of 0.35 (4 effects). Remarkably, all 95 estimated effects were positive.
Wilson, S. J. & Lipsey, M. W. (2000). Wilderness challenge programs for delinquent youth: A meta-analysis of outcome evaluationsEvaluation and Program Planning, 23, 1-12. doi:10.1016/S0149-7189(99)00040-3
  • A small meta-analysis (22 studies), focusing on wilderness programs for youth at risk.  Findings indicate a small overall effect size (.18), with all studies reporting positive results.  Physical program intensity and therapeutic enhancements positively predicted outcomes.  The authors are well known for their expertise in meta-analysis.  Overall effect size = .18.