Outdoor Education R&E Center

Research Guide

Theories

Factors Which Influence the Effects of Outdoor Education Programs

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Apr 2007

These factors seem to influence the process and outcomes of outdoor education programs:

  1. Individual differences - gender, age, personality, readiness for change, etc.
  2. Organizational philosophy & culture
  3. Experiential, concrete, consequential problem-solving tasks
  4. Dramatic activity in novel context
  5. Theory-based, principle-driven, customized program structure
  6. Carefully selected & trained leaders
  7. Facilitation techniques
  8. Group development, processes & dynamics
  9. Program for transferability, including significant others, exploring personal stories, & metaphoric thinking
  10. Length of program
  11. Environmental & logistical events
  12. Program modality

Related article: What works: Some practical implications from [educational psychology] research findings (Martyn Long, 2000) [The Psychology of Education]

Factors that matter

Outdoor education programs vary widely in philosophy, methods, and activities, so its difficult to synthesize the holy grail of the "key factors".  Based on my  experience (several years instructing outdoor education programs and several years of teaching, reading and researching about outdoor education programs), I propose these following factors are the main determinants of the effectiveness of a program (also read about Theories of outdoor education):

Individual differences

Every individual is different, and the single, biggest determinant of a participants' experience is generally the individual's personal history (stored experiences) and the motivation, fitness, goals, readiness for change, etc. with which the individual enters the program.

Philosophically, this notion of the importance of the individual draws upon John Dewey's principle of continuity which, along with the interaction with the situational circumstances (the program) ultimately determines the quality of an individual's experience. 

In psychological terms, individual differences refers to psychological constructs which vary amongst people, e.g, personality factors such as introversion-extraversion, emotional stability-instability, etc., but also to many other factors, such as motivation, coping, self-efficacy, locus of control, and so on.  For more information see "Personality & Individual Differences: An online undergraduate psychology course".

Five areas of individual differences which hold much promise for future investigation are:

  • Self-efficacy
  • Coping
  • Readiness for change
  • Resilience
  • Goal-setting

Traditionally, the focus on individual difference research in outdoor education has been on variables such as gender and age, and demographic factors.

Gender: There are no clear differences in overall or specific outcomes for males or females or single-sex or co-educational groups; even though gender is a ubiquitously quoted individual difference, it doesn't seem to be a strong or clear determinant of empirically measured effects of outdoor education programs (e.g., see Hattie, et al, 1997; c. f., Neill, 1997).  For information, see "Gender: How does it effect the outdoor education experience?" (Neill, 1997) and "Gender and outdoor education

Age: Research tends to have found greater effects with adults rather than adolescents or children (e.g., Hattie, et al, 1997).  However, this could be because adult programs tend to operate with motivated volunteers, whereas youth programs more often involve an element of compulsion by parents or teachers.

For more related research articles, go to Participant Characteristics & Individual Differences in Outdoor Education.

To learn more about the psychology of individual differences, go to this online undergraduate psychology course.

Organizational Philosophy & Culture

The programs' philosophy and culture give rise to everything else; staffing, program design, recruitment, communication with participants, etc.; program quality ultimately stems from the official and implicit reality and professionalism of the operating organization; Does the program have a strong philosophy focusing on development of the desired goals?  And does the program culture set up strong expectations of success in reaching the desired goals?.  It is  no secret that Outward Bound's strong commitment to "hard-core, growth-oriented" philosophy has been the chief recipe for its success over the years.  Some interesting materials about how to build, change and alter organizational culture (and its importance for program quality in residential camping) has been written by Randall Grayson, VisionRealization. A healthy indicator of an effective program at an organizational level is that the program is actively engaged in program evaluation and publishes and disseminates its research findings. 

Experiential, concrete, consequential problem-solving tasks

Offer hands-on, concrete, learning-by-doing tasks with real-world constraints; allow freedom for participants to mistakes which have clear, natural (rather than arbitrary) ramifications (Priest & Gass, 1997, pp. 22-23)

Dramatic activity in novel context

Utilize unique, engaging context of wilderness and provide compelling, intense, challenging, adventurous activity which excites and keenly focuses the mind and body.  For more information, see the work of Andrew Martin on the use of dramaturgy, which uses principles of drama to create more holistic adventure-based programs.

Theory-based, principle-driven, customized, holistic program structure

Utilize well researched educational and psychological theory in program design.  On the one hand, customize program design to meet the unique needs of participants, on the other hand make clear use of good design principles such as:

  • Gradually increase the level of difficulty of activities: Often you may need to start at a more basic level, but likewise, you can often help people to much higher levels of skill.  Don't be afraid to slow the program right down to help people grasp important concepts, but likewise, don't be afraid to rapidly increase the challenge when participants are capable.
  • Attend to the rhythm and pattern in the program structure (e.g., see the Adventure Wave). Ensure overall flow of program is holistic by incorporating cognitive, affective (social or emotional), and physical learning activities.
  • Try to make use of all of the participants different senses through various experiences and activities - i.e., sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste.

Carefully selected & trained leaders

Select staff carefully (e.g., warmth is an important factor, as is authenticity, transparency, and intelligence).  Then enculturate recruits in compelling organizational philosophy and provide real incentives for their commitment, especially ongoing training to foster their personal and professional growth.

Facilitation techniques

Specific studies have been done testing different types of facilitator techniques and the findings do suggest that particular techniques are beneficial - see summary of eXperientia work by Simon Priest)

Program for transferability, including significant others, exploring personal stories, & metaphoric thinking

Teach skills and meta-skills which are directly applicable to everyday life; Look for ways of involving significant others to help communicate and socially reinforce the changes; Look for metaphoric structures that relate back to home life;

Length of program

Longer programs have been found to be more effective -- certainly, 1 month  programs are significantly more effective than 1 week-long programs, which are in turn significantly more effective than 1-day programs.  At least that's my conclusion from having read and researched outdoor outcomes and related program outcomes over the last 10 years.  For the citations, on this, go to the more indepth summaries and papers.  Some extra points to add:

  • Although the relationship between length of program and effect is significant and positive, it still only appears to be a relatively small effect.  Thus, length along is no guarantee for success, and is it is possible for a short program to effect substantial, lasting change.
  • The relationship between length of program and size of effect is likely to follow a decay curve - i.e., the benefits of going from one day to two days will be much larger than the benefits of going from six to seven days, which will be much larger than the benefits of going from 21 to 22 days.
  • There may be a weak relationship between length and effects because of grossness in assessing length.  Length at the lower ends can also be measured in number of hours of treatment, or number of hours of active treatment (do we count being asleep for example?).  Also, increasingly programs are moving towards intermittent treatment and it is difficult to clearly measure of establish the actual meaning of "length".
  • The relationship may also be weak because instructors and participants have a gestalt tendency to treat any program as a whole program, regardless of the number of days.  To the extent that we are influenced by "hero myths" or "stage theories" of change, then we can appreciate that the entire cycle will be fitted by a good instructor into a program, regardless of the number of days.  There is always, for example, some apprehension felt by participants on the first day, and some relief felt on the last, whether that is later the same day or many weeks later.
  • All in all, it has become clear that the trend towards shorter outdoor education programs is in contrast with the effectiveness research. A silver lining of the drive towards shorter programming is that there has been significant new focus on developing more carefully planned activities, frontloading, facilitation, etc. in an attempt to elicit and facilitate development during a short time period.

Environmental & logistical events

Weather, gear, logistics, & back-up support.  These issues normally play little part in determining outcomes when they go according to plan, but it is also not uncommon for weather or other logistical events outside the group's direct control to provide experiences which can prove:

  • hugely beneficial (e.g., group bonding arising from carrying someone on a stretcher for 12 hours through difficult conditions) or
  • particularly damaging (e.g., failure of safety equipment)

Program modality

There are no clear differences in outcomes between different program modalities (e.g., land-based vs. water-based.  Of course there will be exceptions -- some participants are struck be a particular activity, but for most program participants, a similarly effective experience would have ensued in different type of program in a different location.