Factors Which Influence the Effects of Outdoor Education Programs
These factors seem to influence the process and outcomes of outdoor education programs:
Related article: What works: Some practical implications from [educational psychology] research findings (Martyn Long, 2000) [The Psychology of Education]
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):
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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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.
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;
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:
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:
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.