Here is the summary of research findings from recent research by UCL, the IOL and Just Giving.
Overall, it found that there is no comprehensive or regular (repeated) survey of the scale of outdoor learning in the UK. There are some studies of specific outdoor learning activities (eg, of particular types, or in particular parts of the UK), and in these, some authors express concern about barriers to delivering outdoor learning and a reduction in outdoor learning
The current research base
- Crowdsourcing UK research revealed an enthusiasm for research and sharing of knowledge amongst people who deliver outdoor learning activities. However, some of the material submitted were data or reflections which included named individuals, rather than anonymized research reports. This raises some issues around practitioners’ understanding of research ethics.
- There is a growing body of individual studies and systematic reviews about the development and effectiveness of outdoor learning. We found 15 systematic reviews of the effects of outdoor learning. They provide extensive evidence of the effects of outdoor learning. However, the set is somewhat confusing because many of them overlap in terms of the primary studies they include. Moreover, some systematic reviews include other systematic reviews, or are an update of an earlier review. This overlap therefore repeatedly reports the same evidence without necessarily strengthening it.
- Distinctions between types of interventions and outcomes employed to categorise studies are not always clear. For instance, ‘healthy lifestyles’ and ‘health and well-being’ were part of the ‘learning and development’ domain, while ‘health behaviour’ and ‘health, physical / mental’ were part of the ‘health’ domain.
58 primary UK studies were found. Four features of them are striking:
- They are spread thinly across many populations (types and age groups), interventions, settings and outcomes, such that few topics have been researched more than a handful of times. This leads to our suggestion that the sector collectively identify and prioritise the important unanswered questions, and then focuses its (presumably limited) research resources on those priority questions.
- The activities and participants on which studies focus may not be where the sector would choose that research should focus. For example, the most common study topics are: adventure or residential activity; 11-14 year olds; and the general population. This leaves very few studies on (and hence little insight about) other age groups, popular activity such as Scouts or Ramblers, or people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET), have disabilities or are post-trauma.
- That there seems surprisingly little linkage between the outcomes measured by the studies and the agenda of ‘customers’ and funders. The outcomes measured are mainly around ‘character development-type’ outcomes (communication skills, teamwork, self-confidence etc. Very few studies addressed interventions with strong links to core curriculum subjects. There was only one primary study of educational outcomes at Key Stage 1 (5-7 year olds), few of educational outcomes at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, and none at or beyond Key Stage 5 (sixth form). There is also a mismatch with the interests of employers: ‘employability’ is only measured in relation to offenders but not young people generally. Looking internationally, only six of the 15 systematic reviews looked at educational attainment, and only one addressed employability.
- Safety is little covered in the systematic reviews and was not measured as an outcome in any of the primary studies. Safety is obviously a major issue in outdoor learning since it can be dangerous: few social interventions can result in broken limbs or fatalities. Even if safety isn’t the primary focus of a study, data could be gathered about safety: this is often how patient safety data and insights are gathered in medical research.
Outcomes assessed: This evidence, both in the UK and internationally, and in both primary studies and systematic reviews, is very varied in terms of the populations who are offered outdoor learning, the type of outdoor learning and the outcomes assessed. The categorisation that informed this study captured some interventions and outcomes, but others emerged from the literature. Generally, there is considerable consensus in the general aims of interventions, but little consensus on the outcomes for assessing their effects.
The designs of individual evaluations:
We compared reports of UK studies in terms of attributes on a scale developed by Project Oracle, which looks at the extent of plans for an intervention and the evidence for it (described further in the document). Using this scale was challenging because the Project Oracle scale was designed for organisations to plan and assess their own interventions and evaluations, rather than to assess research reported elsewhere.
Many UK studies did not reach Level One of the Project Oracle scale, normally because they did not cite or appear to use a Theory of Change (also known as a logic model: an articulation of the inputs, the intended outcomes, how the inputs are meant to produce those outcomes, and assumptions about context, participants or other conditions). Clear theories of change serve a couple of useful purposes: first, they demonstrate that the practitioners understand their intervention; and second, they are invaluable for other practitioners reading the research in estimating whether they will achieve the same outcomes with those interventions in their contexts. To be clear, a practitioner may have a theory of change but not cite it in their research, but (a) citing it in the research is useful and (b) experience from many other social sectors suggests that practitioners may need support to develop or articulate their theories of change.
No UK study, or set of studies, featured the more demanding attributes of Levels Four or Five, around the intervention having been replicated in several places.
1. Almost all outdoor learning interventions have a positive effect.
2. The effect attenuates over time: the effect as measured immediately after the intervention is stronger than in follow-up measures after a few months. This is common for social interventions. However, one meta-analysis found that effects relating to self-control were high and were normally maintained over time.
3. Evidence for the value of longer interventions. The systematic reviews found that overnight and multi-day activities had a stronger effect than shorter ones. While this is perhaps unsurprising, it does pose a challenge for funders / funding since it obviously forces a trade-off with the number of participants.