Can we have class outside?

The weather has been unusually nice lately in Dallas. Students enjoy being able to move outdoors and I’ve seen them reading under trees or chatting in the sun: the quintessential college life. Of course when it is this nice, who wants to go inside to have class? No one including the professors! Some of my favorite teaching memories are taking classes outside. In today’s post, I want to share one of the IDEAS from my book, Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. In this IDEA, we share how to take advantage of the beautiful weather.

can we have class outside

Photo credit: SMU

IDEA #19:  Can We Have Class Outside?

Overview

When the weather is nice and there is a good place to gather as a class, holding class outside periodically can be beneficial to learning. The change in the environment can modify the class environment, encourage more interaction between the class and instructor, and make it easier for students to remember the discussion from that class session

This activity requires little to no additional preparation as standard discussion strategies can happen in the same format, simply in a different place. For example, checking the forecast may allow a few days to prepare for a discussion in a philosophy class whereby the instructor walks slowly through campus discussing critical ideas or an instructor might sit outside with physics students and have students present examples of the processes being discussed. In addition to using outside experiences to augment course discussions, the Can We Have Class Outside? IDEA can help change the class dynamics with benefits that extend after the outside class session. Moreover, having class outside can be fun for both the students and instructor.

Guiding Principles

The Can We Have Class Outside? IDEA presents an excellent opportunity to build a stronger students cohort and class learning community. Students who feel supported by an instructor’s responsiveness and concern for their preferences develop better relationships and demonstrate better outcomes (Seed, 2008). Fundamentally, the fun and change of pace of Can We Have Class Outside? assists in developing relationships and a learning community among students.

Having class outside spurs learning by creating a more informal learning environment. Simply the moving students outside of the classroom environment can reach students in a different way (Melber & Abraham, 1999). By leaving the confines of the classroom, barriers to engaging in discussions are lowered between the instructor and the students. In addition, being outdoors and participating in a more informal class provides an opportunity for students to learn without the high levels of stress that college students often feel.

Finally, being outside allows for different information to be learned as context influences which memories are recalled. When we are in a novel context, we tend to draw on existing memories frequently and are more likely to create new episodic memories (Hupbach, Hardt, Gomez, & Nadel, 2008). Essentially, being in a new environment, outside the classroom, can have an impact on how one thinks and remembers what is discussed.

Preparation

Prior to taking your class outside, there are a couple of factors to consider. First, give some prior thought to the location. Depending on the temperature, you may want to find a spot in the sun to stay warm or in the shade to stay cool. Also, you will want to think about where the students will sit, particularly after a rain if the area is muddy. You may select a spot new a bench so a few students do not have to sit on the ground. Pay specific attention to sitting if any of the students have physical limitations, including recent injuries that affect mobility. Finally, consider what you have planned for class and if it can be suitably completed outdoors. For example, a class session with heavy technology requirements may be less ideal than a session focused on discussing assigned readings.

The most important preparation is to visit the space in which you intend to take your class. Ideally, go to the area at a similar time of day as when your class will meet to see if the area is loud or distracting. Finally, determine how you will “reserve” the space to ensure that when your class arrives it is available. It will be disruptive if you arrive only to find a group of students sitting in the area having discussions or even another class in “your” spot.

Process

  • Just prior to class, have two students go to the area where you intend to hold class. One can “hold” the spot while the other returns to confirm it is available. The point is to ensure the space is available before proceeding with your entire class.
  • Walk to the spot and hold the class session.

Sample IDEA Pairings

Socratic Seminar (IDEA #7). Present material, have students respond to the information presented, and then proceed to discuss the material in a way that prompts deeper thinking.

What Counts as Fact? (IDEA #54). Ask students to write or discuss the different facts from two or more articles. The informal outdoor setting can relax students and allow successful  analysis of the competing types of evidence.

Journaling (IDEA #68). The Journaling IDEA provides a helpful structure for students to use for writing and reflecting about their own experiences and class material while appreciating nature.

Pro-tips

Although nearly any teaching approach can work outside, you want to consider noise factor from passersby, the wind, or traffic. Group discussions work particularly well as it is easier to converse in a small group than as a whole class.

In addition to noise, remember that students lose focus in class after a few minutes, and they may have even greater difficulty paying attention outside. This added distraction can be particularly challenging for students with attention disabilities. If you have students registered with your Office of Disability Services, you will want to check with them to ensure that the activity is appropriate. Even for students who have normal levels of attentions, the additional distraction of being outside can be challenging. Consider switching up the number and type of activities you use in class. In addition to our suggested pairings above, any peer teaching or small group discussion IDEAS can be useful.

Students typically like going outside. Allow them to have an asynchronous chat or leave five minutes at the end of a class for students to create a solid rationale for why the class should be held outside. They may well come up with good reasons that you had not considered.