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Reviewing the use of fieldwork and trips in History courses

This guidance explores how to make fieldwork and trips in history meaningful, exciting and rigorous, putting them at the core of historical enquiries, not just tacked on in the middle or at the end for a trip’s sake. The guidance is full of practical strategies to address planning for fieldwork.

In addition:

• a case study is provided on Goodrich Castle [ here ]

• a supporting article by Chris Culpin is available on the SHP website [ HERE ]
(reproduced with permission of the Historical Association)


• To download this guidance as a Word document [ click here ].

• To download the case study as a Word document [ click here ].

• To download Chris Culpin's article (pdf) [ HERE ].

Guidelines for reviewing or planning for fieldwork

1. How large a site provides the basis for a good site-based enquiry?

Beware the large site however iconic or interesting. A castle such as Warwick or Dover, an abbey such as Fountains, the whole of a country house or a large Roman fort may well be too large for students to gain a sense of the whole site, the inter-relationships of its component parts and to undertake in-depth investigation of its features. This isn’t to say it can’t be done but an over-large site may lead to a cursory treatment of lots of features rather than a motivating investigation of a small site or part of a large site.

If you do visit a large site then consider concentrating your investigation on one part or parts of the site. This enables you to get variety into the visit – careful, in-depth work balanced by a faster tour round the rest of the site. This may fit students’ concentration patterns better than trying to do everything to the same level of depth (usually shallow!).

One benefit of a small site is that it enables students to re-visit parts of the site in different ways (see section 5 below) and this builds familiarity and confidence with the site that enhances what is done back at school.

2. What kind of questions hold a series of lessons together?

It’s vital to have an over-arching enquiry question as the focus for the lesson sequence, a question that’s interesting and puzzling to them, one they can make sense of and that gets them talking and thinking straightaway, one that they may link to their existing ideas or prejudices.

Such questions must be:

  • genuine enquiries, not questions answerable solely by descriptions of features
  • focused on people with the buildings or site providing evidence for the thinking, actions etc of individuals in the past

The apparent exceptions to the people-focus are interpretations questions e.g. along the lines of ‘was it really like this [a reconstruction drawing]’ but such questions are really focusing on the similarities and differences in thinking of people then and now.

When constructing questions think around the range of historical concepts, not just the obvious ones of causation, change or continuity or interpretations but other such as, significance or sense of period (exemplified in the Medieval Minds textbook by the enquiry ‘What can a castle’s story tell us about medieval minds?’).

For a stimulating set of ideas on enquiries see this article by Chris CulpinNo puzzle, no learning: How to make site visits rigorous, fascinating and indispensable.’ (Teaching History 97, p27 – by permission of the HA) download from the SHP website [ HERE … ]

3. Where does the site visit fit into the pattern of lessons?

Go as soon as you can! The earlier the better because this means that everything in the course flows from the site rather than the site being tacked onto yet another classroom-based course about Roman Britain, medieval monks or the Industrial Revolution. The specific danger of going later in a course is that it changes the nature of the work done on site. Instead of site-work being investigative, suggesting possible answers and ideas which can then be followed up and built on it becomes a memory test – ‘what style of window is that? Come on we did it three weeks ago!’ That’s not a site investigation. It’s a memory test on features.

4. So what do you do before you go to the site?

How do you prepare students for the site if you have one lesson, two at the most, before your visit? There are several inter-related things you can and perhaps should do and they revolve around identifying and exploring students’ prior knowledge, assumptions and preconceptions about the site you are investigating. You can do this by looking at a plan (if appropriate) and a limited number of illustrations of the site. Ask students

  • what can you see?
  • which period of history does this site appear to come from?
  • what do you think is the answer to our over-arching enquiry question? Get students thinking in groups, construct possible answers (hypotheses) that they can take to the site in their minds and on paper.

It is far better that students go to the site with an awareness of their own assumptions and prior knowledge and a manageable hypothesis than with a blank sheet of paper (too little) or a lot of stuff on the history of castles or whatever and their site in particular (too much).

5. How can fieldwork be structured so that students make the best use of the visit?

Site work is a huge challenge, especially if a lengthy journey has got everybody in the mood for a field-trip rather than field-work (the vocabulary is instructive!). It’s worth spending time thinking about the concentration patterns and psychology of a site visit (how different are they from work in school?) and planning the visit to make the best of those differences. If those differences are just ignored then you may be fighting a losing battle. If anything, over-organize and over-structure – it’s relatively easy to relax the reins of control a little but almost impossible to tighten up control after a lax, open-ended start.

The central point in planning is how to structure the visit around collecting evidence related to the question you’re investigating. Students have a tendency to whiz round everything quickly so make a benefit of that – at first. Think about planning 3 stages, effectively 3 successive tours of the site. Each stage tightens the focus of the tasks and this whole approach breaks the visit into a manageable and less open-ended experience. [This is also likely to be more feasible with a smaller, more manageable site – see point 1].

Three stages of the ‘evidence treasure hunt’ could be:

  • investigate the site without guided clues, using a broad question and your hypotheses generated in school. Then collect students together for feedback.
  • investigate again but with guided clues to make sure students identify, look at key features, focus on particular evidence. Again collect students together for feedback – what have they learned that’s new?
  • investigate with a colour-coded chronological plan to look for changes over time and identify them or to identify the people who lived at the site [see question 6].

This approach requires a lot from the teacher as you have to persuade/goad/bully students back round the site but you’ve got a better chance of keeping students on task and therefore occupied this way (and if there’s a genuine sense of enquiry and puzzle) than with a one-off tour that sees them racing each other to complete the worksheet in the minimum possible time and then hanging about aimlessly. That’s when trouble starts.

6. How can we help students focus on people instead of a derelict building and so understand life and work at a particular place in the past?

This is vital, even though one major reason for undertaking a site visit is to investigate a different kind of source – buildings, artifacts, the site itself. Yet History is essentially about people and their activities and peopling the site is essential for motivating students to understand and interpret the site.

For example, allocate real and/or imaginary (necessary for many ancient sites or bringing in ordinary people from the past) people who lived and worked at the site to individuals, pairs or groups of students. Having a range of characters enables you to focus on the diversity of experience. Ask each character to identify and report back on:

  • which part or parts of the site they lived/worked in?
  • how they spent their time
  • what would they have liked and disliked about living there?

This could be done as a first stage from the site itself – building in understanding of how valuable or limited the site is for answering such questions) and secondly from a bank of documents, books and authorized websites. It would also be worth using historical fiction as a source.

7. Do they have to do a history of … (e.g. castle-building, Roman occupation, industrial change etc)?

It’s often important to be able to place the site in the wider context of medieval warfare, monasticism, industrialization etc but this is better done after students become familiar with their particular site. A successful early site visit may well prompt questions or enable you to ask them ‘do you think all castles were like this?’

So, yes, do a history of … if it’s relevant to the enquiry and/or a GCSE assignment placing the site in context but do it after the site visit and initial investigation, not before. If you do it first when do you stop? How much detail do you go into?  There’s no logic to limiting it. However investigating the context after the site visit enables the context to arise from questions about the site and gives you more sense of how much context to cover and slant it towards understanding your site.

8. Is there potential for kinaesthetic activities back in school which deepen students’ understanding?

Site visits are valuable for introducing students to a different kind of evidence – that of historical sites, buildings and perhaps artefacts. The visit itself necessarily involves movement and physical activity and is a good opportunity for developing teamwork and oracy. Can this be kept going back in the classroom?

A historical site may not at first be an obvious candidate for kinaesthetic activities but the following possibilities could be developed, using students to represent parts of castle or physical evidence:

  • recreate a plan of site using students as features e.g. rooms, archways, ovens, tapestries etc
  • students in role as the feature describe themselves (e.g. a fireplace, archway etc) what they know and can infer from them
  • use students as rooms or parts of the site to create a chronological plan of e.g. a monastery – bring out the earliest features, then work forward in time, prompting each student to focus on ‘what date am I?’
  • relate students/features to your overall question and hypothesis – does their feature stand on this side of the room in support of the hypothesis that side against it e.g. evidence for a castle being either essentially domestic or a fortress.
  • ask each student or pair of students (pairs may help confidence) to take on the role of an individual associated with the site. Where would they have spent their time? What could they see/smell? Who else would have been there? What objects would have been in view? What work/leisure activities would they have done?

One major benefit of this approach is that it helps students identify with and gain deeper knowledge of a feature or features. Working in a small team they can become a whole floor of a country house or the nave of an abbey. This also makes good use of photographic evidence collected on site.

9. How can we link the site to questions of heritage and preservation?

Questions about presentation to the public and other vocational issues can be very motivating as part of a site investigation. In many ways they go to the heart of students’ own problems of comprehension and empathy – just insert the words ‘the general public’ for ‘students’ in these questions for example:

  • How can we help students understand how people lived and worked here?
  • What evidence can students use to understand what this building looked like when it was new?

So, ask students if it matters whether a site is preserved and improved or whether it matters how information is passed onto the public? What kinds of presentation do they think works best at a site for different audiences? Out of this will come genuine historical work, perhaps group activities designing material for particular audiences, such as writing presentation boards, a PowerPoint and voiceover for show in a gatehouse, podcasts or other audio-visuals for use around the site. You may well be able to embed GCSE coursework assignments within this approach, making an assessment task more motivating in the process.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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