Methods of Teaching Outdoor Activities


PE 4445 - Course Website






Lecture Notes:

Teaching Methods - Final Lecture

Self Concept


Self Concept is the understanding that we have of ourselves:  self esteem - self worth.  Self concept is calculated on how we believe we are viewed by others.


Exploring Self Concept? Picasso Girl Before MirrorWhenever you are in a teaching position, you have a great impact on self concept.  A teacher or an instructor is an authority figure.  You are listened to and believed -  and you must use great care in how you relate to students.


Why use care? 


Because self concept - self esteem - is easily shattered.  James Dobson (psychologist) said the following:

"Self esteem is the most fragile attribute in human nature.  It can be damaged by a very minor incident and its reconstruction is often difficult to engineer."

Thus, as we teach, we need to consider our impact on self esteem, and, accordingly, that brings up two questions:

Question: What enhances self concept? 

Answer:  Acceptance & success.


Question: What undermines it? 

Answer:  Rejection & Failure

Let's take a look at the physical education teaching profession.  Here are a couple of examples of poor practices used on occasion by some teachers:

  • Lining up students by height.  This tends to spotlight some individuals and makes them feel self conscious
  • Allowing students to choose individuals for teams.  Invariably the best and most talented individuals are chosen first and the worst are chosen last.  This adds insult to injury, negatively impacting an already poor self concept.

The Scream by Edvard Munch


Examples of How You Can Enhance Self Concept:

  • As soon as you can, learn the names of those who you are teaching.  Names are important.  This goes without saying:  use your student's real name - or an acceptable nickname - and, by all means, avoiding the use of derogatory nicknames such as  "slug"  or "dim wit."
  • You should speak in a respectful manner to all members of your class.  If you are dealing with troubled children, they already have a poor self concept.  They are often berated at home, and the respect you show them may be the only respect they get from an authority figure.
  • Another helpful hint is to try to speak periodically to everyone in the class on a personal basis.   You can do that before or after, or during a break in, the class.  It doesn't have to involve much time, but showing a student occasional personal interest is huge image booster.
  • While teaching outdoor skills, apportion your time so that you provide feedback to everyone in the class.   Watch yourself so that you don't always work with those who are especially talented, or attractive, or have the most pleasing personality.
  • Plan your lessons so that all students experience success.  Quickly back-off from  skills that are too hard - or have been introduced too soon.   You'll want to be well prepared and use lesson plans, but never be afraid to adapt to the situation and your students.   Adapt is the key word here.  More than any other educational endeavor, outdoor activity skills can be manipulated so that all students are successful.  Often that means moving at a different pace for different students, but the extra effort is worth it in the gains that you can achieve in students' self esteem.  It's not something that can be measured by standardized tests, but it's invaluable no matter whether your students are children, teenagers or adults.
  • Use praise when individuals make progress, but be careful not to overdo it


General Attributes of a Good Instructor


When you are an instructor or teacher, you become a role model.  Students will be looking up to you, and, you want to model an appropriate behavior.


Good instructors steep themselves in the subject material that they teach.  The best instructors are always learning:  picking up new tricks and new ways of teaching skills to their students.  They explore new teaching methods and new skill progressions.  That doesn't mean that they always use the latest fad, but they keep up with trends in the field and familiarize themselves with new ideas, discarding those of little value and using those that makes them a better instructor. 


Good instructors understand that they have strengths and weaknesses.  They understand that they will make mistakes, but when mistakes are made, they use them as learning tools and make necessary adjustments in how they teach.



Teaching in the 1800'sResearch on Effective Teaching


We'll now look at research that's been conducted on teaching in general and see if we can derive clues on how we can improve our ability to instruct outdoor activities.   There have been many studies done on teacher effectiveness, but I'll just narrow it down to a couple to stimulate discussion on how they may relate to outdoor education.



Effective Teachers - Research from the Eyes of Students

(Samuels & Griffore)


Elementary School (4th Grade)

• Teacher knows what he or she is teaching
• Teacher helps the students understand the assignments
• Teacher give examples of what is to be done
• Teacher is interested in how students do


Junior High / High School
• Teacher gives clear, complete explanations and concrete examples
• Teacher creates a positive, relaxed learning environment. 

• Teacher expect students to learn but also makes learning fun.
• Teacher treats each student as an individual. 

• Teacher understands that students are different.
• Give students adequate learning time - teacher helps them to keep working
• Teacher is excited about the subject


College - Undergraduate & graduate

• Instructor/professor should know the field extensively

• Instructor/professor should be fair

• Instructor/professor should be enthusiastic

• Class should be told in advance what material will be covered

• All assignments should be explained carefully



Interesting Finding:  In this study, researchers found that, after making age difference adjustments, there was strong agreement between elementary and college age students.


In the college research, the two least import traits were:

  • Professor stays close to the text
  • Professor gives hard but fair tests


Other research into teacher effectiveness


The following research is based on observations of teachers' patterns and behaviors while they taught.   The researchers, then, compared their observations to how well the students did by the use of achievement tests.   Teacher patterns and behaviors which resulted in high achieving classrooms were classified as more effective teachers and those which did not were less effective:


Teaching a Class in the 1800s

   High Achieving Classrooms >>
   More Effective Teachers


   Low Achieving Classrooms >>
   Less Effective Teachers


Important result from this research:  The measured time that students are actually involved with learning materials and with the subject matter correlates positively with student learning.  This teaching process by which students concentrate directly on the subject matter is called Engaged Learning


Thus, maintaining a high percentage of "engaged learning" time is prime component of effective teaching.   The processes used by such teachers is known as Direct Instruction.


Direct instruction (described by researcher Rosenshine) consists of:

  • Academically focused, teacher directed instruction, using sequenced and structured materials
  • Goals are clear to the students
  • Coverage of content is intensive
  • Performance of students monitored
  • Questions of low cognitive level so students can produce many correct responses
  • Feedback is immediate and academically oriented
  • Teacher controls instructive goals
  • Materials are chosen that are appropriate to student's level
  • The instruction is paced carefully
  • Interaction with students is structured but not authoritarian
  • The goal is to move students through a sequenced set of materials
  • Atmosphere is friendly.


Direct Instruction

Ten Variables Associated With Direct Instruction


Researchers (Graham & Heimerer) have identified ten variables associated with direct instruction:

  • Warmth.  Environment created by mannerisms and verbalization of the teacher.  More effective teachers are warm.  They let their students know help is available when needed.
    • Less effective teachers: shame, criticize, belittle and ridicule students.
    • This is one in which outdoor educators can excel.  Outdoor activities are fun.  We, as instructors, like being out there and that carries over to our attitude.  We like turning on people to outdoor activities. Yes, we need to be organized and keep on task, but the fact that it's fun for us quite nicely adds to our "warmth" as an instructor.
  • Teacher Expectancy.  This means the quantity and quality of work expected.
    • More effective teachers expect good things of students.  They make students believe that are capable of doing quality work.
    • From an outdoor standpoint, we want our students to learn skills, and since we know how important practice time is, we provide them with plenty of it.


  • Task Oriented behavior of teacher.  By task oriented, the researchers mean that the teacher is prompt: beginning the class on time and moving from one activity to the next according to plan. 
    • Good examples in the outdoor world are standardized first aid courses including the Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder courses.  These courses are very task oriented.  One topic moves to the next topic in a timely and organized manner

  • Limited Student Choice.  The researchers found that more effective teachers provide less opportunity for students to make their own learning choices. 
    • Here again, wilderness first aid courses are example.  The content and structure of the class is completely pre-determined and students have no choice in content and course organization.    This works well for many "indoor" courses, but it isn't always the best approach for outdoor courses - most particularly when you want participants to think for themselves and be involved in decision making.  In other aspects of outdoor education - such as the development of leadership skills - it is desirable to provide more student choice.
  • Lesson Structure.  Effective teachers are very clear on what they expect of the students.  They are clear on what is to be learned and their instructional goals. 
    • Less effective teachers are vague
    • From an outdoor instruction standpoint, you want to be clear on the goals of the instruction - what you want the students to achieve.  Goals have to be realistic, of course, and you, as an instructor, need to be fully prepared to help the students achieve them.
  • Questioning.  More effective teachers use low order questioning.  In other words they ask fairly simple questions which involve recalling simple facts.
    • The researchers determined that use of high order questions - in which students must compare, contrast, interpret, or evaluate - is less effective.  But . . . would this apply to upper division - or graduate level college - classes in which part of the goal of the course is to develop critical thinking skills?  After all, one of the main goals of a university education is to provide a learning environment in which critical thinking is nurtured.  We might have some disagreement with the researchers over that conclusion.
    • Another interesting observation from this segment of the research:  more effective teachers wait less time for answers.  Of all of the researchers' conclusions, this probably has the least application to outdoor activity offerings.
  • Use of Praise.  More effective teachers are more sparing with their praise.  They tend to praise more for work rather than for behavior.
    • We would certainly find disagreement with this conclusion among professionals involved in the outdoor field.  In outdoor situations, the use of encouragement and praise is often an important part of teaching, and particularly those involved in therapeutic programming.  In the outdoors, activities are purposely designed to allow students to experience success, and by doing so, they lead directly to improved self esteem.  One can certainly overdo praise, but to use it in an stingy, sparing manner would be an anathema to many working in the field
  • Feedback.  More effective teachers provide immediate, non evaluative, task oriented feedback to student's questions.
    • Less effective teachers really don’t say what's right or wrong.  They're vague in their feedback. 
    • Immediate feedback certainly applies to the outdoor education field.  In an outdoor teaching environment, we know how important feedback is when it comes to learning and refining skills.  Thus, we need to watch the student, identify what needs to be done to correct mistakes or inefficiencies, and provide immediate, specific feedback.
  • Grouping.  Which is better: teaching before the entire class or dividing the class into small groups?   The researchers determined that more effective teachers minimize the use of small groups.
    • More effective teachers will work with small groups but with greater supervision.
    • In an outdoor situation, small groups are often used effectively in team building activities.  A small group allows all individuals to be involved in solving a problem.  Team building, of course, is an entirely different situation altogether than what the researchers were measuring - and this part of the research has little application to those aspects of outdoor education where small groups are highly useful and beneficial to the participants.
  • Staying On-task.  More effective teachers keep the class on task.  When discussions lead astray, students are directed back on track, rather than being punished.  Operating rules are effective.  They keep order. 
    • Less effective teachers allow the students to get off track.  Order deteriorates  Students become involved in discussions which have no relation to the material studied.  Such teachers end up issuing lots of warnings and use more punishment to bring order back to the classroom.
    • This certainly applies to outdoor education applications.  While sometimes it might be useful and instructive to allow a class to drift off-track, generally, however, an instructor will want to keep things on-task to make the most effective use of the time available.


Mental Practice (Motor Imagery)


John Muir"The power of the imagination makes us infinite."  -- John Muir


John Muir was speaking as transcendentalist in the above quote, telling us that our imagination can open us to a world of wonder.  In Muir's case, that world of wonder was the outdoors.  But, in another sense, Muir was also speaking about the power of the mind - a mind that controls our body - and enables us to learn physical skills such as skiing, climbing and kayaking.


In this segment of the course, we look at the use of mental imagery in relation to learning outdoor skills.


First a definition:  Mental practice or mental imagery is the cognitive rehearsal of a motor task in the absence of overt physical movements.


Movement originates in the brain and activates the muscles, and we would expect, therefore, that the use of mental imagery might be beneficial in learning skills.


The image, below, illustrates two brain scans.  In the first (left), the subject is moving their right hand.   In the second (right), the subject is thinking about moving their right hand.  Notice how many of the same areas of the brain are involved in thinking about it and actually doing it. 


My thanks to Dr. Jean Decety, University of Chicago who has released this illustration to the public domain.


Brain Scans



Interesting enough, we also see a similar connection when we dream.  The next image (below) illustrates activity in the motor cortex during the movement of the hands while awake (left) and during a dreamed movement (right). 


We know from our earlier studies that movement on the right side of the body is controlled by the left side of the brain and visa versa.  The blue areas in the illustration indicate the activity during a movement of the right hand.  The previous scan doesn't show this very well, but it's clear in the scan below that right hand movement occurs in the brain's left hemisphere.  By the same token, the red area indicates left-hand movements and it occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain.


Photo credit: © Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry


Brain Scans While Dreaming (Image by the Max Planck Institure of Psychiatry)



There is experimental evidence that mental practice can help:

  • Learning new skills
  • Refining performance
  • Reinforcing skill retention


An important prerequisite for mental practice: The student must have a clear mental picture of the skill.


To be effective, the instructor needs be specific on how to do it:

  • Imagine doing the skill correctly with eyes closed
  • Do a certain number of practice attempts

Mental practice between attempts allows students to sort out what was correct or incorrect.  If someone is not getting it - say for instance the hip flick in kayaking - have them imagine it.  Then try again.


In skill retention, mental practice can be used immediately following a correct trial to help ingrain the movement.  If a student, after several weeks of trying, does a successful roll, then at the end of class before leaving have them mentally re-capture what they did.


Mental practice can be used during competition.  An example is an Olympic diver.  They mentally practice the dive from start to finish.  One can do the same in a rock climbing contest - or in a recreational setting.  For example, one could mentally rehearse taking a ski run while riding the lift.


Mental practice may be useful for the following:

  • Mental practice used to prevent retroactive inhibition.  (Retroactive inhibition refers to a situation where learning one thing inhibits the retention of something that was learned earlier.)  Guide students to practice correct responses after unsuccessful attempt.  You want them to think simply about what must be done - instead of thinking of mistakes.  Care must be taken not to over concentrate.
  • Mental practice may be used to review procedures and successful trials one may have achieved in skill practice.  Students may get new ideas of what to try next.
  • Before using mental practice, make sure that you explain precisely what you want the student to do - and what they should think about.
  • Mental practice may aid in forming a proper mental set for the next practice
  • Mental practice can also help keep inactive students occupied.  You might be able to use it if you lack equipment or have limited space.  Or it might be useful to pull out of your hat if one of your students is injured and is unable to practice in a physical manner.
  • Mental imagery can supplement learning when physical practice is not possible or unwise.  For example, it is impossible to practice how to extract yourself from an avalanche (below), but you can imagine yourself being caught and how you would respond.  (Image credit:  US Forest Service)


Avalanche: Mental practice (mental imagery) can help one prepare if ever caught in an avalanche



Mental imagery is not a cure all.  It can not take the place of physical practice, but it's available as a supplement.








Aim HighThis page was created for the Outdoor Methods website.  Outdoor Methods is a course for Outdoor Education Majors and Minors at Idaho State University.











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