Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Outdoor education and the self

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Outdoor education and the self:
What is the effect of outdoor education on self-constructs?


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Outdoor education (OE) is often memorable, whether it involves trudging through the wilderness in the rain, navigating group conflicts, or the adrenalin rush from conquering a difficult or frightening rock climb or abseil. Overcoming outdoor challenges like these can lead to personal growth, although which parts of OE experiences are responsible for growth is debated (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997). This book chapter reviews existing research on the effects of OE on self-constructs and considers what contributes to such changes. Theories that may explain these outcomes are put forward before concluding with suggestions about how these findings can be used by people wishing to engage in or design future OE programs.

Focus questions
  • What are self-constructs?
  • How are they affected by OE?
  • How can psychological theories explain these effects?

Outdoor education

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Figure 1. OE encourages learning from outdoor experiences, as well as considering how what is learnt can be applied outside the activity.

The roots of OE can be traced to early philosophers, such as Plato, and more modern psychological theory such by William James and John Dewey, with twentieth century practices developed from Kurt Hahn (Priest & Gass, 2005). Plato's focus on cultivating virtues through practice was built upon by James' concept of pragmatism, which evaluates a learning experience by the learning occurring from the experience's consequences, and Dewey's focus on generalising understanding to other situations. Hahn combined these ideas into the Outward Bound schools as an attempt to overcome what he considered the modern social problems facing youth, with challenging experiences used to bring out the best in participants. While this eclectic foundation has led to several different definitions and purposes, programs most commonly involve physical activity in an unfamiliar setting to achieve some form of personal or interpersonal development, with self-constructs being a frequently studied outcome (Hattie et al., 1997). As such, OE programs are built on a foundation of using challenge to encourage the development of well-being, with the objective of transferring this learning to general (non-OE) life situations.

Case Study
Chris is nervous about attending an OE camp, worrying about whether he will make a fool of himself rock-climbing as he is scared of heights. He has also been told group members need to work together to solve problems they are given during the course. While he likes problem-solving, he isn’t sure if the group will get along.


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While an individual may have a sense of "who I am" and consider that their "self", definitions and models of the self are wide-ranging (Marsh & Craven, 2006)[awkward expression?]. Self-constructs generally consist of components about how one sees oneself, affecting behaviour, attitudes and beliefs (e.g., see Hattie et al., 1997; Marsh & Craven, 2006). Not all aspects of the self are affected by specific life events (Marsh & Craven, 2006), however OE tends to place attention on personal growth, resulting in program research and design commonly focussing on aspects including self-esteem, -efficacy, -confidence and -concept (Hattie et al., 1997). Concentrating on these four self-constructs is beneficial due to being able to consider multiple studies, programs and perspectives and the opportunity to link them with theories considering why such affects[spelling?] may occur.

Self-esteem is experienced as feelings of self-worth (Kafka et al., 2012), or having a positive overall view of oneself (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). Hattie et al.'s (1997) meta-analysis found self-esteem to significantly increase after OE programs, with effects greater than from other educational interventions. More recent studies support this view, finding both global and domain-specific self-esteem increases after OE programs (Garst, Scheider, & Baker, 2001) that also continued long-term after program (Kafka et al., 2012)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. This research suggests that there is something special about the effect of OE programs on self-esteem, although Hattie et al. stated that effects differed widely between programs, with the variety of program activities making identifying the reasons for any improvement difficult. While high self-esteem has been suggested to potentially cause violence when the newly inflated ego is threatened (Baumeister et al., 1996), Kafka et al. (2012) found no changes in participants' negative attitudes in spite of maintaining self-esteem increases. While it appears that OE increases self-esteem, explaining why or how therefore requires further research, including considering the effects of variables such as different activities.

Self-efficacy was defined by Albert Bandura (1977) as one's own judgement of one's ability to act in new, unpredictable, and/or potentially stressful situations, with development through experiences of mastery, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological arousal, and generalisation possible across experiences. On OE programs, participants encounter activities that provide opportunities for each aspect as they develop new skills and watch others doing so, hear others' encouragement, and are stimulated by new experiences, with Mutz and Müller (2016) and Sibthorp (2003) finding these aspects increased self-efficacy. Participants may also be encouraged to generalise these learnings to other situations through debriefs (Priest & Gass, 2005). Hattie et al. (1997) found that significant self-efficacy increases occurred after OE programs, with continued improvement after course suggesting generalisation into home life. These results indicate that OE's provision of all four opportunities for self-efficacy development results in strong increases that continue after returning home, although increases in particular self-efficacy domains may require targeted processing of the experience.

Figure 2. High ropes activities enable challenging oneself, increasing self-esteem and self-confidence (Goldenberg et al., 2005).

A person's self-confidence is considered to be their level of confidence in their abilities and their potential for success (Neill, 1999), with self-identified increases for approximately 20% of participants in Goldenberg, McAvoy, and Klenosky's (2005) study. Contrasting results were found by Frauman and Waryold (2009), however, who suggested that a shorter program length (4 days), the level of participant motivation, or participants having reached a self-confidence ceiling (i.e., no further increases being possible) could be responsible. The latter of these suggestions contrasts with Neill (1999), who found increases in spite of participants' self-ratings indicating high confidence pre-course. While there could still be a ceiling effect for Frauman and Waryold's participants, alternatives could also hold true - for example, Hattie et al. (1997) found that programs of 20-26 days in duration were particularly effective, while Goldenberg et al.'s (2005) mixed findings could be due to different program lengths (4-21 days); lower participant motivation is, however, unlikely due to the majority of participants in both Goldenberg et al.'s and Frauman and Waryold's studies participating voluntarily. This research therefore clearly illustrates that, while OE programs can be beneficial for participants self-confidence, variations such as motivation, pre-course self-confidence levels, and program length could be further explored to understand why or how these increases occur.

Self-concept is relatively stable compared to other self-constructs and, as a multidimensional behaviour pattern, reflects the individual's evaluations of past behaviour and experience while influencing current and predicting future behaviour (Garst et al., 2001). In line with this stability, Hattie et al. (1997) found OE had the smallest immediate effect on self-concept compared to other self-construct outcomes, but also found that the follow-up effects were the greatest. The authors suggest this could be due to a self-reference effect - being surrounded by people at a similar level on course but, once home, comparing themselves to others in their normal life setting leading to appreciating positive changes. When seeking the reason for self-concept increases, Garst et al. (2001) and D'Amato and Krasny (2011) found that participants suggested novelty and escape to be major factors, with novelty providing opportunities for new reactions and experiences including greater equality, and escape from normal life pressures allowing for the discovery of new skills and interests. The opportunities provided by OE to explore new experiences and ways of being may therefore be responsible for significant changes in stable constructs such as self-concept as participants review their self-view to incorporate these new aspects of themselves once home.

Case Study
Chris' self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy are low regarding his ability to physically perform as well as develop good relationships on camp.


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The complexity and variability of OE programs makes applying theoretical explanations somewhat difficult - should one consider the physical environment, activities, processing, the group, the instructor, and/or the participant(s) (Hattie et al., 1997)? "Black box" thinking has therefore continued, with limited understanding about what may lead to desired outcomes (Sibthorp, Paisley, & Gookin, 2007). While numerous theories can be applied, OE's strong focus on resilience makes Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) transactional model of stress, appraisal and coping particularly applicable, while motivational (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and transformational learning (Mezirow, 2000) theories will be used to consider the Walsh and Golins (1976) OE process model.

Case Study
When Chris gets to camp he is told that if everyone works together to complete tasks they are more likely to succeed, and that putting in 100% means he will get more out of camp. He can see others who look nervous like him and decides to set himself some goals for rock-climbing and making friends so he can feel good when he gets home.

Using challenging OE experiences for growth is based on the idea of stress developing one's resilience, or more colloquially "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger". Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) transactional model of stress, appraisal and coping states that stressful events result in the individual appraising, firstly, the events' potential to impact their well-being, and secondly their own ability to manage the stressful situation. In the event of feeling unable to cope, altering one's relationship to the environment or decreasing the level of emotional distress are measures used to promote personal coping, although unsuccessful coping efforts also have the potential to lead to further psychological distress and trauma (Booth & Neill, 2017). In contrast, increasing resilience is considered to benefit self-constructs through greater general well-being, including realising one's abilities, liking all parts of oneself, having self-determination and the ability to shape one’s world and a sense of coherence (Hattie et al., 1997; Hill, Posey, Gomez, & Shapiro, 2018; Mutz & Müller, 2016). This shows that challenge can not only cause discomfort but also positive adaptation if coping attempts are successful.

An example of how building resilience may affect self-constructs is the development of self-efficacy - through overcoming challenges believed insurmountable, OE participants are likely to feel greater control and a sense of mastery, developing this construct (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Mutz & Müller, 2016). Mutz and Müller's (2016) research focussed on programs intended to be particularly challenging physically, mentally, or organisationally, finding decreases in participants' measures of stress and increases in self-efficacy from pre- to post-course, indicating resilience and self-efficacy both increased. Sibthorp et al. (2007) found participants without prior course experience were particularly likely to feel greater empowerment post-course, possibly due to feeling more uncertainty about their coping abilities or the course's difficulty, supporting Sibthorp's (2003) research finding more empowerment led to greater post-course developmental gains. While a direct relationship between resilience and self-efficacy is largely not explored in these studies, the relationship between overcoming course challenges and later increases in self-efficacy suggests that participants interpreted their experiences of control and mastery according to Lazarus and Folkman's (1984) model.

The relationship between challenging experiences and self-concept growth can also be two-way – increased self-constructs such as self-esteem leading to feeling more excitement than threat from challenges (Sheard & Golby, 2006), and resilience leading to greater self-esteem (Kafka et al., 2012). This may explain these studies' contrasting results, with the former finding no self-esteem increases in non-residential programs while the latter found increases after a 10-day program. Baumeister et al. (1996) stated that increasing self-esteem requires having one's needs, such as autonomy and purpose, fulfilled, with participants already high in self-esteem possibly feeling their time was not purposively spent. Other aspects such as program design or participants' coping strategies may also affect resilience and self-esteem development. For example, residential OE programs[explain?], being more immersive, may lead to greater perceptions of challenge due to being unable to disengage (D'Amato & Krasny, 2011), while the use of positive coping strategies such as seeking support was linked with increased well-being due to building resilience, while negative strategies were not (Booth & Neill, 2017). Building resilience through overcoming OE challenges may therefore lead to increased self-esteem, however researching program design and other variables is required in order to ensure this relationship is not subject to another confounding variable.

Outward Bound process model

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Figure 3. Walsh and Golins' (1976) process model

Walsh and Golins' (1976) Outward Bound process model built on Outward Bound's program design, as the then-most common OE program, to describe the relevant components for achieving change through OE. As a process model it considers specific activities, events and locations less relevant to change than the interaction between general conditions, events and objects, allowing for considering a wide variety of programs (Walsh & Golins, 1976). Although it does not explicitly consider psychological processes, the model's comprehensiveness provides opportunities to apply a variety of psychological theories, with motivation and dissonance now considered as potentially related to change processes.

A motivated learner

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Walsh and Golins (1976) state motivation is important in ensuring an individual learns from the OE experience, with this perspective in line with Deci and Ryan's (2008) self-determination theory. This theory states that motivation can be intrinsic - individually driven by psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness - or extrinsic - externally controlled and driven by pressure to pursue goals like money, fame or popularity (Deci & Ryan, 2008). While support for self-determination theory has been found across multiple domains and studies (Ryan & Deci, 2000), little comparative research has been conducted between OE programs (Wang, Liu, & Kahlid, 2006), particularly regarding self-constructs. Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, and Ryan (2000) state that intrinsic motivation is related to positive outcomes such as higher self-esteem and general well-being through satisfaction of psychological needs, with Garst et al. (2001) and Sheard and Golby (2006) finding voluntary OE participants (who are presumably intrinsically motivated) are likely to experience increases in self-constructs, providing preliminary support for the idea that participant motivation may be linked to self-construct increases.

In contrast to the above results, however, research considering participants on mandatory programs found that while self-esteem was higher post-course there was no link to motivation levels (Wang et al., 2006). This is supported by Hattie et al. (1997) who found no difference in the amount of self-construct increases during OE programs for regular participants compared to delinquents, with delinquents also experiencing greater follow-up effects. Although other variables could also explain these differences - for example, voluntary participants are often older which may affect outcomes (Hattie et al., 1997), while mandatory programs often involve at-risk populations - Deci and Ryan (2008) also suggest a supportive social climate and positive performance feedback may be mediators in altering motivation. Given that these aspects can also lead to increased self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977), self-confidence, self-esteem (Goldenberg et al., 2005) and self-concept (D'Amato & Krasny, 2011), motivation and self-construct change may be altered individually and interdependently through the OE course experience. As such, while participants may initially be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, experiences during the OE program may modify both pre-existing self-constructs as well as their level and type of motivation, resulting in different outcomes than those that might be predicted when simply considering pre-course motivation.

Case Study
Chris is working to be autonomous and build relationships and his competence, which will help increase his low self-constructs.

Transformational learning theory

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Encouraging changes in participant self-concept could also be facilitated through developing conflicts in thinking, as suggested by transformational learning theory (Mezirow, 2000). This suggests a disorienting dilemma, such as completing tasks in the new environment (Walsh & Golins, 1976), can result in critically examining pre-existing assumptions and exploring new roles, relationships and actions before eventually integrating beneficial ones into current frames of reference (Mezirow, 2000; Morgan, 2010). This suggests a theoretical explanation for Garst et al. (2001) and D'Amato and Krasny's (2011) findings that participants identified being in nature and disruptive new experiences as leading to self-concept increases - as the new environment challenged mental habits, new self-relevant information from the OE context was integrated into the person's self-concept, with the same process also occurring for participant self-efficacy and self-esteem (Sibthorp, 2003). Similarly, the requirement to both disrupt one's mindset and then integrate learning could explain why Hattie et al. (1997) found initially low but then increasing changes in self-concept, as disrupting its stability could require additional time (Garst et al., 2001). Consistent with transformational learning theory (Mezirow, 2000) and Walsh and Golins' (1976) process model, it therefore appears that new environments and tasks can lead to changes in self-constructs due to provoking conflicts in thinking that enable integration of new self-relevant information from the OE program.

Figure 4. New activities and social support may help re-evaluation of self-constructs.

Walsh and Golins (1976) also indicate the potential for new social environments to help initiate conflicts in thought. D'Amato and Krasny (2011) found that OE participants rated being in a supportive culture away from normal social groups as enabling them to try new behaviours that led to increases in self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-esteem, supporting earlier suggestions regarding disruption and new tasks leading to personal re-evaluations (Hattie et al., 1997; Mezirow, 2000; Morgan, 2010; Priest & Gass, 2005; Walsh & Golins, 1976). In addition, Sibthorp (2003) found vicarious learning through watching others and hearing their encouragement led to increases in self-efficacy and global self-concept when learning the skills required for new course tasks, with learning and encouragement opportunities provided by both peers and the instructor. The benefits of new social environments therefore also appear related to self-construct growth through facilitating disorienting dilemmas (Mezirow, 2000), with OE participants utilising the social aspects of programs to help them experiment with new tasks and behaviours that can then be integrated into pre-existing understandings of themselves.

In line with Walsh and Golins' (1976) model, transformation theory states that the role of the instructor is to facilitate mastery, with the instructor acting as a co-learner to encourage questioning and challenging of viewpoints (Cranton, 2016). This prevents participants from obeying instructor directives mindlessly (Cranton, 2016), instead using critical thinking to resolve the disorientating dilemmas and therefore experience a sense of personal empowerment and ownership (Sibthorp et al., 2007). As previously discussed, feeling able to achieve one's desired outcomes is necessary for the development of greater self-confidence (Neill, 1999), self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977) and self-esteem (Kafka et al., 2012) that would not be possible to the same extent with greater instructor input (Sibthorp, 2003). As the instructor encourages autonomy, participants are also likely to experience increases in self-esteem through psychological need satisfaction, further enhancing this outcome (Garst et al., 2001; Reis et al., 2000). Through the instructors' encouragement of empowerment, ownership and critical thinking, participants are therefore likely to experience disorientating dilemmas that result in increased self-constructs through experiences of mastery and personal challenge.

Case Study

Chris' interactions with the instructor on camp sometimes frustrated him as they never gave him direct answers to his questions. When looking back on camp, however, he realises that this meant he worked harder to achieve things for himself, particularly with the help of the group who are now good friends. He feels especially good when he realises how much stronger he is, and decides to go to the climbing gym with some of the group next week.

Chris has experienced increases in each self-construct due to being motivated and working with others to solve problems. This is seen in his increased self-esteem and -confidence, and the integration of what he has learnt into a new self-concept.


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The varied ideas behind OE have led to widely ranging practices and a certain amount of confusion regarding what, if anything, it can achieve. In spite of this, a strong focus on personal development including self-constructs such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-confidence and self-concept has led to increased research that suggests OE can benefit participants' well-being in these areas. While OE theories have attempted to explain such increases, better explanations may be found in psychological theories of resilience, motivation and transformation that indicate potential mechanisms for change and may explain the roles played by different course components[for example?]. While further research is required to fully understand the impact of OE programs on these and other areas, it does appear that participant self-constructs can be increased through taking part in OE courses that both challenge and empower.

See also

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Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.

Baumeister, R. F., Smart, L., & Boden, J. M. (1996). Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem. Psychological Review, 103, 5-33.

Booth, J. W., & Neill, J. T. (2017). Coping strategies and the development of psychological resilience. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 20, 47-54.

Cranton, P. (2016). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide to theory and practice (3rd ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

D'Amato, L. G., & Krasny, M. E. (2011). Outdoor adventure education: Applying transformative learning theory to understanding instrumental learning and personal growth in environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 42, 237-254.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life's domains. Canadian Psychology, 49, 14-23.

Frauman, E., & Waryold, D. (2009). Impact of a wilderness orientation program on college student's life effectiveness. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership, 1, 189-207.

Garst, B., Scheider, I., & Baker, D. (2001). Outdoor adventure program participation impacts on adolescent self-perception. Journal of Experiential Education, 24, 41-49.

Goldenberg, M., McAvoy, L., & Klenosky, D. B. (2005). Outcomes from the components of an Outward Bound experience. Journal of Experiential Education, 28, 123-146.

Hattie, J., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.

Hill, E., Posey, T., Gomez, E., & Shapiro, S. L. (2018). Student readiness: Examining the impact of a university outdoor orientation program. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 10, 109-123.

Kafka, S., Hunter, J. A., Hayhurst, J., Boyes, M., Thomson, R. L. Clarke, H., Grocott, A. M., Stringer, M., & O'Brien, K. S. (2012). A 10-day developmental voyage: Converging evidence from three studies showing that self-esteem may be elevated and maintained without negative outcomes. Social Psychology of Education, 15, 571-601.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.

Marsh, H. W., & Craven, R. G. (2006). Reciprocal effects of self-concept and performance from a multidimensional perspective: Beyond seductive pleasure and unidimensional perspectives. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 133-163.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Morgan, A. D. (2010). Journeys into transformation: Travel to an "other" place as a vehicle for transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 8, 246-268.

Mutz, M., & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114.

Neill, J. T. (1999). The melting pot of outdoor education effects: Testing the flavours of program type, duration and participant age. Perth, Western Australia: Camping and Outdoor Education Association of Western Australia.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (2005). Effective leadership in adventure programming (2nd ed.). Lower Mitcham, Australia: Human Kinetics

Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: The role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 419-435.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Sibthorp, J. (2003). An empirical look at Walsh and Golins' adventure education process model: Relationships between antecedent factors, perceptions of characteristics of an adventure education experience, and changes in self-efficacy. Journal of Leisure Research, 35, 80-106.

Sibthorp, J., Paisley, K., & Gookin, J. (2007). Exploring participant development through adventure-based programming: A model from the National Outdoor Leadership School. Leisure Sciences, 29, 1-18.

Sheard, M., & Golby, J. (2006). The efficacy of an outdoor adventure education curriculum on selected aspects of positive psychological development. Journal of Experiential Education, 29, 187-209.

Walsh, V., & Golins, G. L. (1976). The exploration of the Outward Bound process. Retrieved from:

Wang, J. C., Liu, W. C., & Kahlid, A. (2006). Effects of a five-day Outward Bound course on female students in Singapore. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 10, 20-28.

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