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Field trips boost learning: An in-depth look at the Crystal Bridges study

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Eastman Johnson's "At the Camp—Spinning Yarns and Whittling" Eastman Johnson's "At the Camp—Spinning Yarns and Whittling"
Norman Rockwell’s "Rosie the Riveter" Norman Rockwell’s "Rosie the Riveter"
Thomas Hart Benton’s "Ploughing It Under" Thomas Hart Benton’s "Ploughing It Under"
Romare Bearden’s "Sacrifice" Romare Bearden’s "Sacrifice"
Kerry James Marshall’s "Our Town" Kerry James Marshall’s "Our Town"

Students who went on field trips to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art had improved critical thinking skills, according to a University of Arkansas study released Monday.

"We found that students who attended a school tour at Crystal Bridges demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of tolerance, had more historical empathy and developed a taste for being a cultural consumer in the future," said Jay P. Greene, 21st Century Chair in Education Reform and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, who conducted the study along with senior research associate Brian Kisida and doctoral fellow Daniel H. Bowen. "We also found that these benefits were much larger, in general, for students from rural areas or high-poverty schools, as well as minority students," added Greene.

The Bentonville museum says the study shows the importance of field trips to cultural institutions.

The Research Study

The team administered surveys to 10,912 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools. Surveys of paired treatment and control groups occurred on average three weeks after the treatment group received its tour. The surveys included items assessing student knowledge about art, as well as measures of student tolerance, historical empathy, and desire to become cultural consumers. After the survey assessment, each control group was guaranteed a tour during the following semester as a reward for its cooperation. 

The team also collected critical thinking measures from students by asking them to write a short essay in response to a painting that they had not previously seen. Finally, they collected a behavioral measure of cultural consumption by providing all students with a coupon good for free family admission to a special exhibition at the museum to see whether the field trip increased the likelihood of students making future visits. 

"This research is the first large-scale, randomized controlled trial measuring what students learn from school tours of an art museum," said senior research associate Brian Kisida.

The Results

"Our research suggests that students actually retain a great deal of factual information from their tours, as students who received a tour of Crystal Bridges were able to recall details about the paintings they had seen at very high rates," said Greene. For example, 88 percent of the students who saw the Eastman Johnson painting, At the Camp—Spinning Yarns and Whittling, knew when surveyed weeks later that the painting depicts abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry which relied upon slave labor.

Similarly, 82 percent of those who saw Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter could recall that the painting emphasizes the importance of women entering the workforce during World War II.

Among students who saw Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing It Under, 79 percent could recall that it is a depiction of a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression-era price support program.

70 percent of the students who saw Romare Bearden's Sacrifice could remember that it is part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement.

And 80 percent of students who saw Kerry James Marshall's Our Town recognized that it offers an African American perspective of real and idealized visions of the American dream.

The research team also analyzed students' critical thinking skills, tolerance, historical empathy (ability to understand and appreciate what life was like in different eras), and interest in visiting cultural institutions in the future. "We wondered if, besides recalling the details of their tour, did visiting an art museum have a transformative effect on students?" said Greene. "Our study demonstrates that it did."

During the first semester of the study, the team showed all 3rd through 12th grade students a painting they had not previously seen and asked students to write short essays in response to two questions: "What do you think is going on in this painting?" and "What do you see that makes you think that?" 

"We then stripped the essays of all identifying information and had two coders rate the essays using a seven-item rubric for measuring critical thinking," said Greene. "We express the impact of a school tour of Crystal Bridges on critical thinking skills in terms of standard deviation effect sizes. Overall, we found that students assigned by lottery to a tour of the museum improved their critical thinking skills about art by 9.1 percent of a standard deviation relative to the control group. Rural students, who live in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, experienced an increase in critical thinking skills of nearly a third of a standard deviation.  Students from high poverty schools (those with more than 50 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches) experienced a 17.9 percent effect size improvement in critical thinking about art, and minority students benefit by 18.3 percent of a standard deviation."

Similar results were seen in assessing tolerance and historical empathy as well, and ultimately, students who received a school tour returned to the museum for an additional visit at a higher rate than students who had not. "All students who participated in the study during the first semester were provided with a coupon that allowed them and their families free entry to a special exhibition at the museum," said Kraybill. "The coupons were coded so that we could determine the applicant group to which students belonged. Despite having recently been to the museum, we found that students who received a school tour came back at higher rates." 

For a full analysis of the team's results and additional details about the study, read the Education Next report here, and view a supplemental study here and the methodological appendix here.

What's Next

As a result of the study, Crystal Bridges has increased capacity of the field trip program, serving more than 27,500 students and teachers to date with a comparable number of participants expected this school year. The museum's next initiative in serving K-12 students and teachers is to develop a large-scale distance learning program that can extend these results into the classroom and provide more access to students throughout the nation and world.

Crystal Bridges School Field Trip Program

After the museum opened in November 2011, a donation from the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation of Springdale, Ark., established a $10 million endowment for Crystal Bridges to provide school groups with funds necessary for a complete museum visit, including funding to cover the cost of transportation and substitute teachers if needed, lunches for the students and teachers, and pre- and post-visit educational materials. Funds are available to all public and private K–12 schools; the program began in 2012.

Each school visit includes a one-hour guided tour of the museum's permanent collection, a discussion and activity session around a theme, and a healthy lunch prepared by Eleven, the museum's restaurant. Teachers are able to choose from several themed tours, each designed to connect with Common Core standards at a variety of grade levels in art, history, social studies, language arts and sciences.