Introduction to fieldwork

Learn about how to plan fieldwork, produce a fieldwork report, collect and process data.

This lesson includes:

  • one video introducing fieldwork investigating sound levels in a typical high street

  • a step-by-step guide to carrying out fieldwork

  • three activities to build on the knowledge

Learn

Fieldwork in geography is all about following an enquiry - a question that a geographer sets out to prove or disprove.

Watch the short film below for a a step-by-step guide to geography fieldwork, investigating sound levels in a typical high street.

Types of enquiry

An enquiry is a question that you set out to prove or disprove.

A hypothesis (a starting point for an investigation) is very similar, though it is a statement rather than a question.

Both can be either physical or human in nature:

  • physical enquiries will look at natural landscapes, eg rivers or coasts
  • human enquiries will look at environments that are created by people, eg cities or tourist resorts
Waves crashing against rocks on a coast line.

Natural landscapes and processes are physical enquiries

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A step by step guide to carrying out fieldwork

How to plan fieldwork

Fieldwork has to be carefully planned. The enquiry question will determine what data needs to be collected, for example:

an enquiry question related to rivers might need river measurements such as velocity (the speed of an object in a particular direction) and depth.

The data must answer the question, for example:

a study about river bedload would need measurements of stone size and shape.

Before going out to undertake fieldwork, think about what equipment is required and what clothing is suitable. Planning ahead ensures that good quality data will be collected.

All fieldwork has associated risks.

Risk assessments (the process of working out the likelihood of harm or damage being caused by identified hazards) help to understand the risk and avoid potentially dangerous situations, for example:

walking alongside fast-flowing streams or carrying expensive equipment through areas of high crime.

A good risk assessment will also consider what to do if a difficult situation arises.

Sturdy footwear is needed for walking on uneven ground

Writing up a fieldwork report

Fieldwork is normally written up as a report.

The sections of a fieldwork report

It is likely that a report will contain the following sections:

  1. Introduction - to the fieldwork and study site. Should include location maps at different scales (the ratio of a distance on a map, graph or diagram to the corresponding actual distance) and the enquiry question, written out clearly.
  2. Methodology - describe and justify the way that the data was collected. The description should be provided in lots of detail, so that someone else could repeat the study using the instructions. Include a map of sites, approximate timings and detailed explanations of how and where each measurement was taken. Justify means explaining why the techniques you chose were suitable and how they are linked to the enquiry question. State whether each data collection technique collects primary or secondary data.
  3. Data presentation - raw data (data which hasn't been processed for use) tables are difficult to interpret and so data must be presented in different ways. Graphs and charts are useful as they help to see patterns within data. Accurate presentation of data helps to form conclusions to the enquiry - data that is badly presented is very difficult to understand.
  4. Analysis - look at the results in detail and discuss patterns. Are there any clear trends or are there anomalies (an unusual or unexpected result)? Quote figures and places and use accurate geographical terminology.
  5. Conclusion - a short section to draw together the results and answer the enquiry question.
  6. Evaluation - considers the strengths and weaknesses of the data collection, along with possible improvements or extensions. It is acceptable to talk about weaknesses, as long as improvements can be suggested.
A line graph is one type of graph that you could you use to present data

Data collection and sampling

All fieldwork requires data to be collected.

Different types of data

Data (values, letters and numbers) can either be:

  • human - information about people, eg cities and tourism
  • physical - information about natural landscapes, eg rivers and coasts
  • primary - information that is collected first-hand, eg tallies, measurements and photographs
  • secondary - information that someone else has previously collected and made available, eg on the internet

Collect any information that will be useful, even from alternative methods, for example:

counts, scoring systems and bipolar surveys (a measurement scale that makes comparisons using opposite pairs of words, eg safe and unsafe.).

Surveys are a useful part of fieldwork

Data collection sheets should have a simple design so the results are clear to read.

The collection of data should also avoid bias (prejudice or favour shown for one person, group, thing or opinion over another) and this is done through sampling (the selection of subjects included in a study) techniques.

There are three main types of sampling:

  1. Random sampling - selecting a person to interview or site to measure, at random. This is unbiased as particular people or places are not specifically selected.
  2. Systematic sampling - collecting data in an ordered or regular way, eg every 5 metres or every fifth person.
  3. Stratified sampling - dividing sampling into groups, eg three sites from each section of coastline, or five people from each age range. It is possible to combine stratified sampling with random and systematic sampling.
    • Stratified random sampling - random samples are taken from within certain categories.
    • Stratified systematic sampling - regular samples are taken from within certain categories.

Understanding numerical and statistical skills - processing data

The accurate use of data is important as it allows for sensible conclusions to be reached.

How do I process data?

Processing data is manipulating it to make it more useful.

There are many ways to process data, using:

  • Ratios to show a relationship between two sets of data, and are shown as two numbers with a colon symbol in-between. Ratios would work well to illustrate, eg number of people per doctor.
  • Proportions similar to ratio, but are written slightly differently, eg 1 in 10. Proportions would be useful to illustrate, eg the number of tourists within an area.
  • Averages, or measures of central tendency, are commonly taken in three different ways:
    • Mean - add the total of all values that have been collected and then divide by the number of values.
    • Median - write out all of the numbers that have been collected in numerical order and find the middle number.
    • Mode - the most commonly appearing value within the data.
  • Percentages which can either show proportions or change over time. Percentages would be useful to illustrate, eg land use within an area.

It is important to think about how to justify why the data has been processed in a particular way.

Field sketches

Field sketches are a useful form of qualitative (results that are not expressed as numbers or numerical data, eg they can be expressed as present or absent, or as colours) data.

They can help us to remember the places that have been visited.

How to draw a field sketch

Field sketches can be drawn by anyone - fantastic artistic skills are not required.

Drawing a field sketch is a straightforward process:

  1. Identify the landscape that needs to be sketched.
  2. Write a title that will help to locate the sketch, eg 'Site One'.
  3. Draw an outline of the main features of the landscape with a pencil, eg hills and valleys or buildings and roads.
  4. Add detail to the sketch to record more information, eg river features, such as meanders (a bend), river cliffs (steep bank created on the outside of a river bend by the erosive effect of fast-flowing water undercutting the bank.) and rapids (an increase in the speed of river water where the river bed has a steep gradient). Only draw people if they are important to the enquiry question.
  5. Annotate or label the field sketch to give more information about the landscape and conditions, eg what was the weather like?
  6. Consider taking a photograph to support the field sketch.

Practise

Here are a few activities to try to help you remember what you've learnt about fieldwork.

Activity 1

Quiz

Test your knowledge of geography fieldwork with this 10 question multiple choice quiz.

Take the test

Activity 2

Fieldwork at home

What type of fieldwork could you do from your home?

Some ideas for fieldwork you can do from your doorstep include investigating traffic or pedestrians on your street or wildlife and nature in your yard, garden or window box.

Set your enquiry question and work through the sections of this guide to do your own fieldwork from home.

Activity 3

Fieldwork activity

Can you answer the questions in this activity?

This resource is from SAM learning

Fieldwork activity

There's more to learn

Have a look at these other resources around the BBC and the web.

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