Posted by: markhowell101 | June 4, 2012

Coastal fieldwork methods – Where to start

Having run several coastal field trips now I thought I would compile a run down of all the techniques I have used with a bit of a review of their success, what groups they are good for, the likely results, how to present the data and how to go about doing them. When I first embarked on field trips I found limited information on the internet about specific methods that would work and how successful the students would be at each. It is my hope that someone finds this useful in putting together their own trip. I will add to this as time goes by and I try alternative methods.

General Advice

  • Pick the methods to suit you group – you will know what will work and what will not
  • Pick the methods that will give the right results to answer your question set. If this is for a controlled assessment task this is of course very important, whilst at KS3 you may have more leeway to design a question to suit the methods you want to use.
  • Practice the methods before you go, it makes a massive difference if they already know how to do it before you get there. This could range from counting breaking waves on a youtube video, to measuring pebbles brought in from your drive to measuring the slope of the hill on the school field with poles and clinometers.

Beach profiling

A great piece of fieldwork which always yields decent results in my experience. Select 2 or 3 locations along a stretch of coastline and get students to profile the beach at each location. Make sure you invest in trundle wheels rather than tape measures as in the wind the tape gets destroyed very easily. You will need ranging poles of course and clinometers but the process itself is straightforward and the students usually enjoy working as a team of 4 or 5 to get the results fo this. Absolutely essential to practice this with the students before the day, I always take them out to an undulating bit of the school field to have a go at this in advance. When back in class it is easy for the students to draw up the results and come to good conclusions about the types of waves and processes at each location. I have found that even the weakest GCSE students can access all elements of this piece of fieldwork but would not attempt this with a key stage 3 group unless they are a particularly small / sensible group.

Pebble Analysis

Again a simple piece of fieldwork and one that yields good results which are accessible for students right from key stage 3 to key stage 5. Students again visit a number of sites this time measuring the size of pebbles found and, using a rock matrix record the angularity of those pebbles. Below is the matrix I have used over the past 3 years. I encourage students to try to measure the angularity numerically but some, especially weaker students prefer to classify. Students come up with their own way of random sampling and this I discuss in the lessons in advance, we also have a practice with a sample of pebbles in the classroom before we go. The key is to ensure that students get a large enough sample, 20 at least, otherwise trends are difficult to find. The display of this data works well in scattergraph or box plot format although for the weaker students bar graphs for the various classifications works ok. I have found that the key geography here (the idea of rates of attrition, linked to destructive waves) is accessible to top end key stage 3 students and almost all students at GCSE level.

Field sketches

A very straightforward way to get students to try to interpret features which you might see at the coast. This works well at all key stages and is great for controlled assessment as it allows students to revisit the sketches once back in class and add annotations of the features. As a back up plan make sure you take photos too, I find many students will produce poor sketches in the field, or time constraints mean that they don’t produce much and many students benefit from copying a projected image once back in class. If possible allow  a good amount of time for this in the field and provide students with a clipboard to help them do it.

Long Shore Drift

Measuring long shore drift is a difficult process during a one day fieldwork visit. I have experimented with a number of ways to do this and perhaps the best is very simple (although whether it does actually measure LSD is open to debate). What I have done in the past is place 2 posts 10 meters apart along the coast, parallel to the sea. Then at one post I throw an orange directly out to sea (biodegradable, bright and it floats) we then time how long it takes for the orange to float past the second post. This has yielded decent results for me in the past as if you have a strong rip it is likely that long shore drift will also be taking place however I think I have been lucky with my results in the past and this could of course produce peculiar or misleading results if you went on a given day. The whole issue of bad results is not actually too much of a problem as it allows students to easily find fault with their fieldwork in an evaluation if one is required. There are further issues with the above fieldwork as it may present a problem with risk assessments and safety. Many people will specify in their risk assessments that students do not go past high water mark (I know I do) and this creates a problem in places with a large tidal range if you are there at low tide. In the past I have had to trek down to the sea on my own to carry out this experiment leaving the students with other staff further up the beach. All in all a fairly hit or miss task, would be interested to hear any advice on this.

Wave counts

A very simple process of counting waves for a set period of time at each location. Clearly this is wildly open to error but I find all students can make the link between the number of waves and the nature of them. I start by showing the 2 videos below in class and we talk about constructive and destructive waves, what they look like and how many we are likely to get in a minute. Presenting the data for this is very easy indeed, maybe even just a bar graph and I find students of all ages and abilities can draw meaning from the results and relate it back to their ideas in class. Again the results could be warped on any particular day but again this allows the students to evaluate this piece of fieldwork.

As I said above I hope this helps someone get started. I will blog in the coming weeks about some of the urban fieldwork I have tried and tested but hopefully this enables people to get off the ground with their coastal work.



  1. Cannot thank you ENOUGH!! Non ‘Geog’ specialist taking students to the coast to data collection: beach profiling, wave frequency, long shore drift; all ‘French’ to me of course! With the help of some wonderful Geog. colleagues, like you, I will be able to do this research AND students will enjoy it too!!

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