Student Learning on Semester Courses: Perspectives from NOLS


  • Jeremy Jostad University of Utah


Course length is a logical factor affecting learning in experiential education. With respect to wilderness-based programs, research does suggest a difference in outcomes as the duration of courses increase (Hattie, Marsh, Neil, & Richards, 1997; Cason and Gillis, 1994). However, little, if any, research has focused on full semester-length wilderness-based courses, perhaps due to a lack of opportunity: Hattie et al.'s (1997) meta-analysis of 96 studies found that 72% of courses were between 20 and 26 days in length. In contrast, semester courses at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), specifically, range from 66 to 93 days. Some research has considered other types of experiential semesters, such as a “semester at sea†or an “alternative†type of semester (e.g. Dukes, 2006; Johnson & Alexander, 2009), but these are not wilderness-based courses. To the extent that increased course length, as an indicator of increased exposure to learning opportunities, should enhance learning outcomes, research is needed to understand the differential impact of semester courses. The purpose of this study, then, is to begin to identify what students learn from semester-length wilderness-based courses that they may not learn from shorter courses.