Outdoor Orientation Programs: A Critical Review of Program Impacts on Retention and Graduation


  • Brent J. Bell University of New Hampshire
  • Hong Chang Tufts University School of Medicine




retention, outdoor orientation, first-year experience programs


Outdoor orientation programs have a growing literature demonstrating positive impacts with students transitioning to college (Bell, Gass, Nafizer, & Starbuck, 2014). One of the most valued outcomes for colleges and universities is retention of students until successful graduation. This is an outcome few outdoor orientation researchers have studied, but one that many programs claim to influence. This paper provides an overview of the literature of outdoor orientation programs retention studies, with specific attention placed on selection bias. This study used a control group (randomized selection), a convenience group (nonparticipants), and a comparison group (matched by covariates) to assess the differences in retention outcomes. Findings indicate (a) similarities between sampling through random selection and covariate matching, but not by convenience sampling and (b) generally positive retention results for participation in outdoor orientation programs, including small effect sizes for retention (OR = 1.91–2.38) and graduation (OR = 1.07–1.81), but few statistically significant results (p < .05).

Author Biographies

Brent J. Bell, University of New Hampshire

Associate Professor of Kinesiology-- Outdoor Education Program at the University of New Hampshire.

Hong Chang, Tufts University School of Medicine

Assistant Professor of Medicine


Bell, B. J. (2016). Outdoor orientation leaders and perceived alcohol use. Coalition for Education in the Outdoors 13th Biennial Research Symposium, 51-52.

Bell, B.J. & Nafziger, C.S. (2014). The outdoor orientation benchmarking survey. Coalition for Education in the Outdoors 12th Biennial Research Symposium.

Bell, B.J. (2012). Assessing the effectiveness of an adventure-based first year experience class. Journal of College Student Development. Vol. 53(2).

Bell, B. J. (2006). Wilderness orientation: Exploring the relationship between college pre-orientation programs and social support. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(2), 145-167.

Bell, B.J., Gass, M.A., Nafziger, C., & Starbuck, J.D. (2014). The state of knowledge of outdoor orientation programs: Current practices, research, and theory. Journal of Experiential Education. Vol. 37(1).

Bell, B. J. & Holmes, M. R. (2011). Important factors leading to outdoor orientation program outcomes: A qualitative exploration of survey results. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, & Leadership, 3(1), 26-39.

Bell, B.J., Holmes, M.R., & Williams, B.G. (2010). A census of outdoor orientation programs at four-year colleges in the united states. Journal of Experiential Education, 33(1), 1-18.

Brown, D.A. (1998). Does an outdoor orientation program really work? College and University, 73(4), 17-23.

Brownell, J.E. & Swaner, L.E. (2009). High-impact practices: Applying the learning outcomes literature to the development of successful campus programs. Peer Review, Spring, 26-30.

Gass, M. A. (1986). The effects of a wilderness orientation program on incoming students to a university setting. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gass, M. (1987). The effects of a Wilderness orientation program on college students. Journal of Experiential Education, 10 (2), 30-33.

Gass, M. (1990). The Longitudinal Effects of on Adventure Orientation Program on the Retention of Students. Journal of College Student Development, 31.

Gass, M. A., Garvey, D. E., & Sugerman, D. A. (2003). The long-term effects of a first- year student wilderness orientation program. The Journal of Experiential Education, 26 (1), 34-40.

Hill, W., Nolan, C.D. & Scrogin, J. (2010). QUESTS: An urban university outdoor experience orientation program as a retention vehicle. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 2(2), 156-158.

Lien, M. & Goldenberg, M. (2012). Outcomes of a college wilderness orientation program. The Journal of Experiential Education, 35(1), 253-271.

Michael, Morris-Dueer, & Wiechert (in review). Differential Effects of Participation of a Wilderness Education Program for Incoming Students. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership.

Sullivan, Sprunger & Williams. (1971). Effects of college sponsored special programs on freshmen performance. Unpublished Report, Wheaton College, Wheaton.

Stogner, J. D. (1978). The effects of a wilderness experience of self-concept and academic performance (Unpublished dissertation). Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.

Swing, R. (2002). First-Year Initiative (FYI) overview. Brevard, N.C.: The Policy Center on the First Year in College. Archived at http://www.sc.edu/fye/resources/assessment/essays/swing-8.28.02_pdfs/overview.pdf.

Vlamis, E. (2002). The effects of an adventure orientation program on incoming first year students. Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of New Hampshire, Durham.






Special Issue: Campus Outdoor Recreation Programs