Field Trips to Art Museums Improve Critical Thinking, Promote Historical Empathy, and Increase Tolerance

Jay P. Greene:, University of Arkansas
Ashley Inman:, 707 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Field Trips to Art Museums Improve Critical Thinking, Promote Historical Empathy, and Increase Tolerance

Though school field trips to culturally enriching institutions are in decline, study finds positive educational effects; students from rural regions and minorities benefit most.

In recent years, cultural institutions have experienced sharp declines in the number of school tours attending their exhibits. More than half of schools throughout the country eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11 according to an American Association of School Administrators survey. A new, first-of-its-kind study, currently available at, shows that students who attend school field trips to art museums show improved critical thinking skills, display stronger historical empathy, and become more tolerant. Benefits are particularly large for students from rural areas and from high-poverty schools.

The 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas created the opportunity for the study, “The Educational Value of Field Trips,” by University of Arkansas researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel Bowen.  Crystal Bridges, the first major art museum to be built in the United States in the last four decades, has devoted part of its endowment to cover all expenses associated with school tours.  There was high demand for the school tours:  during its first two semesters, the museum tour program received 525 applications from school groups representing 38,347 students in kindergarten through grade 12.  Not all school groups could be accommodated right away, creating conditions for a perfect randomized trial.

Researchers created matched pairs among the applicant groups based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors, and then randomly assigned school groups to receive a tour that semester or at a later time.  Students in selected schools took a tour lasting roughly one hour, during which they viewed and participated in discussions about five different paintings. Approximately three weeks after students visited the museum, , the researchers administered surveys to 11,000 students and 500 teachers at 123 different schools, some who had visited the museum already and some who had not.  The surveys included items assessing knowledge about art as well as measures of critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums.

The study finds students who attend a field trip to an art museum experience an increase in critical thinking skills of 9 percent of a standard deviation, an increase in historical empathy of 6 percent of a standard deviation, and an improvement in tolerance of 7 percent of a standard deviation. Students from rural or high-poverty regions had even larger gains, of 18 percent of a standard deviation in critical thinking, 15 percent in historical empathy, and 13 percent in tolerance.

The researchers measured critical thinking skills by asking all students to write a short essay on a painting they had not seen before, which was then graded and scored blindly using a rubric. Students randomly assigned to receive a school tour of Crystal Bridges noticed and described more details in an image than students who did not attend a tour.

To measure historical empathy, researchers employed a series of statements and asked students to agree or disagree, including, “I have a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt.”  Tolerance was also measured with statements to which students could express agreement or disagreement, ranging from “People who disagree with my point of view bother me,” to “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.”

Student exposure to an art museum also increases the likelihood that students will visit the museum with their families. According to the authors, “families of students who received a tour were 18 percent more likely to return to the museum than we would expect.” For the study methodology and results of a second experiment, see “The Educational Value of Field Trips” on

The authors consider their findings to have far-reaching implications. “Policymakers should consider these results when deciding whether schools have sufficient resources and appropriate policy guidance to take their students on tours of cultural institutions,” they say, adding, “School administrators should give thought to these results when deciding whether to use their resources and time for these tours.”

About the Author

Jay P. Greene is professor of education reform at the Universityof Arkansas, where Brian Kisida is a senior research associate and Daniel H. Bowen is a doctoral student.  The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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