Outward Bound
Outdoor Education Research

A Guide to
Outward Bound Research

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Jan 2008



What's new?

  • Onward Bound - The First 50 Years of Outward Bound AustraliaOnward Bound: The First 50 Years of Outward Bound Australia
    (Helen Klaebe, Australian Outward Bound Foundation, 2006, Canberra, Australia)

    Helen Klaebe, a Masters student in Creative Writing at the Queensland University of Technology has written a history of Outward Bound in Australia for its 50th Anniversary (1956-2006).  This book is an oral history of the people who contributed to the remarkable development of Outward Bound in Australia. The stories and accounts provide a snapshot full of colour, insight, perspective and memories. It is human account of an organisation's ongoing contribution to Australian society and includes many historical photos.

  • Outward Bound Singapore's Evaluation of Life Effectiveness Outcomes

    OBS are conducting research on the effects of its programs, examining the role of motivation and outcomes using the Life Effectiveness Questionnaire.

  • Also see Outward Bound International Newsletter.


Outward Bound programs are diverse and use a complex combination of experiential learning activities. This makes Outward Bound a challenging topic for research investigation. There have been a number of interesting research efforts over the years, however the field is characterized by a lack of overall synthesis and direction.


One could argue that research was part of Outward Bound from its beginning.  In the 1940’s, Lawrence Holt, head of the Blue Funnel shipping line told Kurt Hahn that the survival rates of young merchant navy men was poor compared to older men in life boat situations.  Hahn then shared his theory that the young men had been ill-prepared because modern life lacked exposure of young people to real-life challenges.

Holt and Hahn devised “Outward Bound” a 4-week intensive program based on the principles of Kurt Hahn’s County Badge scheme.  These first Outward Bound courses improved the survival rates of the young sailors, giving empirical support for spreading Outward Bound theory and programs.  Despite the dramatic life-death nature of the outcomes from the first Outward Bound courses, the original data is not known to be publicly reported anywhere, leaving the original evidence about the efficacy of Outward Bound shrouded somewhat in mystery.

During the rest of the 1940s and the 1950s, little other Outward Bound research was conducted.  The first major Outward Bound research study of substance was Basil Fletcher’s follow up interviews with thousands of Outward Bound alumni in the UK.  Fletcher (1970, 1971) reported:

After I had talked to some 500 students, I was obliged to accept their nearly unanimous view that attendance at a course would influence them for many years. I received this impression at first with incredulity, but was obliged to pay attention to it because the same view was expressed, only more strongly, by past students. (1971, p. 98).

Despite the exhaustive followup surveys, Fletcher nevertheless found the UK Outward Bound programs wanting in measurable effects.

Another notable early study was by William Keay (1970), an instructor at Outward Bound New Zealand.  Keay's pilot study on the effects of OBNZ courses on personality variables (using Cattell's 16 PF) in a pre-post design with a control group, was reported in the Outward Bound UK Trust newsletter, Strive.  Keay explained the Outward Bound research problem as follows:

In an age when arguments are inevitably settled by reference to tables of figures and many people's working lives are calculated in terms of  units of production per man/day, Outward Bound may have been fortunate to escape analysis and measurement.  Yet how many wardens and instructors involved in confrontation with sceptical sponsors or hostile critics have felt uneasy or dissatisfied with the language and words at present used to describe the aims and achievements of Outward Bound?  In his Edmund Rich Memorial Lecture in Marsh 1966, Tom Price found '"character training" an inadequate description of the present-day aims and, furthermore, open to grave misinterpretation', and "leadership training" an expression which has curiously little real meaning but a large number of connotations, most of them unpleasant.'  An article in Strive of June 1968 by P. D. Fyshwick stated the problem concisely in these words: ‘We continue to search for more quantitative measures of many training exercises but it remains true that many have to be taken on trust.  This is true of attitude training, and Outward Bound is no exception.’  The ideal solution will be a clear and objective way of describing the effects of an Outward Bound course which will answer the questions - what changes?  in whom?  how much?  and for how long?
- pp.34-35, Keay (1970), “Lies damned lies”: A pilot study.  Strive, 2(1), 34-37.

Perhaps the best cited early Outward Bound studies were the studies by Kelly and Baer on the effects of Outward Bound on delinquent boys.  Kelly and Baer (US) in the mid-1960's to mid-1970's conducted the first major research studied into the effect of Outward Bound programs with delinquent youth, reporting positive, long-term benefits (Kelly, 1974; Kelly & Baer, 1968).  These studies provided a significant boost to Outward Bound programming for youth at risk and helped to spawn the emergence and legitimization of adventure therapy.

Despite the early studies by Fletcher (UK), Keay (NZ), and Kelly and Baer (US), it was arguably the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS, USA) from the mid-1960's to mid-1980's which pioneered the first substantial ongoing Outward Bound research and theory program, lead particularly through the efforts of Thomas James and Stephen Barcia Bacon. The COBS research and theory efforts were independent, but supported by the developing experiential education movement in the US.  In the early 1970s, the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) was formed and with it, the first major journal in this field, the Journal of Experiential Education was begun.  OB USA Inc appointed a national research director in the 1980's-1990's, but most USA OB was, and continues to be, generated at the individual school-level.

In the mid-1970's, Outward Bound Australia (OBA) begun its formidable 20-year research program under the leadership of Garry Richards.  For example, Marsh, Richards and Barnes (1986a,b) studied of the effects of standard Outward Bound Australia programs on multidimensional self-concepts.  The positive results were notable because:

  1. they showed positive effects of self-concept which lasted during an 18 month follow-up;
  2. there predictably stronger results in some areas of self-concept compared with other areas;
  3. a large sample (over 300 was used);
  4. the results were published in two major psychological journals.

See also

Recommended Outward Bound Research Resources


(If a reference you are looking for is not listed below, try this larger list of outdoor education research references)

Bacon, S. B. (1988). The effects of racially homogeneous and heterogeneous Outward Bound groups on the self-report survey scores and drop out rates of minority students. Greenwich, CT: Outward Bound USA.

Berman, D. S., & Davis-Berman, J. (1995) Outdoor education and troubled youth. ERIC Digest ED385425.

Fletcher, B. A. (1970). Outward Bound: Students of Outward Bound schools in Great Britain: A follow-up study. Bristol: University of Bristol School of Education.

Fletcher, B. A. (1971). The challenge of Outward Bound. London: Heinemann.

Hattie, J. A., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.

Katz, R., & Kolb, D. (1968).  Outward Bound and education for personal growth. In: F. J. Kelly and D. J. Baer (Eds.) Outward Bound Schools as an Alternative to Institutionalization for Adolescent Delinquent Boys. Greenwich, CT.: Outward Bound Inc.  Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.  [.pdf; 2.7MB]

Keay, W. K. (1970). “Lies damned lies: A pilot study. Strive, 2(1), 34-37.

Kelly, F. J. (1974).  Outward Bound and Delinquents: A ten year experience.  Paper presented at Conference on Experiential Education, Estes Park, CO.

Kelly, F. J., & Baer, D. J. (1968). Outward Bound schools as an alternative to institutionalization for adolescent delinquent boys.  Boston, MA:  Outward Bound, Inc.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986a). Multidimensional self-concepts: The effect of participation in an Outward Bound Program.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 195-204.

Marsh, H. W., Richards, G. E., & Barnes, J. (1986b).  Multidimensional self-concepts: A long term follow-up of the effect of participation in an Outward Bound program.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12, 475-492.

Martin, A. J. (2001). Towards the next generation of experiential education programmes: A case study of Outward Bound. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.   Full thesis [1.2MB; .pdf].   Appendices [.4MB; .pdf].

Martin, A., & Legg, S. (2002). Investigating the inward sounds of Outward Bound [New Zealand]. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 6(2), 27-36.

McKenzie, M. D. (2000). Gaining a better understanding of how Outward Bound Western Canada course outcomes are achieved: A research study. Unpublished master's thesis, Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. AbstractThesis. (.4 MB)

McKenzie, M. D. (2000). How are adventure education program outcomes achieved? A review of the literature. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 5(1), 19-28.

McKenzie, M. D. (2003). Beyond the Outward Bound process: Rethinking student learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 26(1), 8-23.[html]

Paxton, T., & McAvoy, L. (2000). Social psychological benefits of a wilderness adventure program. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL3. [pdf]

Tan, M. (2005). Examining the impact of an Outward Bound Singapore program on the life effectiveness of adolescents. Unpublished master's thesis, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.