Expand your knowledge

Learn how to Contribute

Contribute what you know

The Outcome Model – a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors

Paul Nicolazzo
Article Date:  January 2, 2006


Effective Field Leadership & Management

An instructors’ field leadership and management skills are responsible for the educational success and safety of their course. Field instructors must know what they are doing and why they are doing it at all times. While the education of their students is important, the students’ safety must always be the instructors’ priority. The Outcome Model provides a practical decision making algorithm that assists instructors in safely planning and managing their course on an activity by activity basis.

Time Management & Leadership

It is imperative that instructors schedule enough quality time to make informed educational and risk management decisions on a regular basis during their course. In most cases, time pressure is a symptom of an itinerary-driven course and one of the major causes of poor assessments and ultimately poor site management decisions: increased time stress equals increased risk. Significant leadership decisions MUST be made when instructors are well rested and MUST be based on an accurate assessment of the staff, students, resources, the activity site, and the actual risk present at the time of the activity. There are naturally occurring moments within a course that provide well-timed opportunities for observation, assessment, reflection, and restructuring. While observation needs to take place during an activity, reflection, assessment, and restructuring can take place during the breaks between activities, at the end of each day, and between activity blocks. How instructors think during these time periods and their resulting decisions are crucial to the safety and educational success of their course.

Site Management

The instructors’site management is responsible for the safety of their course. Site management is a continuous process that begins when their students arrive and ends when they leave. The students’ mastery of specific human and outdoor skills together with the instructor’s site management decisions balance the actual risk present at any given time during the course. (See Part II Site Management — the Missing Link for a detailed explanation of Site Management) To be safe, the instructors’ site management MUST take into account the human and outdoor skills of all the instructors and students present at the time of the activity. It MUST include an accurate assessment of the site’s hazards and plan to neutralize them using the available resources. To be educationally effective it must also include strategies designed to address the current needs of their students. The instructors’ positions during an activity is crucial to safely managing the site hazards. Mistakes are usually associated with inaccurate assessments and poor management decisions. Site management errors can result in injury or death when the level of actual risk is high. To minimize errors, transitions between stationary and moving sites should take place in a safe zone and each should be thoroughly framed and closed. No activity site where the consequence of a mistake is serious injury or death should be managed as a moving site. If the hazards cannot be safely managed as a stationary site, the activity MUST be CANCELLED or move it to a safe site. Conscious use of the Outcome Model will help instructors take advantage of the many opportunities available within a course to assess their students’ human & outdoor skills and then design effective activities.

The Outcome Model

Individual schools/organizations, courses, and activities must be responsive to the needs of their students, staff, and, in a larger sense, the needs of society and culture they serve if they are to succeed. The speed and quality of their response is determined by the number and effectiveness of their systemic feedback loops. All structural changes within a course serve as examples of feedback loops. The Outcome Model (Figure 3) functions both as a nested feedback loop and an algorithm for designing and managing activities and activity progressions. When used by trained instructors, the model becomes an effective tool for designing and managing activities in the field.

The Core

At the heart of the model lie the core principles and strategies of the organization (See Appendix B for some common examples) as described in their mission statement. Because a mission statement expresses in an active — and hopefully practical — manner the philosophical, educational, and structuring beliefs held by the organization, it forms the foundation for all instructor decisions.

The Design Cycle

Surrounding the core is a three part design cycle that is nested within a management cycle. In order to effectively structure an activity (or an activity progression), instructors must first identify where they want to go and where they are starting from. In the Outcome Model these are respectively known as the desired educational outcomes and assessments. Successful structuring strategies are the activities and activity progressions that bridge the gap between the instructors’ assessment and their desired outcomes (Figure 1). And, like the structure of the bridge they represent, they need to be built from both sides.

Figure 1

Activities and activity progression bridge the gap between the assessment and desired educational outcomes. Each must be in alignment with the organization’s core principles and strategies. The Outcome Model represents the complex decision making process required for effective field leadership & management.

Instructors begin at the top of the design cycle (Figure 2) by assessing (and later reassessing) themselves, their students, their resources, the proposed activity site, and the actual risk presented by the site (and the activity as it relates to the site). Instructors need to assess their outdoor, educational, and human skill sets to determine the safe limits of their skills. They must also assess the outdoor and human skill sets of their individual students and the functioning of their group.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Design the Experience

  • Design for safety first then education
  • Keep the design simple
  • Design a seamless progression
  • Use the Basic Outdoor Education Strategies
  • Design the site management plan
  • Design the framing

Once their initial assessment is complete the instructors need to identify the desired educational outcomes for their next activity. In most cases there will be at least one outdoor skills outcome (often there are many) and an educational outcome that they may or may not decide to articulate in their framing. Only after the assessment is complete and the outcomes identified can the instructors begin to design the activity or activity blocks. Activity blocks are usually designed prior to the course and then restructured as necessary during the course to ensure the block outcomes are realized. During the design process, instructors need to continually refer to their original assessments and desired outcomes. The design process usually requires more than one pass through the assessment, outcome and design phases to reach a finished activity (or block); the process is complete when both the educational outcomes and the site management plan come together as a unified whole. As they proceed through the design cycle, instructors should refer to the Basic Outdoor Education Strategies (See Appendix A), keep the design as simple as possible, and strive to blend each individual activity seamlessly into the next. Educational outcomes should ALWAYS take a back seat to safety; students have died where instructors confused the two and placed an educational outcome ahead of their students’ safety. Once the design of the activity and its framing are complete, instructors are ready to move into the management phase of the process (Figure 3).

The Management Cycle

Successfully managing an activity requires close attention the framing, the activity itself, and the closure. To remain in alignment with each other, staff MUST check-in before each framing & closure. While the educational outcomes and tone setting are important, the framing check-in MUST review all aspects of the activity as it relates to the site management plan and student safety with student safety the clear priority. It’s important for instructors to remember that in order to get an accurate assessment of their students’ skills before relying on them during a moving site, they must test them to failure at a stationary site. Once started, an activity should be allowed to progress until it reaches its natural end; a well designed activity will have few, if any, instructor interventions. Instructor interventions should be limited to those required to ensure the activity’s safety and educational outcomes. In preparation for the closure, instructors should observe what happens as the activity unfolds and write it down. It’s common for different instructors observing the same activity to have differing views on what happened. In order for the closure to be effective, it MUST focus on the real outcomes of the exercise from the students frame of reference; the instructor check-in provides an opportunity for the instructors to discuss and plan an effective closure. Once the activity has been closed, instructors should compare the real outcomes with their desired outcomes and reassess before progressing to the next activity. Success depends on adapting to the students’ needs at the time and avoiding itinerary driven progressions. (See Part III of this series Structuring a Learning Experience for details) Together the two cycles of the Outcome Model (Figure 3) provide a comprehensive set of feedback loops and a decision-making model that lead to character education and a safe, quality experience.

The Outcome Model in Practice

To run a powerful course, instructors must blend their personal beliefs and educational concepts with the core principles and structuring strategies of their organization and one another. The development of a shared course mission is a prerequisite to course planning and usually facilitated by the instructors’ field supervisor. Success requires good communication skills and trust.

Once they share a common mission, instructors need to make a general pre-course assessment based on their student demographics (ventures, standards, adults, etc.), screening, and a close examination of the medicals, counseling forms, etc. After this initial pre-course assessment has been completed, the instructional team is ready to begin developing their desired outcomes and broad structuring strategies. This process is also facilitated by their field supervisor. In order to design effective progressions the instructors work backward from their students’ possibilities (the desired outcomes for the course) and forward from the pre-assessment of their students at the same time. During this design process the team initially uses broad strokes to identify activity blocks and large transitions which become more and more specific as the picture unfolds. They will probably restructure numerous times during the planning process as their outcomes, assessed student needs, and progressions become clearer. The process will be easier and less frustrating if they remember to stay within their sphere of influence, and they will be more effective if they use as many multidimensional activities as possible to achieve their outcomes. Once the students arrive, they need to check out the accuracy of their original assessments and restructure subsequent activities based on the “actual” human and outdoor skills of their students and the team’s original desired outcomes. This requires a series of assessment exercises/activities that permit them to closely examine their students existing outdoor and human skills as early as possible in the course.

Once they are in the field, instructors often find themselves focused on their itinerary. This management paradigm makes effective course leadership quite hard and can easily derail the course. Effective leadership requires feedback, reflection, and clarity. Instructors can consciously use the Outcome Model to create feedback loops in their courses on a regular basis in order to look closely at where and how they are leading their students. As instructors observe their students they need to continually ask: “Are the structuring strategies (activities) we have chosen for our students taking the students where they need to go based on the their current skill level and our desired course outcomes?” If the answer is YES, then full steam ahead. If the answer is NO, then they reassess and restructure before moving ahead. At the very least, this will mean changing the structure of the activities within their itinerary. And, if it is within their sphere of influence, it may mean changing their itinerary. If the course is structured and managed well, everyone will reach the end satisfied with the quality and safety of their experience.

Figure 3

Figure 3


Outdoor Education uses the progressive development of outdoor skills in an wilderness environment to create need and provide a framework for “impelling” people into value forming experiences. This strategy is the basis for designing activities with multiple outcomes. These multidimensional activities are constructed by creatively blending a human skills progression with an outdoor skill progression in such a way that the emerging experience creates space for metaphoric outcomes relating to the students’ values and beliefs. In the hands of trained staff the Outcome Model becomes an effective structuring tool for all aspects of a program’s design and management. Prior to a course it allows senior program staff to design, manage, and later evaluate their block progressions, sites, and course outcomes. In the field, it provides instructors with an activity by activity decision-making model that helps them to stay focused on their students safety and education, avoid an itinerary driven course, and increase both the quality and safety of their course.

*This is the first part of a five part risk management series by Paul Nicolazzo

  1. Instructor Skills & Competency verses Program Design — A Delicate Balance
  2. Site Management — the Missing Link
  3. Structuring a Learning Experience
  4. The Outcome Model — a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors
  5. The Components of an Effective Instructor Development Program

Paul Nicolazzo is the director of the Wilderness Medicine Training Center with twenty plus years as a successful outdoor adventure program designer and staff trainer. In addition to wilderness medicine he specializes it teaching Site Management® theory and practices. For information visit the WMTC web site at www.WildMedCenter.com

Appendix A

Basic Outdoor Education Strategies

Safety first.

Prioritize safety over educational outcomes at all times.

Establish need.

Unsatisfied needs motivate learning and change. Design your activities to be immediate and practical from the students’ perspective; your timing is critical. Well-designed activities will define your progression as the need for the next skill or set becomes self-evident during the previous activity.

Teach concepts inherent in specific skills and sets.

Practice concepts; they are metaphorically transferred easily. Either be directive with the framing, or introduce concepts through lecture and demonstration; then follow with a practice exercise or initiative that focuses and reinforces their use.

Activities should be the primary teaching component of every learning experience.

In length, the activity portion of the experience should be substantially longer than the framing and closure. If you are in pursuit of character education and wish your students to examine a specific human skill or value (communication, group decision-making, trust, compassion, etc .), you must design and facilitate an activity within your existing outdoor skills progression that requires a natural or intrinsic need for the value you wish your students to examine. In order for the activity to reach it’s desired outcomes, success in the task must require your students to use the skills or values being examined. The most effective form or shape of this type of activity is usually a personal or group initiative. In order to prepare an effective closure, you MUST take notes about “what happened” during the activity and should consider purchasing and using a weather resistant notebook. You should intervene only when necessary to ensure the students’ safety and the educational success of the activity.

Maintain a challenging learning environment.

Balance the perceived and actual risk with your students’ mastery of the required human and outdoor skills. Keep your students engaged. If they become overwhelmed, consider balancing it with reflection or down time.

Structure for success. Use progressions!!!

Balance experiential and directive methods. Become more directive to relieve student frustration; become less directive to increase creative dissonance or need. Using a directive style may also decrease both the perceived and actual risk associated with an activity. Allow time for both supervised and unsupervised practice. Correct, assist, and close as necessary. Build on previous skills. Make sure to observe the outcomes of an activity and then reassess before designing the next activity.

Protect students from social and emotional injury in addition to physical.

This requires a safe, supportive, and positive group environment. You can facilitate the development of this environment by 1) setting rules based in logical consequences and maintaining consistency in their enforcement, and 2) structuring multidimensional exercises that develop trust, respect, and positive communication within an outdoor skills progression. Consider facilitating an exercise where you and your students set the rules and norms for your community together. Keep in mind that YOU are ultimately responsible for structuring your student’s experience, not your students. Pay attention and guide their developing culture. Motivational and behavioral incidents increase when staff are out-of-touch with the group culture.

Choose an appropriate process style and structure time for it.

Well-designed activities often require additional process time. Take advantage of the natural experiential learning process by following intense experiences with formal or informal process time. Choose from three basic process styles: personal, peer, or leader. Personal processing occurs when students go off by themselves to think, write, or be. While it is important to schedule time for personal processing be aware of how each student is interpreting their experience. Check in privately with upset students who seek alone time, especially repetitive alone time. Solos, mini-solos, and journal writing are formal types of personal processing. Use them for simple reflection, to prepare for transitions, and/or to reduce intergroup tension. Peer processing is the most common method used by students to process their experiences during a course. Dinner, evening, and “trail” conversations are a type of informal peer processing while exercises that incorporate dyads or triads are formal. When you talk with a student privately, informally chat with a group, or facilitate a group problem-solving session you are engaging in leader processing. To remain effective, limit your formal leader processing to problem solving and transitions; debrief circles loose their effectiveness when overused. Regardless of the style you use, informal processing should make up the overwhelming majority of the processing time in your course and you MUST structure time for it.


Both you and your students have chosen to be part of the course and MUST assume responsibility for that choice before entering the field. You have agreed to instruct the course in alignment with the school’s principles & strategies and are responsible for the safety and education of the students under your care. Your students must also accept the challenge of the proposed experience and their choices. In order to make good choices, they will need to be aware of the consequences (what is at stake) from their frame of reference. Get a verbal commitment to the course before entering the field. Consider creating a symbol that represents their commitment. Students must demonstrate their mastery of the human and outdoor skills required for an activity to be safe before you consider using a “finals” management strategy.

Empower your Students

Empower your students by providing exercises that allow them to choose and manage their own risk with minimal or no instructor intervention. The skills necessary for their success must have been progressively developed & assessed prior to the exercise. This is the cumulative goal of a student led expedition or “finals.”

Appendix B

Core Principles & Structuring Strategies

Core principles and strategies express the school’s mission and serve to guide instructors as they design activities for their students. What follows is a list of common core principles and structuring strategies as they apply to the field of outdoor education—both are often expressed in the organization’s mission statement.

Principle: Self-esteem
Common Strategies:

Self-esteem is a necessary building block before individuals can learn to care for others. Structure progressive activities that successfully develop both outdoor and human skills. Success builds self-esteem. Lead your students to skill mastery and a finals experience.

Principle: Self-reliance
Common Strategies:

Empower students by providing exercises that allow them to choose and manage their own risk with minimal or no instructor intervention. The skills necessary for their success must have been progressively developed prior to the exercise. This is the cumulative goal of a student led expedition or “finals.”

Principle: Safety
Common Strategies:

The effective learning of outdoor and human skills is also required to safely manage environmental and social risk. Physical (environmental) risk can be effectively managed with appropriate site/route selection and student mastery of specific skills. In addition to physical injury, students need to be protected from social and emotional injury. This requires a safe, supportive, and positive group environment. Instructors can facilitate the development of this environment by setting rules based on logical consequences, maintaining consistency in their enforcement, and by structuring exercises that develop trust, respect, and positive communication.

Principle: Adventure
Common Strategies:

Adventure means not knowing the outcome in advance. Adventure tends to occur in unfamiliar environments. In wilderness courses adventure happens when students are removed from their normal urban environment (with its associated experiences and history) and placed in a outdoor setting with ten strangers. Because they are unfamiliar with it, the outdoor environment creates risk, immediate consequences, and an intrinsic need for learning the outdoor and human skills that lead to character development.

Principle: Concern for others
Common Strategies:

Concern for others may be taught experientially within a working community. A group of 8 to 12 students creates a community where interaction is required to meet common goals. This size of group is large and diverse enough to develop conflict and small enough to successfully resolve it within the time frame of the course. Instructors can structure group problem solving activities that show everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and aid in developing respect for all the individuals within the group. Need, and hence value, are created when natural and immediate consequences for group actions are an intrinsic part of the exercise. Instructors may need to assist their students in developing effective human skills. Concern for others may also be developed if the students plan and participate in a meaningful group social service project.

Principle: Care for the environment
Common Strategies:

Instructors can create an appreciation for the natural environment by teaching and modeling comfortable outdoor living skills and the “Leave No Trace” curriculum. They can show through exercises and observation the consequences of irresponsible environmental actions (the beauty of an old growth forest versus a recent clear cut). Students can demonstrate their concern by choosing, planning, and participating in an environmental service project.

Principle: Therapy
Common Strategies:

Outdoor therapeutic organizations often build their programs around a specific therapeutic or phycological model and may be wilderness based, residential based, or include elements of both.

Principle: Spiritual Growth
Common Strategies:

Many outdoor programs include a non-secular components based on their specific beliefs. Many of these programs use, among others, daily prayer as a common strategy.

The best seller used by outdoor programs across the country as a resource and textbook. 

Available in paperback, E-book, and now as an Audiobook at Amazon.com