Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title A Portfolio Approach to Transferable Skills
Originator Sue Burkill
Department Geography Department, College of St. Mark & St. John, Derriford Road, Plymouth, PL6 8BH, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1752 777188
Fax +44 (0)1752 761163


This case study illustrates how geography undergraduates can enhance their transferable skills through a programme of study which is fully integrated into a geography course. The programme is designed so that the skills permeate the four compulsory modules in the geography degree. The distinctive feature of this programme is that students create a portfolio containing carefully selected evidence of their skills which is submitted for assessment and for a college award. Aspects of the programme have drawn inspiration from approaches used in UK vocational education including GNVQ and NVQ (National Vocational Qualifications).


Geography is taught as one element of a two-subject Humanities Degree at the University College of St. Mark and St. John, Plymouth. The innovation described in this case study started with a modest attempt to introduce more clearly identified 'skills sensitive' assignments into one or two modules. The current two year programme has been developed with the support of a college grant towards employing a research assistant who has developed and used new materials with first year students.

The main features:

The programme consists of eight units which define a range of skills in which students should aim to achieve competence (Table 1). Each unit contains a list of definable skills (see Table 2 as an example) which students are expected to develop and demonstrate in their geography modules. In selecting the skills content tutors, somewhat pragmatically, decided on a combination of generic skills (personal organisation, communication, teamwork, IT), research approaches (basic study skills, problem solving and research) and geographical techniques (cartographic, statistical and fieldwork). While this selection may seem excessively broad, it serves the purpose of ensuring that the course is firmly related to the skills we expect from a graduate geographer.

The programme is introduced through a course handbook which describes the timescale, the learning processes, the assessment procedures and the support structures.

Table 1  Programme content: the unit structure

Unit 1 Basic study skill
Unit 2 Personal organisational skills
Unit 3 Communication skills (writing skills, oral skills, audio-visual aids)
Unit 4 Teamwork
Unit 5 Information technology skills
Unit 6 Cartographic techniques
Unit 7 Statistical and fieldwork techniques
Unit 8 Problem solving and research approaches

Table 2  Programme content: the specification of skills in Unit 4

Students should show that they can:

Take responsibility for and carry out agreed tasks

Take part in peer group discussions showing ability to:

make relevant contributions
obtain and offer information
show respect for others by listening and encouraging
take initiative and lead others
play a supportive role

Evaluate group discussions to show awareness of role played by self/others

Collaborate effectively in a group-based presentation

Important guidance is available in three sections of the handbook:

A key feature of the programme is that students have to compile evidence that they have reached a satisfactory standard in each of the eight skills units. They are ultimately responsible for selecting appropriate, high quality work and justifying its inclusion in their portfolio. Students work at their own pace and in their own time. A limited amount of tutorial back-up is available and students are encouraged to seek help from the college learning support system if specific weaknesses are identified.

A set of assessment criteria based on coverage and quality are clearly defined and discussed with the students at an early stage. Students can submit the portfolio at any time, although they are advised to wait until the end of the second year of the degree.

Some students have evidence of prior learning which they wish to incorporate in the portfolio; others are keen to use experience gained from employment outside college. In principle there is no objection to the inclusion of this evidence. The problem lies with verifying the experience and this is an issue which is currently being addressed by tutors.


Student opinion of the programme has recently been evaluated through a series of in-depth interviews. The response in general is highly supportive. All students commented on the career relevance of the course and most were in favour of the flexible structure. Many commented that the objectives of the course (personal organisation/responsibility for learning) were well served by the opportunity to organise their own work and proceed at their own pace. Some students have found that the course has highlighted specific problems which they have managed to avoid facing in the past. The course is creating a demand for support and it is clearly vital to have this in place to help deal with issues as they arise. A positive point made by mature students is that the course has led them to recognise the strengths that they bring from their past experience and this has enhanced their self- confidence. There are some concerns about the extra work load which the portfolio brings. However, as this work can be scheduled for the less pressured times of the year it is recognised that this is a question of time allocation and motivation.

Staff have been generally supportive but do have some mixed feelings about the course. Currently, the department is able to employ a part-time teaching assistant to provide some tutorial and administrative support. With a declining resource base, many tutors fear that the extra marking and the tutorial support needed may not be sustainable. All recognise the value of the initiative and module tutors are good at prompting students to recognise the skills/competencies in the work they are undertaking within the modules.

This programme has also been evaluated by a sample of employers. The outcome of this review was very encouraging, although a number of important issues emerged. It was suggested that the techniques (cartography, fieldwork) units could be omitted from the programme as it was claimed that these skills can be 'trained in very quickly'. This is a suggestion which will be considered during the next review of the programme. On the other hand, it was suggested that there is not enough emphasis placed on skills such as 'image qualities' (assertiveness, appearance, personality). The challenge (and appropriateness) of introducing these 'skills' into this assessed programme is one which has yet to be faced!

Key advice:


Burkill, S. (1995) Incorporating transferable skills into an undergraduate geography assignment, in A. Jenkins & A. Ward (Eds.) Developing Skill-based Curricula Through the Disciplines: case studies of good practice in Geography, SEDA Paper 89, pp. 65-76.

Burkill, S. (1997) Student empowerment through group work: a case study. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21(1), pp.89-94.


Embedding skills
Recording skills
Skills assessment
Skills portfolio
Transferable skills

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Transferable Skills and Work-based Learning in Geography"

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