Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title University College London: A Research-led Department
Originator Ray Harris
Department Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AP, UK
Tel. +44 (0)171 504 4283
Fax +44 (0)171 380 7565

Summary and key features

The Department of Geography at UCL in its self-assessment claim for excellence in the TQA argued that "teaching and learning take place in a top rated research department". The claim for excellence was supported by the assessors who were impressed "by the way the scholarship and research interests of the academic staff directly support teaching and enhance the student learning experience." (HEFCE, 1995, para. 23). In the 1996 RAE the department got a 5-star rating - the highest possible grade. Key features of the current (1997) undergraduate curriculum include:

While the focus of this description is on how this research focus in part directs the curriculum, it needs to be seen as but one of three identified areas of student needs that should shape the curriculum. In the curriculum review (see below) the needs identified were: liberal education, vocational development and geographical research understanding. Their common thread is to develop independent study skills and critical thinking through geographical study.

Levers for change

Until recently the basic features of the curriculum had remained constant since the early 1980s. Certain factors prompted a major review in 1996. Key levers for change were:

The over-riding aim of the review of the undergraduate curriculum was, while building in key features of quality, to protect staff time which could be devoted to research and other scholarly activities; quality was largely conceived as developing students knowledge of/ability to do research and study independently. Central to the review was a considered costing of the then curriculum and the revised curriculum.

Key features of the pre- and post-1996 curriculum are set out in the table below.


Curriculum change at UCL Main Features of pre 1996 Curriculum Main Features of Post 1996 Curriculum

Main Features of pre 1996 Curriculum Main Features of post 1996 Curriculum

Year one: included several courses integrating physical and human geography as well as compulsory practical data processing skills. Year one: compulsory unit in data collection and interpretation. Students choose from a series of optional units.
Year two: Series of whole year units each taught by 2 staff from which students had an open choice. Year two: Students required to take common methodology unit, and one of either a human or physical geography unit which further develops research techniques for the compulsory dissertation in year 3. Also students choose from a series of half units which cover systematic subjects and relate to the research interests of staff.
Year three: Students choose from a series of half units generally taught by one member of staff around their research interests. There was an optional dissertation. Year three: Compulsory dissertation. Students choose from a series of half units, reflecting staff interests, organised by research groups.


Staff time to do research is protected by the following strategies:

Students awareness of the process of geographic research is developed by:


Introductory exercise/module on understanding the role of research in geography

In the first year all students have a weekly tutorial in groups of 4. This describes one of the tutorial exercises in term one.

  • As part of the compulsory 'Ideas in Geography' module each tutorial group is allocated to a member of staff (not their tutor).
  • Their task is to interview and write a report on that persons' research.
  • The objectives for the project include learning about "the aims, methods and ideas of geographers doing research in the department; to find out why and how research projects are started, how they are carried out, and how they are turned into publications...and to discover more about the relationships between geographical research and teaching" (emphasis in instructions to students).
  • To prepare for the interview students are given, by the member of staff, a current CV and 'three pieces of writing which are representative of their research, one of these pieces will be an unpublished manuscript'.


Students' ability to do research is developed primarily by a series of compulsory courses in years one through three.

What of this is transferable to other geography departments?

Perhaps none. This after all is an internationally recognised, large department. However, here are some suggestions:


HEFCE (1995) Quality Assessment Report by the HEFCE for University College London, Geography (Bristol: HEFCE)


Critical thinking
Independent study skills
Research-directed curriculum
Research-led department
Research methods

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Curriculum Design in Geography"

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