Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
||University College London: A Research-led Department
||Department of Geography, University College London, 26 Bedford Way, London
WC1H 0AP, UK
||+44 (0)171 504 4283
||+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:
- an emphasis on developing students knowledge of, and ability to contribute to, geographic research;
- staff research interests directly shaping the undergraduate curriculum, particularly in years 2 and 3;
- staff time devoted to undergraduate teaching being planned to ensure that staff have adequate time to undertake high level research and to teach (new) postgraduate courses.
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:
- criticisms by the TQA assessors that the curriculum should "demonstrate progressions from year to year more conspicuously and address the concerns the assessors share with some of the external examiners that the lack of a compulsory core in the second year can lead to a loss of a distinctive subject identity"; relatedly the assessors urged that the third year dissertation which was then optional be made "a compulsory third year course" (HEFCE, 1995, paras. 23-24);
- awareness that to succeed in the next RAE and in bids for external research, a more strategic and collective approach to research would need to be further developed;
- a recognition that, with undergraduate numbers capped, growth in income through teaching would have to be obtained by increasing post-graduate student numbers and developing new taught masters programmes;
- a recognition that the tradition of widespread student choice and interactive teaching would have to be limited to release staff time;
- coincidentally, geography was required by university procedures to review its departmental strategy for research and teaching.
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:
- Every three or four years staff are entitled to a one-term sabbatical. If they have had a heavy administration load, for example, as the undergraduate or admissions tutor, the sabbatical may be for two terms.
- The previous year-long second year units have been replaced by a greater number of half units which are largely lecture-based and often assessed by examination only.
- While the overall planning of the curriculum and teaching responsibilities is done by a Curriculum Development Group, the Research Groups will take increasing responsibility for co-ordinating those units for which they are responsible, particularly the specialist units in the third year. Such team teaching enables staff to collectively arrange to cover those staff on sabbaticals and those who need to be away from college in term time, and to arrange an individual's teaching in concentrated blocks.
- The close connection between the content of the curriculum and staff research better ensures that when staff have time to do research they have been thinking on these questions.
- To further protect academic staff time, the department is appointing five Teaching Assistants on the North American model to support much of the teaching of techniques, fieldwork and so on, and perhaps some of the administration of large courses.
- Staff teaching 'load' has also been acknowledged by crediting learning which had previously not been credited. The department has long emphasised a system of small group tutorials in all years; this resource, which is an expensive form of teaching, has been retained but now counts for a half credit in the first year and is associated with dissertation training and completion in the second and third years.
Students awareness of the process of geographic research is developed by:
- In term one of the first year, all tutorial groups interview a member of staff. The explicit aim of this exercise (see box below) is to make students aware of the process of geographic research and the role of research in this department. Effectively students are being acculturated into the ethos of a research-led department through a resource-intensive front loading of the curriculum [the exercise was originally developed by Denis Cosgrove at what was then Oxford Polytechnic (1981) as part of a third year synoptic module].
- In the second year and particularly in the third year, many of the systematic modules are closely based upon staff research and the research groups in the department. These include analyses of research methodology and progressively develop the students' ability to do geographic research.
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.
- In the first year students take a compulsory unit in the principle and practice of geographical data collection, analysis and interpretation. This is a well resourced unit entirely assessed by course work essays and exercises. It also includes a residential 7 day field course.
- Second year students take two well-resourced units which explicitly aim to develop their ability to undertake geographic research. In terms one and two all students take a course on the practice of geography: 'The course will familiarise students with debates over the practical conduct of geographic research, including undergraduate dissertation research'. Entirely assessed by course work, the two main requirements are: a) a comparative central appraisal of how a research topic has been carried out by different researchers; and b) towards the end of term 2 students present, both orally for presentation in tutorials and as a paper, a proposal for a third year dissertation.
- Second year students can take individual modules in research methods in physical geography, human geography, or in both subject areas.
- All third year students registered for single honours are required to do a half unit dissertation. They can choose to extend this to a full unit out of the three and half units required in that year.
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:
- Being very explicit about the key goals of the department (research recognition) and then ensuring that the undergraduate curriculum supports that key goal. In that respect the value added curriculum at Liverpool Hope University College is but another example of the same principle.
- If we want to develop understanding of geographic research, then it needs to be coherently and progressively developed through the curriculum. It won't just happen because 'elsewhere' staff are doing research.
- In the context of limited resources, there is a case for carefully targeting a high level of resources to particular areas, while limiting resources to other areas of the curriculum. The case study of Liverpool Hope University College, in a very different context, also demonstrates this principle - aspects of the UCL approach can be adopted in very different resource contexts.
- Recognise the career potential of this approach. We live in an information society and many jobs are based on the collection, analysis and presentation of information. Building this research focus into the curriculum can aid student employability. This might mean including activities which develop students ability to carry out contract research for clients and forging close links with companies who employ graduates with these skills.
HEFCE (1995) Quality Assessment Report by the HEFCE for University College London, Geography (Bristol: HEFCE)
Independent study skills
This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Curriculum Design in Geography"
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Page created 2 October 1999
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