Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Oxford Brookes University: An Integrated Curriculum
Originator Judy Chance
Department Oxford Brookes University Geography Department, School of Social Sciences and Law, Oxford Brookes University, Gipsy Lane, Oxford OX4 2DD, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1865 483750
Fax +44 (0)1865 483937

Key features

Oxford Brookes currently offers two single fields in the Geography Department: geography and physical geography. The latter is a new development, recruiting its first intake in 1997. Most of the following case-study relates to the longer established geography field, since it illustrates more effectively the ways in which we have modified curriculum design in response to the multiple forces acting on our particular ouija board.

The geography curriculum at Oxford Brookes University is integrated in two particular senses: firstly we have historically rejected the physical/human divide in favour of a social/environmental focus. Secondly, we have a tradition of integrating the development of transferable skills into the academic development of our students.

The modular course at Oxford Brookes University

Geography is a single field subject, that is, all of our students are studying another subject, making up a joint Honours programme. The range of fields combined with geography is high, up to 29, although certain combinations are particularly popular. We therefore cannot assume that all our students have access to the same range of opportunities within the University, to say nothing of their extra-curricular lives.

Currently students must pass at least eight modules in their first year, and a further 16 over the next two years. Most fields, including geography, have three compulsory modules in year one. The minimum sixteen modules taken over the next two years must be acceptable to one or other field, and must include at least seven from each field. Some, but not all, fields include a compulsory core of modules; this is the approach adopted in geography.

Core programme

Why have a core?

In some senses a compulsory core runs counter to the ideal of flexible course design offered by a modular course, so why do we make six of our modules (over half of our graduates' exposure to geography) compulsory? Our reasons include:

The design of the core curriculum started from these broad concerns. Having allocated six modules to the core, three in year one, and three over the next two years, the next issue is to design an overall set of aims and objectives, and to allocate particular skills, topics, approaches and resources to each core module.

The core in year one

The first year programme introduces the particular social/environmental focus of the whole course, moving from high profile global issues such as global warming and deforestation to more detailed study of more local issues such as coastal flooding in Wales. The final term introduces students to planning, carrying out and analysing their own local research projects. Transferable skills are also built into the programme, with each module emphasising two key areas:

Term One: group work and formal writing

Term Two: word processing and oral presentation

Term Three: numeracy and field-based research

The first year programme is largely delivered via small group teaching, with weekly seminar sets (8-12 students) using workbooks. The high level of staffing is seen as an early investment to produce confident students capable of more independent learning in the later stages of the course. In the early days the seminars were all led by permanent staff, but more recently the increased research funding and pressure to produce publications has led to increased reliance on part-time support from postgraduate students, supplemented by a student-link co-ordinator.

The core in years two and three

The second and third year core modules pick up the same themes and skills, and develop them at a more advanced level.

The main fieldwork module (year two, terms two and three) gives student groups much more autonomy in designing projects, with increased reliance on students seeking supervision, rather than scheduled classroom contact. This approximates more closely to their preparation for their dissertation, but working in small groups (four or five) offers more peer support, as well as addressing some basic health and safety issues. While the fieldwork is essentially geographical in focus, the project choices often reflect the influence of students' other fields. This freedom to build bridges between disciplines is seen as a valuable element of any joint Honours programme, especially when one field is as wide-ranging a discipline as geography.

The other two core modules are in the third year. They build on the study of environmental change and environmental management to include an exploration of the politics of pollution production and control (term one) and a more conceptual analysis of the wide range of value systems which underpin social attitudes to the environment in different places and cultures (term three). In the closing stages of the core increasing precedence is given to academic development, on the assumption that transferable skills development has largely been taken care of already, and that further use of techniques, allied to the regular use of assessment by staff, peers and self, encourages greater sophistication and fluency.

Optional modules

Why offer options?

The original attraction of the modular course was the freedom it offered students to construct their own degree programmes. This remains highly valued, although decreasing resources and increasing student numbers have led to a loss of choice: students now do fewer modules than in the past (a minimum of 24 now, compared to 27 for those graduating in 1997, and 30 for those graduating in 1985). Conversely, the workload for each module has risen, with more emphasis on independent learning.

The reasons for offering options include:

Designing specialist curricula

Specialist modules are taught by individual staff members and are driven primarily by academic concerns. Because all staff team-teach on the core, and because of a common approach to teaching and learning, the delivery and underlying social-environmental concerns reflect the philosophy of the core. This provides coherence, and was recognised as a common strand by students in a recent evaluation of their whole student experience.

Mapping skills

The use of a skills map (see below) has helped us to identify where particular skills are taught, practised and assessed in both core and options. It has also pointed to some gaps in provision, which can be addressed in curriculum modifications. The skill categories are set by the University, as part of an Enterprise Programme. Each student is encouraged to build up a personal profile of their skills development, using the skills map to identify what they have already achieved, and to help to select modules which will contribute to more complete profile.

Placing of modules

In order to maximise flexibility, no specialist modules are restricted to only one year of the programme, although some are recommended for second or third year, depending on their academic challenge, and their reliance on key skills or knowledge acquired at certain phases of the core. The structure gives each staff member one light term a year, that is, a term in which they are not leading the delivery of any modules. This is seen as essential if staff are to continue as active researchers, and are to integrate their research into their teaching.


Skills matrix

This matrix indicates the transferable skills which are taught (t), practised (p) and assessed (a) in the core programme at Oxford Brookes University (2604, 2605, 2642 and 2662 are the compulsory core modules). Students use the matrix to help them to construct a profile of their skills acquisition. A parallel matrix of skills in modules also exists, and students use this to help them in their choice of modules. It allows them to consider their development of key skills alongside issues relating to academic coherence of their programme. The module is also helpful for staff, since it allows easy identification of any skills areas which are insufficiently taught, practised or assessed. In addition, it is of use to employers, in that it can be used alongside a graduate's course transcript to provide validated evidence of skills development.

Skill Category Component 2604 2605 2608 2642 2662
Self management Clarify Values   P A T     T P         T P  
Set goals T P               T P A      
Manage time T P A     A   P   T P A      
Assess self T P             A   P        
Learning skills Independence   P A T   A         P A      
Co-operation T P A T   A   P           P A
Range of strategies       T P A                  
Information skills Literature search T P A     A T       P A      
Information retrieval T P A     A T P     P A   P A
Information handling T P A     A T P A   P A   P  
Referencing T P A     A   P     P     P  
Teamwork Taking responsibility   P A T P A   P     P A   P  
Taking initiative   P A     A   P     P A   P A
Negotiation   P A T P     P     P A   P A
Team evaluation T P A T P         T P A      
Problem solving Analysis T P A T P A         P A   P  
Lateral thinking       T P A                  
Setting questions T P A T P A       T P A T P A
Indentifying strategies T P A T P A       T P     P A
Evaluating success T P A T P A       T P   T P A
Communication Reading/listening       T P A T P A   P   T P A
Choice of styles   P A T P A T P A   P A T P A
Coherent argument       T P A   P A   P A   P A
Analysis T P A T P A   P A   P A   P  
Synthesis       T P A             T P A
Self evaluation T P A T P A                  
Peer evaluation T P A T P                    
Author evaluation       T P A         P A      


Compulsory modules
Integrated curriculum
Skills map
Transferable skills

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

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