Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Self-paced Distance Learning Packages for Large Group Fieldwork
Originator Peter Keene
Department Geography Unit, School of Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University, Gipsy Lane Campus, Headington, Oxford, OX3 0BP, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1865 483 753
Fax +44 (0)1865 483 937

Problem: too many students, too few staff

Teachers are facilitators, encouraging students towards autonomous learning (where sufficiently motivated students have acquired the skills to control and direct their own education). Some students achieve autonomous learning status early, others require greater tutor assistance (staff time). Traditional tertiary teaching methods have favoured tutor-orientated programmes where a favourable SSR (student:staff ratio) is critical. The success of this system is threatened by increasingly large classes, an immediate effect of which is to decrease the individual contact time between staff and student in the field.

Response: distance learning packages for self-paced fieldwork

If your field classes consist of open-air lectures, then larger groups probably present few difficulties other than hoarseness! However, if you embrace the tradition of problem-solving activities with small groups guided by the tutor, then larger groups pose new problems of tutor availability. One strategy for the more effective use of declining staff availability is to provide better structured distance learning packages (material which encourages work undertaken without the direct supervision of the tutor).

Shrewdly written, these packages can provide reassurance and support for hesitant students without recourse to the tutor. Tutor time can thus be conserved either for those who are outstripping the scope of the package, or for those who need additional assistance to accomplish the task. Such packages might include reference material, written information, instructions, guidance on specific exercises, manuals, guides or trails. Three approaches are summarised below.

Main Features

Manuals: Non site-specific reference packages providing information on a 'need to know' basis, to enable students to interpret a specific site. An 'interactive' manual encourages student participation in problem solving.

Trails: A booklet, usually assuming some thematic progression and no tutor presence, linking a series of sites selected for study. Attributes to be considered in making trails suitable as a student exercise include:

Student produces material: A successful alternative is to turn the tables completely so that it is the students themselves who are preparing the guides, trails or manuals for a specified target audience.

Gains and losses

Plus Points:

Minus Points:

Relevant References

Keene, P. (1982) The examination of exposures of Pleistocene sediments in the field: a self-paced exercise, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 6(2), p.159

Keene, P. (1989) Trails on trial, Environmental Interpretation, 44, pp.15-16

Peterson, J.F. (1984) Preparing environmental interpretation literature, a strategy for undergraduate teaching, Journal of Geography, April, pp.73-78


Autonomous learning
Distance learning
Interactive manual

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Fieldwork and Dissertations in Geography"

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