Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Designing a Course Around a Textbook
Originator Mick Healey1 and Brian Ilbery2
Department 1Geography & Environmental Management Research Unit, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
2Geography Unit, School of Natural and Environmental Science, Coventry University, Priory Street, Coventry, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1242 543364
Fax +44 (0)1242 543283

Summary: The use of a course text was stimulated by the wish to continue to give support to students at a time when modularisation and an increase in numbers was making traditional teaching more and more problematic. This solution emphasizes the use of structured tutorials in which the students discuss their reading, while reducing the time for lectures by half.



The move away from a purely conventional course towards one based on required readings from a standard text and other sources was made as part of the natural development and innovation in teaching taking place in the Geography Division of the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. A particular issue for the staff was the need to develop group-work skills in students, driven partly by the growing numbers in tutorials, but also by the desire to focus on skills for the world of work.


This is a second-year courses in economic geography which has been in operation since 1988. Between 60 and 80 students take the course each year over 24 weeks. It is one of eight modules which Coventry students take in each year of a three- or four-year degree course, which can include a sandwich placement. The course team comprises three people, two of whom wrote the course text. The other is a research student who helps with the tutorials.


The course is designed to develop students' knowledge of concepts and theories of location and change in economic geography. It also requires students to deploy group-work skills, as the tutorial groups are as large as 25 and rely for their success on students' working effectively in groups.


The textbook was written by two members of the course team in their own time (Healey & Ilbery, 1990). It was introduced experimentally in 1990, with a very strong emphasis on tutorials and without any lectures at all in the second half of the course. Many students were clearly unhappy with this arrangement, so the current compromise pattern was adopted for the first time in 1991/92.

Student induction

There is no induction for students because they have already experienced resource-based learning and group work at earlier stages of the course.

Student activities

The students attend both a lecture and a tutorial once every two weeks. This gives them an average of one hour's contact time per week with about four hours of self-study time, during which they are expected to read the required chapter(s) in the text and study other recommended readings. They also have to find time to complete an essay and a project for assessment. There is a conventional three-hour exam at the end of the module.

Because the students have access to the course text, the lectures can cover more ground than in a conventional course. The staff use the lectures to cover potential problem areas and to discuss additional examples of ideas and concepts introduced in the text. The tutorials use various devices to help the students to reflect on what they have read and heard in the lectures. Thus they might be asked to work in groups to write an essay plan or to compose overhead projector transparencies to summarise the main points of what they have studied.


The textbook written by the tutors is the main resource, and all students are expected to buy it. In addition they receive a brief study guide which lays out the plan of operation for the course, including dates and times, and set and recommended readings. This is a relatively lean course in terms of staff time required (see table below).


Staff time involved in delivering the course before and after using RBL

Before RBL With RBL
50 students 100 students

Lectures, practicals and tutorials:
3 times, 24 weeks
Lectures: 12 hours
Tutorials: 48 hours
Marking essays:
50 times 0.5 (25 hours)
Marking essays:
100 times 0.5 (50 hours)
Marking examinations:
50 times 0.66 (33 hours)
Marking examinations:
100 times 0.66 (66 hours)
Total=130 hours Total=176 hours
Hours per student = 2.6 Hours per student = 1.76



Students clearly like to have a course text that covers the majority of course material. 63% of 88 respondents agree strongly that 'the course text is a great help' (Healey & Ilbery, 1993). There is also some evidence that using a course text encourages students to read more widely - over 40 per cent of those who respond to a questionnaire said they had read at least ten articles or chapters in addition to the course text. However, students' recent coursework suggests that a tightly structured course such as this tends to concentrate academic performance in the middle band, so that there are fewer excellent performances and fewer failures than might be expected on other, conventional, courses.


Having developed the course the original staff have passed the responsibility for operating it to colleagues. Since then one of the originators has moved to another institution and new topics have been introduced not covered in the textbook. The staff now teaching the course have increased the number of lectures. However, the emphasis remains on tutorial discussions in which the textbook is the core text.


It is not uncommon to have a course text, but in this instance the course team wrote their own, and made sure that there is plenty of support in the tutorials. The case demonstrates that, given sufficient support and motivation, conventional undergraduates can successfully complete a course where contact has been reduced.


This case study is an updated version of the one presented in Cox, S. & Gibbs, G. (1994) Course Design for Resource Based Learning Social science (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, The Oxford Centre for Staff Development).

See also:
Healey, M. & Ilbery, B. (1993) Teaching a course around a textbook, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 17(2), pp.123-129


Course text
Resource based learning

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Resource-based Learning in Geography"

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