Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Fieldwork and the Open University
Originator Kevin Church
Department Department of Earth Sciences, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1908 858360
Fax +44 (0)1908 655151

Open University students are drawn from diverse backgrounds. Many have given up annual leave to attend the week-long summer school and most are self-financing. The students, therefore, are highly motivated and eager to apply the concepts they have learnt in the course material. The students range in age from 18 upwards and have varying degrees of physical fitness and/or disabilities.

The students visit several different localities. Field sheets provide an important focus and these build on the summer school booklet that students bring with them. Fieldwork is carried out during the day with laboratory follow-up. Students are debriefed using videos of the localities visited each day which are designed to reiterate the key points. These are particularly useful when the days programme has been disrupted by bad weather. They may also be used by disabled students who seek excusal from summer school.

On the second level 'Geology' course it is assumed that students have not been in the field before. In order to improve the confidence of each student and encourage participation in group discussions, 12-15 students are assigned to one tutor for the entire week. Teaching students investigative skills is emphasised to enable them to gather relevant data and to use that data to interpret a locality (e.g. recording observations in a field notebook, making graphical logs and completing field sketches). The 'Cook's Tour' approach is always avoided. Where the geology is fairly straightforward, students are encouraged to make their own observations guided by the questions posed on their field sheets. The tutor and demonstrator are on hand to help students interpret their observations and if necessary, show them additional lines of evidence. If the geology is more complex, the tutor may decide to control the session by holding a tutorial and asking a series of questions interspersed with new information, thereby guiding students through to a conclusion as a group.

On the third level courses, the 40 students per week are led by the tutor(s) whose speciality is most relevant to the day's activities. Students are not spoon-fed ideas and there is less opportunity for them to wait to hear the 'official interpretation' of a particular locality. Fewer localities are visited which enables students to make their own observations in more detail and prevents them rushing to conclusions because of time constraints. Field sheets are still used to guide students, but they are expected to make their own notes, develop their own ideas and reach their own conclusions. These ideas may then be developed and explored in a group discussion which ends each visit.

New teaching materials on CD-ROM are being introduced. Part of the software will include virtual field trips, which are currently being developed in the OU Earth Science Department. Localities to be visited include the Skiddaw metamorphic aureole, the Strathaird Peninsula, Skye, the Fife coast and Big Bend National Park, Texas. Activities will include exercises in an accompanying workbook, encouraging students to make observations and interpretations from on-screen activities.

Many of the challenges that the OU faces in teaching its students are unique. However, our overriding aims, to maximize the teaching time in the field and the efficiency with which we teach are the same as in any 'conventional' university.


Group work

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Page created 5 June 2000
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