Identifying and Disseminating Good Practice in the Teaching and Learning of Geography in Higher Education

MICK HEALEY and PHIL GRAVESTOCK

Paper presented to: the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society Second Joint Conference, Hobart, Australia, 28-31 January 1997, and the Association of American Geographers' Annual Conference, Fort Worth, Texas, 1-5 April 1997 1

 

ABSTRACT

Following the assessment of the quality of geography provision in higher education in the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has established a Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. A consortium of nine universities and colleges have received 0.25m over 26 months to identify and disseminate good practice in the teaching, learning and assessment of geography in higher education. The team consists of a group of geographers and educational developers. Ten guides will be produced covering a range of methods of delivering and assessing teaching and learning. A database of good practice will be established on the World-wide-Web. International examples of teaching and learning practices which are of interest to others are particularly being sought. An panel of experts from the UK, North America and Australasia are advising the project team.

Keyword: teaching and learning, assessment, education-higher

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Mick Healey is Professor of Geography and Project Director of the Geography Discipline Network. Phil Gravestock is the Project Officer. Both are in the Department of Geography and Geology, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK.
Email: mhealey@chelt.ac.uk; pgravestock@glos.ac.uk.

INTRODUCTION

Quality has risen on the agenda of higher education in many countries in recent years (Chalkley, 1994; Green, 1995; Jones, 1994). In Britain an elaborate system of institutional quality audits and subject based quality assessments was established in the early 1990s. In 1997 a single quality agency is to be formed. One of the outcomes of the quality assessment process was the establishment by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), in collaboration with the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) of a Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL). This initiative has provided a fund, initially of 8m over two years, aimed at stimulating developments and promoting good practices across the Higher Education sector. This paper discusses the way in which the quality assessment process for geography operated and describes one of the Phase I projects funded under the FDTL initiative, which began work in October 1996. This project, entitled the Geography Discipline Network (GDN)2, is concerned with the dissemination of good teaching, learning and assessment practices in Geography. A particular feature of the project is the establishment of a resources database on the World-Wide Web (WWW) to which staff teaching Geography at Bachelor and Masters degree level anywhere in the world are invited to submit abstracts of practices which they believe will be of interest to colleagues and transferable to other institutions.

ASSESSING THE QUALITY OF GEOGRAPHY TEACHING AND LEARNING3

The quality of provision of Geography in all Higher Education Institutions in the UK was assessed in 1994-95. The system varied slightly between the different constituent countries of the UK. However, all emphasised a 'fitness for purpose' definition of quality in which provision was judged against the stated mission and aims of the institution, department and courses (HEFCE, 1993). Nevertheless some have argued that even though fitness of purpose is often expressed as the concept underlying quality assessment it is quality as standard which is actually applied (Johnston, 1994).

The process of quality teaching assessment involves peer-assessment of subject disciplines. The process in England and Northern Ireland used a three point scale - excellent, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Each Department had to produce a Self-Assessment Statement. Departments were visited when the HEFCE (who also managed the Teaching Quality Assessment - TQA - in Northern Ireland) thought that, on the basis of the Self-Assessment documentation, a prima facie case had been made for excellence, or that there were grounds for concern that the quality of education might be at risk.4

Of the 78 providers of geography in England and Northern Ireland, 47 claimed excellence. These consisted of all but one of the 33 'old' universities and one-third of the 'new' universities and colleges. Forty-three visits were made: 38 were to providers which the HEFCE thought had, on the basis of the Self-Assessment documentation, made a prima facie case for excellence; 4 were to providers where there were grounds for concern that the quality of education might be at risk; and 1 was a 'sample' of departments (the only 'old' university not to claim excellence) who had stated in their Self-Assessment that their provision was satisfactory. The visits usually lasted three to four days and commonly had a team of four or five geographers, plus a Reporting Assessor. During the visits the assessors examined six features of the provision - the aims and curricula; the nature of the student intake, support systems and progression; the quality of teaching and students' achievement; staff and staff development; resources; and academic management and quality. Assessors also observed teaching taking place by, for example, sitting in on lectures, seminars, tutorials, practicals and the occasional non-residential field trip. A brief four to five page report on each visit was published.

There were fears before the exercise started that with a culture within the subject which sees excellence as the pinnacle of achievement, as witnessed, for example, by the relatively low proportions of Research Council proposals given the highest grades by peers and the relatively low proportion of geography students who achieve first class degrees, the geography assessors might be less willing to recognise excellent quality than assessors in some other disciplines (Healey, 1994). Nevertheless the strong record of the discipline as an innovator in teaching and learning seems at first sight to have had an impact. Twenty-five departments were graded excellent, 52 satisfactory and only 1 unsatisfactory (subsequently graded satisfactory on revisit). With 32 per cent of geography departments in England and Northern Ireland graded excellent, this was higher than for any of the eight subjects which were assessed in the first two rounds (average = 20 per cent). However, geography did not do so well in comparison with the other subjects assessed at the same time in the third round. Five of the other six subjects achieved a higher percentage of excellents (average = 43 per cent) (Chalkley, 1996; HEFCE, 1995a). So, perhaps, some of the fears were justified.

The Subject Overview Report (HEFCE, 1995b), which is based on the 43 visits made, recognises several strong points of the provision of geography, including:

However, there were also a number of areas identified where there was room for improvement, including:

These generalisations about the strengths and weaknesses of geography suggest some implicit standards were expected by the assessors. This supports the view that in practice standards are more important than fitness for purpose in the assessment of quality. There is also evidence that similar standards have been applied across different subject areas (de Vries, 1996).

ENHANCING THE QUALITY OF TEACHING AND LEARNING

The subject overview report for Geography provides an agenda both for the dissemination of good practice and areas which need attention. The HEFCE's Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning was established with these aims in mind to cover all the subjects which had been quality assessed. In Phase I, the results of which were announced in July 1996, only those providers judged excellent in the first three rounds could be lead institutions. Forty-four projects were chosen for funding out of the original 192 applications. Eight of the projects involve Geography, but most are institutional bids covering several disciplines. The Geography Discipline Network (GDN) is the only Geography consortium project.

The aim of the GDN is to identify and disseminate good practice in the teaching, learning and assessment of Geography at undergraduate and taught postgraduate levels in higher education institutions. The project team consists of a group of Geography specialists and educational developers from nine old and new universities and colleges of higher education (Appendix 1).

The team will produce 10 guides covering a range of methods of delivering and assessing teaching and learning. Each guide will contain an overview of good practice for the particular application, case studies including contact names and addresses, and a bibliography. Each will be produced by one of the institutional teams.

These will be disseminated through a conference and 50 department-based workshops. The guides and workshops will be available at no charge to providers of geography in England and Northern Ireland and may be purchased by others. The project is funded for 26 months until November 1998. The team intend to continue to identify examples of good practice and offer full cost workshops after HEFCE funding has ceased.

One of the main outputs of the project is the establishment of a resources database of case studies on the World-Wide Web (URL: http://www.chelt.ac.uk/gdn). Examples are being sought from around the world, but especially from the UK, North America and Australasia. The principle for acceptance of a case study is that it should be of interest to staff in other geography departments and potentially transferable, with suitable modifications, to other institutions. The database will be an important way to promote the discipline to potential students and the Higher Education community in general. The examples may cover a wide range of teaching, learning and assessment practices, including exercises to improve student learning used in lectures, tutorials, laboratory classes, practicals and field courses; methods of assessment; examples of IT and resource-based learning support; methods used to teach difficult concepts, develop transferable skills, provide links with the world of work; and ways in which the curriculum has been redesigned to respond to larger classes and declining resources.

In the initial stages of the project attention is being concentrated on gathering a set of case study abstracts which can be put on the WWW. A range of examples from these abstracts will be chosen to develop a series of longer Outlines and Reports on the Web, some of which will also feature in one or more of the ten guides produced by the project team.

Each abstract will be self-standing, and a between 200 and 500 words (see examples in the resource database). Each abstract will include:

Readers of this article are encouraged to send abstracts of their own teaching, learning and assessment practices in geography in higher education to the authors for adding to the WWW database.

CONCLUSION

Increased attention to the quality of teaching and learning in higher education has in part come about because of the need for greater accountability to various stakeholders, including government funding agencies, validators, employers and, of course, students. However, this tends to lead to the emphasis being placed on assessment procedures and the auditing of quality assurance processes. These procedures appear to many academics to be overly-bureaucratic. If the quality of teaching and learning is to be taken as seriously by academics as is the quality of their research then it needs to challenge them intellectually (Gibbs, 1995). To this end greater emphasis needs to be placed on the enhancement of quality and ways of improving the quality of student learning (Healey, 1996; Healey, 1997). The Geography Discipline Network project, described here, aims to contribute to this process of enhancement by identifying and disseminating good practices in the teaching, learning and assessment of geography in higher education.

NOTES

1 This paper is to be published in: Proceedings of the Institute of Australian Geographers and New Zealand Geographical Society Second Joint Conference, Hobart, Australia, 1997, Department of Geography, The University of Waikato. Return to text

2 The Geography Discipline Network is the name originally given to a project funded by the Department for Education and Employment in which many of the consortium members were involved. It was decided to retain the name for continuity and because the objectives of the two projects are similar. Return to text

3 This section is based on part of a forthcoming paper (Healey, 1997). Return to text

4 From 1995/6 the TQA system in England changed to universal visiting of departments and the introduction of a profile assessment based on six aspects, each of which is graded on a four point scale, giving a maximum of 24 points overall. Return to text

REFERENCES

CHALKLEY, B., 1994: The quality era, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 18, 163-7. Return to text

CHALKLEY, B., 1996: Editorial I: Geography and teaching quality assessment: how well did we do?, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 20, 149-58. Return to text

DE VRIES, P., 1996: Could 'criteria' used in quality assessments be classified as academic standards?, Higher Education Quarterly 50, 193-206. Return to text

GIBBS, G., 1995: The relationship between quality in research and quality in teaching, Quality in Higher Education 1, 147-57. Return to text

GREEN, M.F., 1995: Transforming British higher education: a view from across the Atlantic, Higher Education 29, 225-39. Return to text

HEALEY, M., 1994: Geography and quality assessment, IBG Newsletter 26, 2-4. Return to text

HEALEY, M., 1996: Geography in Higher Education: perspectives on quality. Inuagural Lecture, delivered at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, 24 October 1996. Cheltenham: Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education (available from the author). Return to text

HEALEY, M., 1997: Geography and education: perspectives on quality in UK higher education, Progress in Human Geography 21, 97-108. Return to text

HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) 1993: Assessment of the quality of education, Circular 3/93. Bristol: HEFCE. Return to text

HEFCE 1995a: Report on quality assessment 1992-1995, Bristol: HEFCE. Return to text

HEFCE 1995b: Subject overview report: quality assessment of geography 1994-95, Bristol: HEFCE. Return to text

JOHNSTON, R.J., 1994: Quality assessment of teaching: inputs, processes and outputs, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 18, 184-93. Return to text

JONES, R., 1994: The underside of quality: an Australian viewpoint, Journal of Geography in Higher Education 18, 373-8. Return to text

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The Geography Discipline Network is funded under the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.


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