GDN Title

Key Skills in Geography in Higher Education: Interim Report

May 1999

Geography and Environmental Management Research Unit, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ

DfEE Logo HEQE Logo


1   Introduction
1.1   Background and model used by the project
1.2   Objectives of the project
2   Activities and progress made during the reporting period
2.1   Period: May 1998 - October 1998
2.1.1   Publicise project
2.1.2   Design and execute consultation survey of geography departments and identify their current practice in teaching of key skills
2.1.3   Design survey of skills of geography students on entry to HE
2.2   Period: November 1998 - April 1999
2.2.1   Prepare report on key skill teaching in geography departments
2.2.2   Analyse and prepare report on survey of Level I students
2.2.3   Establish panel of geography graduates
2.2.4   Draft first four Guides
2.2.5   Dissemination and evaluation strategies
3   Plans for the next 12 months
3.1   National workshops
4   Summary
5   References



1.1  Background and model used by the project

The Geography Discipline Network (GDN) was initially funded by the Employment Department/DfEE under its EHE Discipline Networks programme. The GDN was established at Nene College and ran for two successive years from 1994/5. The base for the GDN moved to the Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education in September 1996 to start a 33 month project to look at 'Dissemination of Good Teaching, Learning and Assessment Practices in Geography'. This project was funded by the Higher Education Council for England's (HEFCE) Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL).

The FDTL project consisted of a consortium team from nine higher education institutions (HEIs), representing a mix of old and new universities and colleges of higher education. Each institution was responsible for writing one or two Guides to good teaching, learning and assessment practices in geography. The Guides were published from September - December 1998 and have been distributed to all geography departments in England and Northern Ireland. A series of department-based workshops was available to these departments, to help embed some of the good practices reviewed in the Guides. Reviews of the GDN Guides and department-based workshops can be found on the GDN Web pages at

Due to the success of the FDTL project it was decided to retain a similar format and style for the DfEE 'Key Skills in Geography in Higher Education' project. An important aspect of this current project is that the information is being produced by geographers for geographers, in order to reduce the impact of the 'not invented here' syndrome.

This DfEE project consists of a consortium team of ten higher education institutions:
Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education (lead site) Professor Mick Healey (GDN Director)
Dr Phil Gravestock (Project Officer)
Heidi Meehan (Assistant Project Officer)
Dr Jacky Birnie
Dr Tim Hall
Lancaster University Dr Gordon Clark
Terry Wareham
Liverpool John Moores University Professor Vince Gardiner
Middlesex University Ifan Shepherd
Manchester University Professor Michael Bradford
Plymouth University Professor Brian Chalkley
University College London Dr Clive Agnew
University College of Northampton Dr Ian Livingstone
Professor Hugh Matthews
University College of St Mark and St John Sue Burkill
Derry Corey
University of Surrey Institute - Roehampton Dr Karel Hughes

The project has the support of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), the Conference of Heads of Geography in HEIs and the Journal of Geography in Higher Education, an internationally refereed journal concerned with issues of teaching and learning in higher education and edited by members of the team.

An Advisory Panel has been set up for the DfEE project, which acts as a 'critical friend'. The members of this panel were chosen to represent expertise in a range of careers relevant to geography and/or educational development. The role of the Advisory Panel is to:

  1. assist with the evaluation (formative and at the end of the programme)
  2. give general advice to the project
  3. provide expertise and specific advice
  4. help the team meet the deadlines described in the timetable and make any necessary adjustments
  5. approve the final report
  6. represent the project through members' various networks
  7. monitor progress during project and assess the 8 Guides

Members of the Advisory Panel are:
Dr Rita Gardner
(Chair of the Panel)
(Director and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers)
Jane Austick (Development Manager, HEQE, DfEE)
Professor Lewis Elton (Educational Developer, University College London)
Professor Alan Jenkins (Educational Developer, Oxford Brookes University)
Colette Cooke (Careers Advisor, University of Manchester/UMIST)
Eleanor Rawling (Consultant: Geography Education)
Kester Wilkinson (Contracts Manager - Education, Gloucestershire TEC)
Elaine Owen (Educational Products Manager, Ordnance Survey)
Victoria Newton (Manager Environment, British Airways)
Professor Brian Chalkley (team representative)
Professor Hugh Matthews (team representative)


1.2  Objectives of the Project

The objectives of the project are:
  1. To identify the key skills geography students possess at entry to Higher Education (HE) and the extent to which key skills are taught in geography.
  2. To develop models of good practice for embedding the learning, teaching, practice and assessment of these key skills in the geography curriculum.
  3. To disseminate the outcomes of the project to the 80 geography departments in England and to the wider national and international academic community through:
    1. the production of eight Guides (seven for staff and one for students) covering the main key skill areas;
    2. the identification and addition of case study materials about incorporating key skills in the curriculum to the Geography Discipline Network (GDN) World Wide Web (WWW) pages;
    3. the delivery of three national workshops on different key skills themes for geographers, careers officers and educational developers;
    4. the provision of ten days of advice and workshops to individual departments wishing to develop the ways in which key skills can be incorporated in their curriculum.

The eight Guides to be produced by the project are:

  1. Teaching and learning key skills and encouraging their transferability
  2. Designing, recording and assessing a skills-based curriculum
  3. Improving students' communication and presentation skills
  4. Improving students' numeracy and communication and information technology skills
  5. Improving students' team and personal skills
  6. Improving students' problem-solving and thinking skills
  7. Improving students' skills through work-based learning and extra-curricular activities
  8. Developing your skills and making yourself more employable: a student guide


2  Activities and Progress Made During the Reporting Period

The main activities of the project are shown below, based upon the original timetable (text in italics) and the actual outcomes and activities which have taken place.


2.1  Period: May 1998 - October 1998

2.1.1  Publicise project

The project is publicised on the Geography Discipline Network's Web pages (, which receive an average of about 5000 hits per week. An article about the project was placed in the RGS-IBG Newsletter (June 1998).

We have also been publicising the DfEE project when disseminating materials for the GDN's FDTL project (see Section 1.1). For example, we have distributed leaflets about the DfEE project when sending the FDTL Guides and when running department workshops. We have also publicised the project at several geography and key skills conferences and meetings:

Due to the success of the FDTL project the Geography Discipline Network is well regarded and is becoming known to an international audience. A recent Internet discussion hosted by the GDN Web pages resulted in an average of over 9000 hits per week on the Web pages during March 1999. All visitors to the Web pages have the opportunity of viewing information about the DfEE project.

It is difficult to assess the result of the publicity so far. Awareness of the DfEE project in the geography community has been raised, but to date is has probably had relatively little impact on the geography discipline. The major publicity push and the major impact will occur when the project starts publishing the Guides and hosting the three National conferences (see Section 3.1).


2.1.2  Design and execute consultation survey of geography departments and identify their current practices in teaching of key skills

This survey was sent to geography departments during September 1998. Some additional questionnaires were distributed via the FDTL National Geography Conference, held at Scarman House, University of Warwick on 17-18 September 1998. For a discussion of the findings please see Section 2.2.1.


2.1.3  Design survey of skills of geography students on entry to HE

This survey was designed and distributed to 9 geography departments, ready for the new intake of students in autumn 1998.

About 750 optically marked read questionnaires were returned from:

For a discussion of the findings please see Section 2.2.2.


2.2  Period: November 1998 - April 1999

2.2.1  Prepare report on key skill teaching in geography departments

The survey report was completed in January 1999 and is available on the WWW (

Forty seven questionnaires were returned (57% of geography departments). This represents a return of 57% for the old universities, 50% for the new universities and 68% for colleges of higher education. The questionnaires resulted in 29 examples of practices in key skills teaching and learning which the project can follow-up for the Guides.

The main points to note from the survey are:


2.2.2  Analyse and prepare report on survey of Level I students

This report will be completed in summer 1999. The report has been split into:

  1. Report on key skills on entry into Higher Education.
  2. Report on current situation with regard to the teaching of key skills in A-level geography syllabi.

The provisional results from the survey are listed below. Some of the data need to be checked on the original optically-marked read sheets, but the overall results should not change significantly.

In the last two to three years have you experienced:
    Not at all Once A few times Frequently
1 Giving a presentation which involved you speaking to an audience for at least five minutes? 14 26 52 8
2 Writing essays of over 1000 words in length? 3 7 41 49
3 Writing reports? 10 15 55 19
4 Sitting written exams 1 2 16 80
    Yes No
5 Collecting original data for a geography project? 92 8
6 Working with a group of students to produce a joint report or project? 78 22
7 A formal interview for a job? 66 34
8 Studying statistics in either Geography or any other subject? 86 14
During the last two years, to what extent have you worked in teams
    Not at all Once A few times Frequently
9 in Geography? 13 6 59 22
10 in other subjects, but in school/college? 8 5 63 25
11 outside school, college of work? 17 6 42 34
12 in the workplace? 16 4 31 48
There are a number of roles played in teams or groupwork.
Which of these roles have you undertaken in the last two years?
    Yes No
13 Leader 65 34
14 Secretary/Recorder? 42 55
15 Timekeeper? 22 75
16 Researcher? 74 24
17 Producer (e.g. of a poster?) 60 39
18 Treasurer? 12 85
During the past two years, have you been involved in any activities, whether inside or outside school/college, in which you:
    Yes No
19 Critically reviewed an idea, concept or theory? 77 22
20 Questioned or cross-examined someone to extract some information? 61 39
21 Collaborated with other members of a group or team to achieve a common goal? 92 8
22 Used some computer software to analyse data? 69 31
23 Negotiated a plan of action with other people? 88 12
24 Identified the information needed to solve a problem? 92 7
Without assistance, could you do any of the following?
    Yes No
25 Send an email message? 51 49
26 Explore the Internet? 58 41
27 Use a word-processing package? 91 9
28 Use a spreadsheet? 73 27
Do you have
29 A Record of Achievement? 79 20
30 A work-based Appraisal record? 21 78
31 A different Appraisal record? 12 85
32 In the last two years have you been responsible for keeping a record of skills you have acquired? 51 47
Have you used any of the above records at
33 An interview for a job? 44 55
34 A University/College interview? 34 65
35 Other? 11 82
36 During the past four years have you taken part in 'work experience' initiated by your school or college? 81 17
37 Have you had a part-time or holiday job? 92 7
38 Are you a 'mature student' who has come to university from permanent employment? 12 84


2.2.3  Establish panel of geography graduates

The team has attempted to set up a panel of geography graduates. The initial idea was to set up an alumni 'panel' of past geography graduates to examine the key skills they currently use in their employment and to identify what key skills they thought they had learnt/not learnt during their degree courses. However, the creation of the 'panel' has proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated.

The intention was to select a mixture of geography graduates who were in a range of occupations, and who had graduated between 1-8 years ago. A telephone survey was to be conducted to find out whether there were any particular skills which the graduates had acquired during their studies at university which were directly relevant to their current occupation, and to determine whether there were skills which, with hindsight, the graduates felt had not been adequately taught or acquired during their studies.

The main problem that the lead site encountered with setting up this 'panel' was the difficulty in obtaining information about graduates. One of the barriers to gaining this information has been the Data Protection Act, and the reluctance of institutions to release private information about their graduates. Another barrier has been the change in style of delivery of degree courses over recent years, in particular the change in many institutions towards a modular-style course, which does not encourage as much informal contact between staff and students compared with the older style 'single subject' degrees. It has therefore been difficult for team members to obtain contact names and addresses for graduates, particularly if they have moved out of academia.

Given these problems it was agreed with the Team (meeting of 5/3/99) and the Advisory Panel (meeting of 13/4/99) to shift the way in which students views are incorporated in the project to:


2.2.4  Draft first four Guides

The draft student Guide, written by Gordon Clark and Terry Wareham (Lancaster University) was received in February 1999. Because this is the only Guide prepared for direct use by students it has received more scrutiny than the others in the series. An early draft of the Guide was assessed by 6 undergraduate students at Lancaster University, and the content was revised in the light of comments received from the students. The Guide has subsequently been distributed to all members of the team and Advisory Panel for comment. In addition to this, two 'mature' postgraduates in geography at Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, who have work experience, evaluated the Guide and have provided comments.

The draft Guide for the 'Improving Numeracy and ICT Skills', written by Clive Agnew (UCL) was submitted in April 1999. Comments on this draft have been received by the Advisory Panel and authoring team.

The date for receiving draft copies of the other Guides and for final publication of these Guides has been delayed from that given in the original contract. The reason for this change is that a number of the Guides will incorporate information which may be affected by the draft documentation on subject benchmarking, which should be available in autumn 1999. It is important that the Guides address the issues arising from this documentation if they are to be widely accepted within UK geography departments. Publication of the Guides, with the exception of the Guide specifically written for students, will be delayed until late 1999/early 2000. Publication of the student Guide will take place in summer 1999. A first draft of all the Guides will be available by September 1999. The issues arising from the benchmarking documentation should only result in minor changes to these drafts. Due to changing work loads in the team Sue Burkill (University College of St Mark and St John) has agreed to join the authoring team. She will take-over as the lead author on the 'Improving Students' Communication and Presentation Skills' Guide.

The delay in publication of the final Guides has an effect on the 10 days of department-based workshops/consultancy. Originally it was proposed to do 3 days of consultancy before October 1999. As the final drafts will not have been completed by this time the 10 days of consultancy will be split between the final two quarters of the project. Black and white photocopies of the final drafts of the Guides will be used in the consultancies which take place prior to publication of the Guides. Departments which receive these pre-publication copies will also receive a copy of the final version.


2.2.5  Dissemination and Evaluation Strategies

The project's Dissemination and Evaluation strategies are appended to this report (Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 respectively).


3  Plans for the Next 12 Months

The aim of the project over the next 12 months is to:


3.1  National Workshops

The following structure has been proposed by the project team for the three National Workshops. The aim is that they will be based around the Guides, in addition to the report on 'Key Skills of Geography Students on Entry into Higher Education'. Case studies of practices identified in producing the Guides will also be integrated into the conferences.

September 1999
Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG)
  • Key skills in the 16-18 curriculum
  • 'Geography @ University' (The Student Guide)
  • Teaching and learning key skills and encouraging their transferability
January 2000
University of Sussex (as part of the RGS-IBG conference)
  • Improving students' numeracy and ICT skills
  • Improving students' team and personal skills
  • Improving students' communication and presentation skills
April 2000
University College Northampton
  • Improving students' problem-solving and thinking skills
  • Improving students' skills through work-based learning and extra-curricular activities
  • Designing, recording and assessing a skills-based curriculum

The proposal for the first and final conference is to hold the workshops from 11am - 4pm, with one workshop session before lunch and one after, followed by a plenary session. It is intended to have a mixture of presentation and workshop sessions so that participants will have ample time for discussion. The second conference will be part of the afternoon session run by the Higher Education Study Group of the RGS-IBG and will consist of presentations and workshop activities.


4  Summary

Overall the project has made good progress in the last year. We have publicised the work of the DfEE project at a number of geography-related events, and awareness of the project has grown. The only change from the original contract timetable has been the delay in completing the drafts of some Guides (see Section 2.2.4) and the difficulty in setting up a graduate panel (see Section 2.2.3). As with the FDTL project, we have found that a discipline-based project has a number of advantages:

The most important activities for the project over the next few months are:


5  References

Clark, D., Healey M. & Kennedy, R. (1990) Careers for Geographers: the employment experiences of Coventry Polytechnic sandwich degree students, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 14(2), pp.137-149

Clark, G. & Higgitt, M. (1997) Geography and Lifelong Learning: a report on a survey of geography graduates, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 21(2), pp.199-213


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