1 About this report
This report contains an analysis of the results of the survey of key skills practice and needs in English higher education geography departments.
The survey aimed to:
A questionnaire survey was chosen as the most appropriate to meet the needs of the project team while being practical in terms of costs and staff time. It was felt important to establish a broad overview of practice in the sector and to obtain as wide a range of examples of practices as possible. Alternative methods, such as in-depth interviews, would have lost in range and practicality more than they would have gained in depth.
1.2 Materials supplied by institutions
A range of materials, such as module outlines, descriptions and policy documents, was supplied by institutions responding to this questionnaire.
This survey obtained numerous examples of key skills policies and examples of good practice from departments teaching geography in higher education in England.
2 Analysis of returns
2.1 Analysis of total returns
Of 82 questionnaires distributed to HEIs in England 47 were returned. This represents a return of 57.3 percent. While this is high for a postal survey, given the size of the population, its nature as a community of interest and the personal contacts with members of the team this could be regarded as slightly disappointing. There were 22 completed questionnaires returned during the FDTL Geography National Conference on 17-18th September 1998. The remaining questionnaires were returned by post in subsequent weeks. A considerable amount of 'chasing up', by post and phone to departments who had not responded to the survey was required to achieve a return of 47 completed questionnaires. Having said this, however, experiences of similar types of survey of geography lecturers in HEIs produced returns in line with those obtained for this survey (Healey, 1994; Phillips and Healey, 1996).
It is important to note that the results of this survey should not be taken uncritically as 'department responses'. Rather they represent individuals responding on behalf of their departments and reflect individual perceptions or knowledge of their department's key skills practice1. However, within the constraints of this project it was felt this was a practical and realistic qualification to adopt and one that is inherent in much survey work. In some cases more than one persons contributed to the response from an individual HEI.
A range of staff responded to the survey. The survey was addressed to Geography Discipline Network contacts some of whom were heads of department. However, in the majority of cases lecturers of various grades responded.
2.2 Analysis of returns by type of institution
Table 1: Returns by type of institution
|Colleges of HE||19||13||68|
The response rate varied from half of new universities to over two-thirds of colleges of higher education. Interestingly, the impression, that awareness and interest of key skills practice and need is low amongst old universities compared to other institutions is not borne out by the survey. However, it is likely, that factors such as the specific interests of individuals within HEIs and attendance at the FDTL conference may have distorted the results. It is probable that the patterns of return reflect more interest and awareness of particular individuals than that of departments.
3 Definitions of key skills
3.1 Analysis of total returns
Respondents were asked to indicate which of two definitions of key skills most closely reflected their own definition. The definitions were deliberately chosen to reflect contrasting conceptions of key skills. The first emphasised employability and the second 'life-skills'. Of the 47 respondents two declined to answer the question and two respondents provided additional definitions.
Table 2: Responses to Q.1: 'Below are two definitions of key skills. Which statement is closest to your own definition?'
|'Those skills needed by young people and adults to develop and maintain their employability' (adapted from DfEE (1998) The Learning Age, Chp. 6, Section 5.||11||24|
|'The fundamental skills that everyone uses in carrying out all kinds of tasks and activities at work or in life generally' East Kent IteC Ltd (N.D.) Key Skills Training.||34||76|
There was clearly an overwhelming response in favour of the later definition (Table 2). This strongly suggests key skills practice in English geography departments is aimed at conveying skills that are more than purely vocational in nature.
Two alternative definitions were provided by respondents. These were:
Table 3: Percentage of each type of institution responding who agreed with definition 1
|Definition 1: 'Those skills needed by young people and adults to develop and maintain their employability' (adapted from DfEE (1998) The Learning Age, Chp. 6, Section 5.|
|Percentage of old universities responding who agreed with definition 1||25|
|Percentage of new universities responding who agreed with definition 1||21|
|Percentage of colleges responding who agreed with definition 1||23|
Table 4: Percentage of each type of institution responding who agreed with definition 2
|Definition 2: 'The fundamental skills that everyone uses in carrying out all kinds of tasks and activities at work or in life generally' East Kent IteC Ltd (N.D.) Key Skills Training.|
|Percentage of old universities responding who agreed with definition 2||70|
|Percentage of new universities responding who agreed with definition 2||78|
|Percentage of colleges responding who agreed with definition 2||69|
4 Methods of delivering key skills to undergraduates
4.1 Analysis of total returns
The large majority of HEIs teach key skills to undergraduates through both a stand-alone key skills module (or major part of such a module) and through geography subject modules (Table 5). Taking the total number of institutions who responded 'a stand-alone module (or major part of such a module)' or ' Both' to this question indicates that 32 HEIs (71 percent) had a stand-alone key skills module (or major part of such a module). It is extremely rare for key skills to be delivered solely through a stand-alone key skills module (or major part of such a module). Only three respondents indicated this was the case in their institutions. A third of HEIs indicated that they had no stand-alone module (or major part of such a module) that teaches key skills to their geography undergraduates. Some examples of course outlines of these skills modules were sent by respondents.
Table 5: Responses to Q.2: 'Are key skills taught to undergraduates in your department through...'
|Method of delivering key skills to undergraduates||Total Returns|
|A stand-alone module (or major part of such a module)||3||7|
|Integrated into geography subject modules||15||33|
Table 6: Analysis of HEIs with a stand-alone key skills module or major part of such a module by type of institution
|HEIs with a stand-alone key skills module (or major part of such a module)||Number||Percentage of the total of that type of institution who responded|
Seventeen respondents gave details of stand-alone key skills modules.
5 Key skills development and assessment for undergraduates
5.1 Key skills testing on entry in higher education
It is rare for key skills to be tested on entry to geography courses in higher education. The highest incidence of this was for written communication with 3 institutions (6.4 percent) testing on entry. None of the other skills were tested at more than one institution. No information was given on the extent of this testing. For example, all students at Cheltenham and Gloucester C.H.E. are made aware that there is a first year module entitled 'Confidence Counts' which aims to act as a refresher course in mathematics. Students who think they may need this are encouraged to take a diagnostic test to measure their aptitude in a range of mathematical techniques.
5.2 Development of key skills for undergraduates
Tables 8 and 9 detail responses to the question concerning the explicit and implicit development of key skills during the undergraduate geography programme. Three points emerge from this analysis. First there is the ranking of the skills developed in each case (in terms of a tally of respondents who ticked each skill rather than a ranking of importance by individuals). Second there is the relationship between the explicit and implicit development of key skills. These two points are closely related. The final point concerns those skills that are neither explicitly nor implicitly developed by HEIs.
Table 7: Key skills only explicitly or only implicitly developed for undergraduates students by more than 50 percent of responding HEIs
|Only Explicitly Developed||Only Implicitly Developed|
|Qualitative research skills||34||72|
|Quantitative research skills||32||68|
|Laboratory skills||31||66||Interpersonal skills||31||66|
|WWW||29||62||Self management skills||28||60|
|Critical thinking||24||51||Time management||27||57|
The key skills developed explicitly by HEIs are a combination of geography specific skills, for example, field skills (43 HEIs), GIS (38) and laboratory skills (37), information and communication technology (ICT) skills, such as spreadsheets (40) and word processing (39), social science or physical science research skills which may be taught as geography specific, quantitative research (39), qualitative research (39) and the most commonly employed presentation / communication skills, written (40) and oral communication (40). The basic research skills of the library are also important (42).
Table 7 reveals that a far greater number and wider range of key skills are explicitly developed by HEIs than are implicitly developed. The types of skills explicitly developed are a combination of basic communication skills, cognitive skills, ICT skills and subject specific skills. By contrast the types of skills only implicitly developed include skills of personal development and management such as creativity, flexibility, and networking. The responsibility for the development of these skills appears to lie with students rather than with departments. It should be noted that it is inherently very difficult to implicitly teach certain skills, for example, statistics, GIS and laboratory skills.
A small number of skills are neither explicitly nor implicitly developed by between a quarter and a half of departments (Table 8).
Table 8: Skills neither explicitly nor implicitly developed by more than ten responding HEIs
|Decision making with limited information||13||28|
The reasons for the low development of these skills might be that they are regarded as not the responsibility of departments (for example, career skills). However, some departments are beginning to develop modules in career skills in conjunction with careers services. Alternatively the skill might be perceived as peripheral to geography (for example, other mathematical). Finally the onus for the development of some skills might be placed on the student rather than the department (for example, in the case of flexibility).
A caveat to be added at this point is that these figures give no indication of the extent to which these skills are developed over the course of the geography programme. For example, although field skills were mentioned as explicitly developed by the highest number of HEIs they might be developed in relatively small discreet 'packages', such as one or two field trips. Other skills, for example problem solving or critical thinking, although mentioned less frequently by HEIs, may be developed on a more continuous basis through programmes and therefore may have a more profound impact on the students' degree programme experience and be developed to a much greater degree. Oral communication cited as developed explicitly as frequently as written communication maybe less pervasive during the students' geography programmes.
5.3 Key skills assessment for undergraduates
Table 9 contains the results of the survey of the summative assessment of key skills by HEIs. The results show a strong positive correlation between those skills explicitly developed by HEIs on their geography programmes and their assessment.
This correlation suggests an unsurprising pattern of summative assessment based heavily upon those key skills recognised as geography-specific and the key research, analysis and presentation skills.
Table 9: Key skills summatively assessed for undergraduates students
|Number of HEIs||Skill summatively assessed|
|40 and over|
|30-39||Written communication (37), Statistics (31), Quantitative research (30)|
|20-29||Qualitative research (29), Field skills (29), Oral communication (28), GIS (27), Laboratory (26), Critical thinking (26), Mapping skills (25), Visual communication (24), Team work (24), Word processing (21), Graphics (21), Spreadsheets (20)|
|10-19||Problem solving (19), Database (16), Library skills (15), Study skills (14), Personal skills (13), Time management (12), Other mathematical (11), WWW (11)|
|Up to 9||Creativity (9), Debating skills (9), Decision making (9), Self-management skills (9), Career skills (8), Flexibility (5), Networking (5), Email (5), Interpersonal skills (4)|
Similarly there is a strong positive correlation between those key skills summatively assessed and those formatively assessed by HEIs. It is unusual to find instances where formative and summative assessment patterns differed to a major extent. Slightly fewer HEIs carried out formative assessment compared to summative assessment.
6 Key skills development for postgraduates
6.1 Explicit development of key skills through taught masters programmes
Thirteen responding institutions indicated that they delivered masters programmes in geography. This represented at least 23 taught masters and at least one masters by research (one institution did not specify how many masters courses they delivered). Institutions were only asked to respond once to this question, for all their masters programmes.
Table 10: Explicit development of key skills through taught masters programmes
|Number of HEIs||Skill explicitly developed through masters (number of times mentioned)|
|10 and over||Quantitative research (12), Written communication (11), Critical thinking (11), Oral communication (10), Visual communication (10), Library skills (10), Statistics (10), GIS (10)|
|5-9||Field skills (9), Team work (9), Mapping skills (8), Problem solving (8), Qualitative research (8), WWW (8), Personal skills (7), Graphics (7), Decision making (6), Interpersonal skills (6), Laboratory skills (6), Self-management skills (6), Spreadsheets (6), Study skills (6)|
|1-5||Career skills (5), Debating skills (5), Email (5), Other mathematical (5), Database (4), Networking (4), Word processing (4), Creativity (3), Flexibility (3), Time-management (3)|
There is a correlation between those key skills explicitly developed through taught masters and those through undergraduate geography programmes. Again, geography-subject specific and key research and presentation skills are ranked highly here. The difference between the two levels stem from the specific skills demanded from specialist masters programmes. The undergraduate geography programme is broad in its subject spread, across English HEIs. Similarly the skills developed across the broader and longer undergraduate course are likely to be greater in number. However, the specialist nature of many taught masters increases the importance of what might be seen as specialist or less core skills within the undergraduate programme. The most obvious manifestation of this effect is in 'quantitative research' skills being mentioned by the highest number of HEIs as explicitly developed through their taught masters.
6.2 Explicit development of key skills through research training programmes
A total of sixteen research training programmes were mentioned by responding HEIs. Of these eight were ESRC training programmes, four were NERC training programmes, one was an ESF training programme, one was college based, one was faculty based and one was department based.
Table 11: Explicit development of key skills through research training programmes
|Number of HEIs||Skill explicitly developed through research training programmes and number of times mentioned|
|10 and over||Quantitative research (15), Written communication (15), Oral communication (15), Library skills (14), Qualitative research (14), Statistics (13), Critical thinking (12), Visual communication (11), Database (10), Spreadsheets (10)|
|5-9||Field skills (8), GIS (8), Laboratory (8), Self management skills (8), WWW (8), Email (7), Study skills (7), Word processing (7), Graphics (6), Personal skills (6), Team work (6)|
|1-5||Career skills (5), Debating skills (5), Mapping skills (5), Other mathematical (5), Problem solving (5), Networking (4), Time management (4), Creativity (3), Decision making (3), Interpersonal skills (3), Flexibility (2)|
There appears to be a strong relationship between the key skills developed through research training programmes and those through taught masters programmes. Academic research skills, cognitive skills and presentation skills are most commonly cited as explicitly developed through research training programmes. These are generally more commonly developed than geography subject specific skills (except those of academic research) which are assumed to have been developed to some degree during undergraduate geography programmes.
7 Examples of practices in key skills teaching and learning
The majority of respondents gave details of examples of practices in key skills teaching and learning from their own experience or that of colleagues.
8 Interest in topics covered by this project
The interest in topics covered in the project was both enthusiastic and wide. Despite being asked to nominate three topics of interest many of the respondents indicated four or more topics. Some indicated all or most topics would be of interest. A small number left this section blank. The interest for individual topics is given below.
9 Written key skills policies
9.1 Analysis of total returns
The incidence of geography departments having written key skills policies operative, whether department, faculty or institution based, was relatively low. Of the 47 responding institutions only 11 (23 percent) indicated they had such a written policy operative in their geography department. It is possible that this is an underestimation as individuals might not be aware of all department, school, faculty, or institutional policies. However, a lack of awareness of such policies would preclude their influencing curriculum design and teaching. The response may, therefore, be an indication of the influence of written key skills policies on teaching and learning activities.
9.2 Analysis of returns by type of institution
Analysis of returns by type of institution does reveal some variation around the overall figure of 23 percent. Most notable is the low incidence of written key skills policies operative among geography departments in new universities and the higher proportion in colleges of higher education. However, the caveats regarding the nature and the small size of the sample apply here.
Table 12: Written key skills operative in departments by type of institution
|Type of Institution||Number with written key skills policy operative||Percentage of the total of that type of institution who responded|
10 Development of department guides for key skills teaching
10.1 Analysis of total returns
Of the 47 responding institutions 16 (34 percent) had produced their own guides for key skills teaching. The guides mentioned range from brief handouts that may be little integrated into programmes to professionally produced books/booklets that are central to the organisation and delivery of modules. For example, while one institution gives "modest detail in part 1 handbook on essays and examinations", another institution provides a very extensive range of key skills guides.
Further, guides might be developed or used independently by module tutors with other colleagues being little aware of this. Consequently individual respondents to this question might not be aware of the full extent of the development and use of key skills guides in their department. For example, one institution indicated no guides were used in their department although the author is aware that brief guides to presentation skills are given to students in at least one module. It is also likely that a number of departments employ key skills guides developed at the faculty or institution level. These would tend not be picked up by this question.
10.2 Analysis of returns by type of institution
There was little variation between different types of institution in the development of departmental key skills guides, all being in the range of 30 - 36 percent. The extent to which this can be taken as representative of the entire sector is questionable given the high incidence of an 'interested audience' who filled in questionnaires at the FDTL National Geography Conference. The percentage of geography departments who developed their own guides is likely to be lower among non-responding institutions. Departments in old and new universities are more likely to develop their own key skills guides than they are to have written key skills policies operative (Table 12). There was no variation in the percentage of colleges with written key skills policies operative and with their own key skills guides.
Table 13: Returns to Q.7: 'Has your department developed any of its own guides for key skills teaching?' by type of institution
|Type of Institution||Number developed department key skills guides||Percentage of the total of that type of institution who responded|
Further details about the department guides were provided by 12 institutions.
11 This report and other research
11.1 Surveys of key skills practice
A summary of some other surveys of key skills teaching is provided below.
11.1.1 Art and design
A study on graduate standards in Art and Design in UK HEIs was conducted in 1997 by Allan Davies (Worcester College of Higher Education). It was argued that: "Art and Design has... always prided itself on its commitment to teaching 'transferable skills'" (Davies, 1997).
Issues surveyed included assessment criteria in relation to key skills.
"We also asked whether there were assessment criteria in place in relation to transferable skills and if:
Table 14: Results from Art and Design transferable skills survey (Davies, 1997)
|Intellectual / Cognitive|
|Investigative skills/ methods of enquiry||87||55||74|
|Laboratory skills / field craft||64||33||50|
|Data / information processing||69||50||45|
|Content / textual analysis||71||57||67|
|Self / individual|
|Independence / autonomy||46||76||56|
|Ethical principles with value base||53||61||33|
|Social / people|
|Negotiation / micro-politics||32||52||23|
|Social / environmental impact||53||59||37|
Source: Davies, A. (1997) 'Graduate standards: subject associations pilot projects (Art and Design) (http://www.lgu.ac.uk/deliberations/artdesign/QAA-GLAD.html)
11.1.2 Biological sciences
A HEQC funded study of core attributes in biological science graduates was conducted. It found that the core attributes of biological graduates deemed most desirable by HEIs were (in descending order): critical reasoning, knowledge of subject's conceptual basis, investigative skills, intellectual analysis, communication and IT skills, knowledge of subject content and range, and laboratory skills. The study found no marked difference between old and new universities or across subject disciplines. However, the study did find that there were some differences in those attributes ranked as most desirable and those that HEIs actually felt they measured and took into account in awarding Honours degrees.
Source: Biochemical Society Monthly (1997) 'Monthly report on professional affairs', Biochemical Society Monthly (December) (http://www.biochemsoc.org.uk/pec/monreps/9712report.html)
History Today magazine reported on current trends in the teaching of History. One of their themes was an emphasis on skills. The magazine identified skills based curricula in History dating back to the late 1980s (University of Brighton). Most History departments mentioned the role of transferable skills in their programmes. The ways these are developed vary. Some HEIs emphasise particular skills. Others develop skills via work placements (including Huddersfield University, Manchester Metropolitan University and Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds). A few include compulsory skills modules at some stage of their programme (including the University of East Anglia). The development of study-skills has become a particular focus. Many departments now produce resources aimed at developing study-skills, these include: booklets or handouts of varied detail and length. A few contain extensive examples. Some HEIs run compulsory study-skills modules for first level students (including the University of Manchester and the University of Nottingham).
Source: History 2000 (1997) History Today: What's Going on in Teaching and Learning (http://www.bathspa.ac.uk/history2000/newsltt2.htm#An emphasis on skills)
11.1.4 De Montfort University
De Montfort University has developed a personal transferable skills strategy. As part of the implementation of this a survey of university staff was conducted with regard to key skills opinion and practice. The survey found that staff felt students needed to develop analytic, problem solving and communication skills to be successful academically. While academic staff placed a high value on the development of these and other skills this was not reflected in the general existence of formal module documentation or by extensive assessment of key skills. The strategy aimed to build on this support for key skills by making them more explicit to students through learning and assessment.
Source: ABC Network (no date) The Ability Based Curriculum (http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/abcsec1.html)
11.1.5 The University of Manchester
A number of key skills initiatives have been developed at the University of Manchester. Emphasis is placed upon essay writing, communications, team working, problem solving, the use of information technology and personal skills such as creativity, independence and flexibility. In non-vocational courses the responsibility for skills development falls predominantly on the student.
11.2 Other references
Selected references that might be of use are included in Appendix I.
12 References cited in text
ABC Network (no date) The Ability Based Curriculum (http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/abcsec1.html)
Biochemical Society Monthly (1997) 'Monthly report on professional affairs', Biochemical Society Monthly (December) (http://www.biochemsoc.org.uk/pec/monreps/9712report.html)
Davies, A. (1997) Graduate standards: subject associations pilot projects (Art and Design) (http://www.lgu.ac.uk/deliberations/artdesign/QAA-GLAD.html)
Healey, M. (1994) 'Teaching Economic Geography in UK Higher Education Institutions' Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 18, 1: 70-79
History 2000 (1997) History Today: What's Going on in Teaching and Learning (http://www.bathspa.ac.uk/history2000/newsltt2.htm#An emphasis on skills)
Phillips, M. and Healey, M. (1996) 'Teaching the history and philosophy of geography in British undergraduate courses' Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 20, 2: 223-242
I would like to thank those Departments who gave their time to respond to the survey and provide information. I would also like to thank the rest of the project team for their help in designing the survey, Heidi Meehan for collating responses and producing the database and Jackie Birnie, Phil Gravestock and Mick Healey for their comments on earlier drafts of this report.
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1 In one case two responses from one institution were obtained. The two responses did contain several differences in the detail.
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