The notes below represent the personal views of Dr Neil Thomas on the application to the Earth Sciences of the Benchmarking Statement for Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies.

Leaders of courses in Earth Sciences are welcome to contact him at or call him on 020 8547 7525 to discuss specific issues. Leaders of courses in Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies courses may contact Jenny Blumhof at or call her on 01707 284595. Leaders of courses in Geography, who wish to discuss the application of the Geography Benchmarking statement may contact Professor Mick Healey at or call him on 01242 543364.

Although all of us were members of our respective Benchmarking Panels, we are providing this service in our role as Subject Advisors to the National Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES), so as to support our discipline communities as they prepare for Subject Review. Please note however that any points we make are necessarily our own personal views and do not represent the views of the Benchmarking Panels or the Subject Centre and certainly not the QAA!

Advice on Using the Earth Science, Environmental Science and Environmental Studies (ES3) Benchmarking Statement

Neil Thomas, April 2000

Benchmarking panel member, School of Geological Sciences, Kingston University

The grouping of Earth and Environmental Sciences together for the purposes of the QAA subject benchmarking exercise was basically seen as logical by both communities, if tinged with a certain degree of discomfort. However, the addition of Environmental Studies to produce the so-called ES3 grouping made the task of the benchmarking panel extremely difficult. The breadth of potential academic territory covered by these subjects is phenomenal and, as a result of overlap with other benchmarking groups, defining the limits of the territory became a testing and sometimes tiresome task. A rather general benchmarking statement was inevitably produced which, at face value, could be regarded as offering little in the way of specific guidance for the future development and evolution of ES3 undergraduate degree programmes. However, it was always the intention of the panel to produce a statement that was neither prescriptive nor restrictive but allowed programme managers to work within some general national guidelines whilst retaining their right to design programmes appropriate to their departmental and institutional cultures and objectives. In short, the panel has (thankfully) not produced a 'national curriculum' for the study of ES3 at HE level.

This short paper attempts to guide managers and developers of Earth sciences degree programmes through the 'maze' of the ES3 benchmarking statement by focussing on the key issues and suggesting how the statement may be interpreted. It is not an attempt to 'teach grannies to suck eggs' nor is it a detailed coverage of each section of the statement. It is a basic response to several informal requests for a steer from someone who was involved in the production of the statement. Many degree programmes are already operating in such a way as to satisfy the benchmarking requirements, others may not yet have got there. It is hoped that this paper will convince the former and help the latter. Generally then, what follows are informed personal views which may not always be supported by all panel colleagues and should therefore not be attributed to the panel as a whole.

Overarching Programme Aims

Degree programmes of the future should have a strong emphasis on Earth Systems Science. The QAA will be looking for strong evidence of holistic and multidisciplinary approaches to studying the Earth. Programmes will be expected to produce well-rounded, flexible graduates capable of demonstrating proficiency not only in discipline-specific knowledge but also in the Graduate Key Skills listed in the statement. Fieldwork has deliberately been given high priority in our statement due to its critical place in underpinning learning. It is also seen by the panel as a major vehicle for developing Key Skills within a discipline-specific context and will be assessed by the QAA as such. The modern ideas of sustainability are central to the statement and, in particular, Earth sciences programmes should stress the dual responsibility of our subject for exploitation and conservation of the Earth's resources.

Programme developers should take full account of these issues when reviewing existing programmes and developing new ones.

Subject specific knowledge

The benchmarking statement is quite clear on the issue of knowledge: the details of individual programmes are the responsibility of programme managers but, as far as the QAA is concerned, each programme will be assessed against the basic aspects listed in appendix 2a of the statement. This list is a basic minimum requirement but is by no means exhaustive.

Graduate Key Skills (GKS)

Given the requirement for producing well-rounded graduates, the emphasis on skills cannot be overstated. However, with the exception of fieldwork, the benchmarking statement does not suggest how to incorporate skills within programmes. By way of guidance to practitioners, one should note that a popular current trend in HE is towards producing programmes in which Key Skills development is firmly integrated into the subject learning culture. This approach is highly favoured, on pedagogic grounds, over the traditional idea of bolt-on skills modules where skills are developed out of context and with little relevance to the subject matter. This implies that, for example, generic faculty or university skills programmes may fade away as the accepted mechanism for delivering GKS. The recommendation for Earth sciences is that, where possible, programmes should adopt the integrated model. GKS can then be explicitly developed and practised within all programme modules / courses but may only be assessed within certain core programme areas such as fieldwork, tailored tutorial schemes and large core modules / courses. This approach encourages maximum effective exposure without attempting to clutter every module with skills assessment.

One of the major criticisms of including GKS in degree programmes is the perception that such skills cannot be objectively assessed. Whilst this is largely untrue, the benchmarking panel recognised that it is a common feeling amongst academics. In view of this, the GKS diet proposed by the statement will encourage designers to rethink the learning culture employed in their programmes. It is not the intention that assessors can come in with a tick list of GKS against which to measure provision in programmes. The intention is that programme specifications, backed up by evidence, will be able to demonstrate that all listed GKS are developed, practised and assessed within a coherent framework that is firmly integrated within the learning culture. The nature of that framework is entirely the business of individual programme managers. For example, if a claim is made in the programme specification that achieving a grade A in fieldwork produces a graduate who has achieved at the 'Excellent' performance level in terms of subject knowledge and GKS, then the programme team must be able to demonstrate that this is true if challenged.

It is true to say that the list of GKS in the benchmarking statement does not go far enough in providing explicit help for programme managers in certain areas. Arguably the most important GKS category is that of communication for which the statement provides only very general guidance. For example, section 3.3.6 of the statement requires a graduate to be able to communicate 'appropriately to a variety of audiences in written, verbal and graphical forms'. This short statement covers a vast amount of ground and a programme assessor would be looking for strong evidence that students have been provided the opportunity to progressively develop the whole range of 'written, verbal and graphical' forms of communication throughout their degree courses.

The message then is that programme managers ignore GKS at their peril. GKS should be central to the overall learning culture and explicit in the learning outcomes. In order to facilitate this learning culture, it is recommended that departments assign a member of staff to be the GKS co-ordinator / tutor, so that one person is responsible for mapping the diet and progression of GKS within degree programmes and providing evidence of achievement.

Teaching, Learning & Assessment (T, L & A) methods

Again, the panel has been deliberately non-prescriptive in these areas; the specifics are very much the business of individual programme teams. However, assessors will require evidence that an appropriate range of T, L & A methods is used in programmes and these methods are regularly evaluated in the light of new developments in generic T, L & A.

Performance Indicators and Assessment

The benchmarking panel is aware that much of the terminology used in the 'performance levels' table in Section 5 of the statement is subjective. Therefore, the onus is firmly on the programme teams to convince assessors that a student has achieved at the 'threshold', 'typical' or 'excellent' levels in any particular programme area and also that a student's overall performance is, for example, 'excellent' despite only having 'typical' achievement in certain programme areas. There is considerable flexibility in such a system and therefore the definition of learning outcomes and strength of the argument produced by programme teams will be a critical part of QAA assessments. The performance indicators should fuel the development of learning outcomes and programme specifications, so that assessors can immediately identify achievement at each level.


In summary, the delicate balancing act required between giving an appropriate steer and being over prescriptive has ultimately been responsible for producing a broad, generalised statement. It is impossible to satisfy everyone and the panel never expected the community to embrace the statement without question. Doubtless, there are areas in which the panel has not produced the most appropriate solution. Just like the Earth, the benchmarking statement will naturally evolve over time and it is possible, even likely, that it will look completely different several years from now as the demands on the HE system change. Red-tape issues aside, the true value of the benchmarking exercise will be to focus the attention of the community on the key issues that we need to address in order to develop a HE learning culture for Earth Sciences that reflects the demands on graduates in the new millennium.

In order to provide programme managers with specific help and guidance on any aspect of using the benchmarking statement, the newly-established Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences has set up an advice line. For Earth sciences, please contact the Earth Sciences Subject Advisor , Neil Thomas (, who will provide quick e-mail responses to queries or more detailed material on specific aspects. Where necessary, it may be possible to run tailored workshops for common problem areas connected with the use of the benchmarking statement.

Benchmarking and Programme Specifications

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