2. Practical geography: a fieldwork and project-based course unit

Paul Bull and Andrew Church


Practical Geography is a compulsory course unit in the single honours undergraduate geography degree programme at Birkbeck College, London University. It is based on teaching Geography "in the field", and is assessed through a combination of fieldwork and project reports in both written and oral form. As such it is an important vehicle for the teaching of Transferable Skills. It has been specifically tailored to the needs of Birkbeck's mature part-time client group and therefore may be less directly relevant to more "normal" undergraduate teaching situations. In addition, given the staff time and financial commitments made by the department to the course, it may be regarded as rather self-indulgent in these efficiency-conscious times. Nevertheless, both staff and students regard the course as a thoroughly worthwhile undertaking, academically, pedagogically and, dare we suggest it, socially. It is therefore a course we would be reluctant to abandon.


Birkbeck College is concerned primarily with the teaching of part-time mature students between 6 pm and 9 pm. The majority of students are in paid employment, pay their own fees and may have family commitments too. Even so, the college has over 5,000 undergraduates registered on degree courses.

The Geography department annually attracts about 30 first-year students to its single-honours degree programme of 10.5 course units over four years. All Geography undergraduate course units, except the three beginning in the first year, are offered in other degree programmes. One of these exceptions, to be discussed below, is Practical Geography.

Curriculum Review

The review of the curriculum - its content, mode of delivery and methods of assessment - is an ongoing process in the department. In 1987-88, a major overhaul of the undergraduate programme took place, the reasons for which were quite explicit: Following this, the department decided to expand, co-ordinate and integrate instruction in study and learning skills into the new curriculum. The department also introduced a variety of assessment methods, to move as far as possible, within the university regulations, from the tawdry dependence on the summer written examination.

A key outcome of this review was a major change in the roles of fieldwork, coursework and project work in the first two years of the degree. For example, a new continuously-assessed, coursework-based, methodology and quantitative methods half unit called Geographical Analysis was introduced into the second year.

Fieldwork in the curriculum had previously been a rather ad hoc affair, usually linked to specific course units, which included training in a range of what are now generically termed Transferable Skills. This was usually accepted unexceptionably by all concerned simply as a necessary part of the geographer's craft. Until very recently, many of us seriously underestimated the important role Geography was playing in Skills training. Students received marks for their fieldwork activities which in the then arcane degree-evaluation scheme seemed only to be used to support marginal candidates. We felt strongly that if fieldwork and its related subject matter, projects and skills were important enough to be in the curriculum, then students should be assessed in a formal way. This argument, and indeed the desirability of field classes generally in the curriculum, was accepted by the department. This resulted in a single compulsory course unit called Practical Geography, based on work spread over years one and two of the degree programme. It was intended that the compulsory nature of the course should signal to the students the importance we placed on this area of study. This is emphasised by the fact that the course continues in year two, which means that, unlike our first-year courses, it contributes to the revised degree-awarding scheme.

McDowell (1993) reports the antipathy of many part-time mature students to finding elements of Skills training in the curriculum. This has not been our experience in Geography at Birkbeck for a number of very clear reasons. First, most of our students have a very clear idea of what to expect on the degree programme before they begin the course, both from our departmental promotional material and from the interview they have with our admissions officer before being offered a place. If either party does not approve of what they find then either a place will not be offered or the application will be withdrawn. Second, most of our students seem to expect Geography to include elements of fieldwork and associated projects. Indeed a handful come on the programme specifically for this type of learning experience. Thus, training in fieldwork-related skills, to make them better geographers, is usually accepted with few complaints, irrespective of any wider personal benefit.The methods are rarely viewed as unacceptable "alternative" modes of instruction, or as dangerous time-wasters. Only our training in oral presentation skills has taken a few of our students by surprise.

However, it is this particular element of the course which has received specific student approbation: "Each student gave one [oral presentation], using slides and overheads, that lasted about 15 minutes. At times this seemed like torture, but I think in the end most people were quite proud of what they'd researched, produced and delivered." This remark comes from a survey of our students undertaken by the college Enterprise Office and reported in their News Bulletin in December 1993. Another quote refers to the Practical Geography unit as a whole:

This has been the most enjoyable and satisfying unit I have completed at Birkbeck. Studying is brought alive by trying different ways of working and expressing thoughts. It has greatly encouraged my group activity and personal study and has certainly added to my resourcefulness and confidence.


For the fieldwork zealots the principal problem was not winning the argument for the desirability for fieldwork activity in the curriculum, but designing a compulsory work programme that their students and the institution would be willing to accept. To achieve this end a number of serious constraints had to be confronted: student time, costs and choice of field class locations.

Birkbeck's students usually have work and family commitments and therefore cannot take much time away from home to attend residential field classes. Yet such an undertaking was vital for the plan. The solution we adopted, which has worked very well, was to have two long weekends away in the first year and a full week in the second year, with additional field activity being carried out in the Greater London area. In addition, our students often do not have large amounts of free time to undertake their own local research for independent project activity. When they get to the final year of their degree they simply have to find such time to carry out their dissertation work (one full course unit). However, for Practical Geography, an attempt has been made to reduce the time spent gathering data by the development of information packs, or computer-assisted learning packages, for a number of elements of the course. In this way it was hoped students would concentrate on the analytical elements of the projects rather than on information collection. Experience of the latter is provided in other elements of the course. Nevertheless, to begin with there was an important balance to be struck between providing students with information and expecting them to collect it for themselves.

As regards the constraint of costs, there are three parts to this issue: costs to the students, costs to the department and costs to the college. Students are expected to pay their share of all transport and board and lodging expenses on their field classes. To go to an unacceptably expensive location would simply eliminate student participation in the Geography degree. In theory students may also be charged proportionately for the costs of the academic staff on the field classes as well as their own; thus making them truly self-financing courses . At the moment the Geography department waives this right and pays the academic staff costs itself. This is another good reason why our field-class costs have to be kept to a minimum. Finally, the college runs a means-tested hardship fund for students who may have genuine difficulty paying their field-class expenses. Students from any department in the college with approved excursions may apply for assistance. So far Geography students have benefited substantially from this fund, but an unacceptably expensive field trip would soon be spotted if it tried to scoop the hardship fund, and this would rapidly bring it to an end.

Finally, in addition to the above, we have tried to make the field class sites encompass a range of different types of environments and landscapes which will not only provide a distinct contrast to students' home areas in southern England, but will also allow them to develop their geographical knowledge and skills. Integration into the introductory lecture programme is also important. However, the curriculum is so broad and general at this level that it would be difficult to find a site that could not be made relevant in some way.

The chosen field classes

Four very different and contrasting environments were chosen for the field classes for Practical Geography. In chronological order of study, they are Teesside, North Norfolk, Greater London and Mallorca.

'Teesside" is a long weekend during the second month of the first year, based in Redcar but including a number of important industrial, urban and geomorphologic sites in the Tees estuary - the coast northwards to Hartlepool, the now defunct Durham coalfield and the North York Moors. Geographically the emphasis is on society - environment interrelations, while the skills-based importance lies in small-group work, field-notetaking, including annotated diagrams, and the description of the observed landscape. The course is assessed by a report, properly illustrated and structured, on society-land relationships, chosen to fit in with the wider first-year emphasis on essay-writing skills. It must be remembered that for many of our mature students formal education at school or college is a distant memory. Some have lost the ability to write well-organised essays and reports, and others probably never acquired the ability in the first place. It is right therefore to concentrate on this skill, on which so much of their success at university will depend, in the first year, whether we like it or not, rather than adopt a more original mode of assessment.

"North Norfolk" is a long weekend, usually in March, based on Scolt Head Island and its surroundings. While the emphasis here is a physical-geography one, there are also some very important society-land relationships to consider as well, especially of a long-term nature. For this course a multi-media computer tutor has been developed in the department to enable students both to familiarise themselves with the area and to carry out a number of assignments prior to the field class (Raper et al, 1992). A very modest degree of computer literacy, or lack of computerphobia, is necessary for this course, and help is of course provided if required. The skills-emphasis, however, is on methods of field measurement and description, group working, the formal testing of ideas (hypotheses) and the production of formal scientific reports. The latter is the chosen vehicle of assessment, again emphasising our concern with writing skills in the first year.

The "Greater London" part of the course involves the assessment of development sites in the London area. Each student must prepare a case either for or against a particular development proposal. The students work in pairs, with one preparing the case for the proposal and the second the case against. All the cases must be presented orally with appropriate visual aids and slides. An important step in the evolution of this project was staff-training in teaching and assessing oral skills, provided by external organisations. Students receive training in oral presentations and the preparation of visual aids - including word-processed bullet-point lists - before the end of the summer term of their first year. Students are expected to research and prepare their case during the summer vacation and present it orally early in their second year. Much of the evidence they will need for this exercise is given to them in an information pack, but they are also expected to approach public - and private-sector organisations, such as developers and local authorities, for further information. Assessment for this section of the course focuses on the quality of their oral presentation and their visual aids. During the first three years of this activity we received valuable assistance in student-centred oral presentation assessment from training experts from Sainsbury's, under the auspices of the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative. A much fuller evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of employer involvement in such activities can be found in Church and Bull (forthcoming). The conceptual aims of this project are for students to consider the causes of change at a particular location and the local political geography in the forms of local interest group and alliance construction. The key Skills that students develop are local-area research strategies, advocacy, oral presentations and the use of visual aids.

"Mallorca" is composed of a one-week residential field class in which students get the opportunity to practice a wide range of their geographical and Transferable Skills in a consolidated set of exercises and projects in a wonderfully rich and varied environment. Here, both individual and group work is undertaken. Plausible hypotheses and topical debates are evaluated with field evidence, for which both oral and written presentations are expected and assessed. Whether it be for a study of the morphology and structure of parts of the city of Palma or on the measurement and locational relationship of Karen features in the limestone around Lluc monastery, a Transferable Skill given particular emphasis on this trip is group work - the organisation and co-ordination of the necessary research activities by a small co-operating set of individuals. An interesting result from our experience with Birkbeck students has been that, although they are happy, in general, to co-operate in research activities, they are definitely against the submission of joint reports for assessment. In discussions, prior to the field class, it becomes quite clear that the majority of students do not wish to share, in any way, the marks gained from a group project, even if they all get the same mark. They wish to receive their own grade for their own piece of work produced from the common pool of information.

Enterprise funding

Five years ago this scheme of field study, project work and related skills training was a medium-term objective of the department. While many of the sites were known to the academic staff, much of the project- and skills-related material existed only in skeletal form; the flesh progressively to be added year by year, until a properly integrated course could be offered to our students. It was the fortuitous arrival of the Enterprise in Higher Education scheme which permitted this to occur much sooner than expected, in less than two years. This was in part achieved by Birkbeck's Enterprise Office conceding at an early stage that subject matter was needed with which to practice Transferable Skills. The collection and collation of such material therefore became a legitimate Enterprise expense. The quid pro quo for the college was that a successful Enterprise project was up and running very quickly in an institution which at the departmental level was generally antipathetic if not downright hostile to the aims of the Enterprise programme. We were clearly very fortunate by simply being in the right place at the right time. Or, to put it another way, we were extremely enterprising in being able to adapt a scheme already "on the stocks" to the available funding opportunities of the moment.

For the Practical Geography course unit, Enterprise funding specifically assisted in the following:

We regard the construction of the Practical Geography course unit, and its successful running for three consecutive years, as a major success. It does have a number of problems, but it also has two major benefits, which we would argue far outweigh the difficulties of providing a rewarding geographical education for our students.

The problems relate to time, cost and staff absence. While the unit was relatively cheap to set up, thanks to Enterprise funding, it is a relatively expensive recurrent cost on the department's limited income, especially in the way the department has funded staff costs. The organising and running of fieldwork, the maintenance and updating of student information packs and the evaluation of student skills in addition to their subject material is all very time-consuming. For example, the evaluation of individual oral presentations is very time extensive. However, the students usually benefit enormously from such activities.

The rewards for the academic staff are far less tangible: contentment and pride in offering a rewarding student learning experience, maybe at best. Such activities should only be entered into once the accompanying time-commitment and opportunity-cost issues have been fully evaluated. Illness, incapacity or a simple misadventure may result in an academic colleague not being able to attend a field class. In a Geography department, and especially a small one where, surprisingly, not all staff value the field class experience, this can cause a severe short-term problem. A contingency plan is needed for such an eventuality which, from our limited experience, occurs with persistent regularity.

The important student benefits of Practical Geography include giving our students greater responsibility for their own learning experience and academic success. While this phrase may now be regarded simply as a cliché, in the Birkbeck situation it has much more meaning. Our students are always mature and usually highly motivated and capable of excelling at independent ways of learning. This course meets their needs exactly, emphasised by the fact that most students score their highest marks in this course unit during their first two years of study. Despite the cost, and the usually unkind weather, most of our students wish they could have more of this kind of work.

The final benefit stems from the fact that Practical Geography is a course unit solely for single honours Geography students. This has helped to give the Geography students a distinct identity. In these days of modular "pot-pourri" degrees we feel this is important for our discipline and our students. Indeed ring-fencing this course around the geographers has kept the number of students on our field classes down to those with just a strong commitment to the subject, which has had made the trips far more interesting from a staff perspective. For the students a major benefit has been the gelling of the Geography undergraduate group. A not unrelated result has been the recent success of the Geography Society. The exclusivity of this course and the way it is taught may not be particularly efficient, but the benefits to our part-time students in generating a social network of undergraduate geographers cannot be overestimated.

Correspondence: Paul Bull and Andrew Church, Department of Geography, Birkbeck College, University of London, London.


Church, AP and Bull, PJ (1995) "Evaluating and Assessing Student Oral Presentation: a limited but effective role for employers in the geography curriculum," Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 19:2, pp 196-202.

McDowell, L (1993) "Enterprise Education and Part-time Students," Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 18:3, pp 187-203.

Raper, JF, Connolly, T and Livingstone, D (1992) "Embedding Spatial Analysis in Multimedia Courseware," Proc. European GIS Conference. Munich, pp 1232-37.

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The Geography Discipline Network would like to thank the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) for permission to reproduce this publication.

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