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Please mind the gap: students’ perspectives of the transition in academic skills between A-level and degree-level geography Dr Simon Tate (Newcastle University)

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Presentation on theme: "Please mind the gap: students’ perspectives of the transition in academic skills between A-level and degree-level geography Dr Simon Tate (Newcastle University)"— Presentation transcript:

1 Please mind the gap: students’ perspectives of the transition in academic skills between A-level and degree-level geography Dr Simon Tate (Newcastle University)

2 Structure UK academic context Student Voices – How we collected the data – What the students said Conclusion

3 UK Academic Context ‘University and pre-university geography [in the UK] are like distant relations: there is a family connection but it is fairly weak’ (Castree, Fuller & Lambert, 2007, p.130).

4 UK Academic Context The debate ranges in focus from: the content of A-level curricula (Castree, Fuller & Lambert, 2007); via the dialogue between teachers and lecturers (Birnie, 1999; Imrie and Cowling, 2006; Jeffrey, 2003); to more fundamental questions about the nature of contemporary geography (Bonnett, 2008).

5 What is human geography? Recent introduction of cultural and postmodern themes New ways of working (such as through visual methodologies or participatory research) Engagement with other disciplines such as sociology and politics GIS

6 What is physical geography? University geography Investigative / exploratory Questions accepted knowledge The Quantitative Revolution Science-based approach Strong links to maths, chem, physics Pioneering / ‘cutting-edge’ Technologically advanced Fieldwork based School geography Descriptive Accepting Human impacts of physical processes Takes facts on face value Fixed or static world-view

7 What is Geography? David Lambert Core knowledge v powerful knowledge (Curriculum Journal, May 2011)

8 What is Geography? Huckle (2002) juxtaposes postmodern academic geography with stubbornly modern school geography

9 What is Geography? Prykett and Smith (2009, p.35) express the concern of many teachers and senior examiners ‘have not been able to keep up-to-date with current developments in an ever evolving discipline’.

10 Structure UK academic context Student Voices – How we collected the data – What the students said Conclusion

11 Students’ Voices Bryson (1997) ‘Breaking through the A-level effect: a first-year tutorial in student self-reflection’ Haigh and Kilmartin (1999) ‘Student perceptions of the development of personal transferable skills’ Maguire, Evans & Dyas (2001) ‘Approaches to learning: a study of first-year geography undergraduates’ Alan Marriott (2007) Geographical Association research with 12 undergraduate geographers, designed to canvass views on the school-university transition.

12 How were student’s voices heard? The project ran over two years of Geographical Imaginations Selected 91 students. The criteria for selection included: – those who attained a mark of at least 60% for the module, – a near-equal number of human and physical geographers (48 human, 43 physical) – and a willingness on the part of the students to participate in the study. In the end we conducted nine focus groups with a total of 53 students.

13 Headline While the existing literature focuses heavily upon the disjuncture in subject knowledge faced by those making the transition from A-level to university-level geography, students perceived their lack of skills to be the most significant obstacle to their learning and progression. Disappointment through to anger and fear at how inadequately prepared for university they considered themselves to be. Some placed the blame squarely on the exam boards: “Students on the [exam board name removed] course are left with no idea of the university curricula ahead.” (Student B39).

14 Skill 1: Fieldwork “I really like the fact that we do loads of physical geography fieldwork. However, I wish there was less chemistry and I worry if my maths is strong enough to cope in stage 2 and 3” (Student A10) “We never really did this sort of fieldwork. I don’t think our school could have afforded the kit but I don’t think they took us out as much as they could” (Student B30)

15 Skill 2: Coursework “I hated doing the A-level project and I used to moan to my teacher all the time. And my mam said ‘they should be teaching you, not you teaching yourself.’ Then I came here and it sort of started to make sense and I think I see now why he made us do it.” (Student C1) Spelling, grammar, punctuation etc were not mentioned as a transitional problem by students.

16 Skill 3: Referencing “Referencing, [is] a concept which is arguably the hardest to grasp for first year geography students. Not only how to reference, in the sense of where the brackets go, but also why we need to bother […] This also plays into the idea that not all books are textbooks which you can accept at face value and just need to remember […] It took ages to realise that different books and journals have different strengths and weaknesses.” (Student B9)

17 Skill 4: Cognitive Skills The Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain (Bloom et al, 1956).

18 Skill 4: Cognitive Skills Every student recognised the ‘spoon-fed’ approach used at GCSE and A-level and wanted to see it changed. “the A-level curriculum I studied did not enable students to think for themselves and consider other possible explanations…it could be said facts were just taken at face value.” (Student A2) “…at A-level nowhere in the curriculum does it encourage students to challenge what they are being told” (Student A4)

19 Conclusion Not all negative – the majority enjoyed their A-level course. There is also an onus on university staff to ease the transition by being more aware of A-level geography However: What we think and what students want / need is not always the same thing. We will spend a lot of time talking about subject content, but how material is taught and the skills students develop are also important. “Teach less, teach it better” (Sally Brown, PVC Leeds Met, quoted at the GEES Annual Conference 2009).

20 References Birnie, J. (1999) Physical geography and the transition to higher education: the effect of prior learning, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23(1), pp Bloom, B., Englehart, M., Furst, E., Hill, W. & Krathwohl, D. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (New York: Longmans Green). Bonnett, A. (2008) What is Geography? (London: Sage). Bryson, J.R. (1997) Breaking through the A level effect: a first-year tutorial in student self-reflection, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 212, pp Castree, N., Fuller, D. & Lambert, D. (2007) Geography without borders, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 32, pp Haigh, M.J. & Kilmartin, M.P. (1999) Student perceptions of the development of personal transferable skills, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 232, pp Huckle, J. (2002) Reconstructing nature: towards a geographical education for sustainable development, Geography, 87, pp Imrie, R. & Cowling, D. (2006) Forging partnerships with institutions of higher education, Teaching Geography, 311, pp Jeffrey, C. (2003) Bridging the gulf between secondary school and university-level geography teachers: reflections on organising a UK teachers’ conference, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 272, pp Lambert, D. (2011) Reviewing the case for geography, and the ‘knowledge turn’ in the English National Curriculum, The Curriculum Journal, 22(2), pp Maguire, S., Evans, S.E. & Dyas, L. (2001) Approaches to learning: a study of first-year geography undergraduates, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 251, pp Marriott, A. (2007) The transition from A level to degree geography, Teaching Geography, 321, pp Prykett, J. & Smith, M. (2009) Rediscovering school geographies: connecting the distant worlds of school and academic geography, Teaching Geography, 341, pp


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