GeoEd: Do as I say… AND as I do

GeoEd: Do as I say… AND as I do

Bridging the gap between student and teacher is not always easy. For students, the educator might seem ‘untouchable’ and inaccessible. A sense exacerbated when assignments are set and they turn out to be new, complex and unfamiliar. In this new installment of our GeoEd column, regular guest blogger Rhian Meara of Swansea University, discusses a simple approach to overcome some of these barriers, which can yield surprisingly positive results.

As teachers, lecturers and professors, it’s easy to forget quite how scary it is to be an undergraduate student. Everything is new – lectures, seminars, practical classes, buildings, cities, and friends. Workloads are increasing and expectations are much higher than at school. We can also be guilty of setting and marking coursework based on our present professional standards including expectations that students will automatically understand what is expected of them. The fallout of this is that students can get overwhelmed, scared to ask questions and plough on despite not understanding what is required of them.

During the last few years, I have taught on a second year module which includes a literature review as part of the continuous assessment. Students attend lectures, workshops and tutorials to learn what a literature review is and how to write their own reviews. However, despite the extensive preparation, there is a communication barrier and a task as simple as a literature review (to the staff) is a monumental and incomprehensible task (for the undergraduates). The students have a tendency to get incredibly hung up on the fact that a literature review is “not an essay” rather than understanding what it actually is and how to complete one.

To counteract this, I have started running an extra tutorial session for my students. In this session, I provide the students with copies my own undergraduate literature review that I completed as part of my undergraduate geology degree at the University of Leicester. The review focusses onto emplacement mechanisms for flood lavas both on Earth and across the Solar System, and was completed during the third year of my degree. In the review, I introduce four models that explain how flood lavas are erupted and transported, critique each model and reach a conclusion as to which model, if any, is most accurate. The majority of the students in the group are physical or human geographers and not avid hard-rock igneous petrologists like I was back in the day, so initially the students are quite intimidated by the subject!

As a group, we then read and discuss the literature review to identify the essential components. These include, but are not limited to, a brief but thorough introduction to the subject, headings and sub-headings, relevant images and maps, appropriate use of references and citations, thorough explanations of the subject material, critical evaluations and conclusions.

Immediate comments from the students included bewilderment at how “professionally written” the work was which led to a useful discussion about academic writing, editing and the appropriate use of jargon. The students also felt that despite their initial intimidation of the subject area, that the review gave them a thorough introduction and explanation of the subject and its associated literature – one of the key aims of a literature review.

At the end of the discussion I asked the students to grade the literature review. As a group the students agreed that the work was a very high quality and merited a 1st class mark (˃70%*). In reality the work had been awarded a 2:1 mark (c. 64%*); however as the work was submitted for a 3rd year module the mark can be translated to a 1st class mark at the 2nd year level. The students were able to see therefore what sort of level they should be aiming at with their own work.

When the students submitted their own literature reviews, I was pleased to see that most of the elements that we discussed had been included into their work. Subjects were clearly introduced and explained, relevant images were used to highlight arguments, ideas were critically discussed and logical conclusions were reached.

Feedback from the students noted that the experience of seeing my own work was incredibly useful as it allowed them to see clear examples of similar work. The students now understand what expectations I have for them in the 2nd year of their undergraduate degree based on my own experiences (do as I say, and as I do!). The tutorial also allowed the students to better understand the process of researching and academic writing.

Getting to see and read through a staff member’s work was very informative. It helped me to understand the level at which to pitch my own work and how the use of appropriate figures, even within essays, could improve the overall quality of the piece. I also found that it broke a perceived wall between the complicated published articles and undergraduate work as it showed how the skills I’m learning now can help with more advance writing in the future.”  (Ben, 3rd year student)

Getting an example of a literature review from my tutor was not only useful as a tool, but felt more personal. Allowing me to ask questions I wouldn’t have, if we didn’t have her work as an example.’  (Tom, 2nd year student)

It was a great help to see a good example of a literature review because I had no idea how to even start! I liked the fact that I could refer back to the example for guidance during the process of writing my own literature review, and I believe that I would have had much worse marks without the possibility of seeing an example beforehand.” (Ffion, 2nd year student)

I ran this tutorial last year for the first time and was pleased with the results. This academic year, the original students who are now in their 3rd year have asked to continue the practice as they write their independent research dissertations. During individual and group tutorials I have shown the students my undergraduate research project on the geochemistry of the Siberian Traps lavas and my PhD thesis on tephrochronology in Iceland. Again, feedback from the students has been positive as they appreciate seeing and comparing with their supervisor’s undergraduate work.

The only negative element of this experience was needing to ensure that students did not re-use the same topics for their own projects as this would be considered as plagiarism. However as previously noted, the academic background of the students somewhat precluded this.

Finally, a piece of advice: if you want to share your work with your students, make sure you develop a thick skin! Once the students get going they are surprisingly harsh during the marking and critiquing element of the tutorial!

By Rhian Meara, Physical Geography and Geology Lecturer at Swansea University

* In UK marking schemes, anything given 70% is considered to be of excellent quality.

GeoEd, is a series dedicated to education in the geosciences. If you’d like to share your teaching and educational experiences, anything from formal classroom teaching, through to outreach project ideas, please do get in touch. We always welcome guest contributions to the blog. To pitch an idea for a post, please contact Laura Roberts Artal (the EGU Communication Officer and GeoLog editor) at or take a look at our submission page.

GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

GeoEd: A Framework Too Far?

In this month’s edition of GeoEd, Sam Illingworth, former ECS PC representative and Lecturer of Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, talks about a new framework introduced by the UK government to measure the quality of teaching at higher education institutions. Although Sam explores the issue from a UK perspective, there is no doubt cross over within the European realm. Also, this post is a great opportunity to start a discussion, how is the quality of teaching across European Universities measured? We’d love to hear from you if you have a view on the newly proposed framework or if you can tell us more about how teaching excellence is measured in your country.

The UK government recently announced that a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) would be introduced to UK universities. At the moment, the exact form of what this will look like is speculative, but it is expected that it will potentially use a set of “outcome-focussed” metrics to form the basis of financial incentives to improve university teaching. For example, those universities that perform well in TEF might be allowed to charge more than the current tuition fee cap of £9,000 per annum.

Whilst primary and secondary schools in the UK are used to having the quality of their teaching assessed via inspections from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), there has been something of a mixed reaction amongst UK academics as to whether or not the TEF is actually needed.

Aside from the fact that TEF will probably be a very costly exercise (some estimates of REF, the research equivalent of TEF were put at being in excess of £1 billion), it is difficult to imagine how you would accurately measure teaching excellence in universities, and if indeed there is any need to do so. After all, the 2015 UK National Student Survey reported that the majority of students are ‘satisfied’ with their university course, despite the £9,000 tuition fees.

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

Will TEF help lecturers wake up to better teaching practices? (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya)

However, would a TEF really be such a bad idea? Aside from the fact that it might be used as a further tool to ensure that the richest and most well attended universities keep on getting richer and more over subscribed, I think that there are a number of potential benefits to such a framework:

  1. It will encourage more peer-assessment amongst lecturers. Whilst previous attempts to enforce this have been a little heavy handed, learning from one another is an excellent way to develop your craft as a teacher.
  2. It will help to strengthen the ‘teaching track’ in academia as a route that is at least on a par with the more traditional ‘research track’. This in turn should also help to pave the way for more distinctive career paths. Just because you are a world-class researcher does not mean that you are a world-class teacher, but nor should you be punished / penalised for this if research is your main reason for employment and visa versa.
  3. It will help to place greater value on the importance of good teaching for retention rates etc. Given the amount of money that universities bring in from tuition fees, it is amazing that a greater value is not already placed on lecturers that excel in the role of teachers.
  4. It should provide a more useful comparison for students when applying to universities than the REF tables. After all, whilst as a student you want to attend a university with a good research reputation, it is far more important that you attend one that excels at teaching.

Obviously, in the field of the geosciences, there will be additional obstacles that must be overcome, for example how will lecturers be assessed on their ability to teach fieldwork skills, or to run successful residential trips? However, providing that the TEF is constructed following consultation with practicing lecturers and university administrators, these could all potentially be accounted for.

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Hopefully TEF should inspire lecturers to think more like this (Photo Credit: BK)

Whilst many may see TEF as a further box-ticking or hurdle-jumping exercise, if it is done correctly it offers university’s a fantastic opportunity to ensure that all of their students are being taught be lecturers who are good at lecturing, and who actually want to be there. The good lecturers have nothing to worry about (apart from potential promotion), those wanting to learn will have a framework to work towards, and those that don’t care about the quality of their delivery are probably better off out of the system anyway.

By Sam Illingworth, Science Communication Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

GeoEd: Social Communications

GeoEd: Social Communications

We all know that social media is an excellent way in which we can communicate our research (and indeed our rants, dreams, and favourite cat pictures) to the general public, but can we also use it to communicate our research in the classroom? From kindergarten to higher education, social media can be a fantastic learning tool, which can help to open up digital windows into the world of geosciences.

Social media is a rather large umbrella; for anyone doubting this, check out the wonderful A-Z of Social Media for Academia by Professor Andy Miah from the University of Salford. In utilising social media for your teaching practices, it is important that you choose the platform with which you feel the most comfortable, and which you feel will be of greatest benefit to both you and your students. For the rest of this article we are going to focus mainly on: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Periscope, but obviously many more platforms are available.

Creating a Facebook group for a specific class or topic can be an excellent way to promote learning and interactivity outside of the classroom. Wang et al. (2012) found that many of the fundamental functions of a learning management system could be easily implemented into a Facebook group, and that encouraging students to use Facebook as a learning tool presents the teacher with the flexibility to engage with students at times that are convenient for them. This in turn can lead to the students feeling more inclusive, and can help to foster a more collegial atmosphere, both amongst the students and between the students and the teacher (Marovich et al., 2010). If using Facebook in this manner, it is important that the students are aware and comfortable with the security settings that are being used. It is also an idea to give several of them administrative rights, as this promotes ownership, and helps the students to self-moderate, which will further encourage the students to learn together, away from their traditional learning environments.

Twitter is a fast, easy method for making announcements, solving student issues, and performing course-related administrative duties (Rinaldo et al., 2011). Using a Twitter Wall, such as Tweetchat, in combination with a designated hashtag can be a great way to promote discussions in class, and can help to encourage those students that would otherwise be too shy or awkward to ask questions. By using a hashtag, it is also possible for the teacher to return to any questions or issues that they may have missed during the session at a later date, and they can also help to inform the content and delivery to future sessions. Using hashtags also allows you curate the conversation using Storify or Curator for a later date, as outlined in this blog post. Twitter is also an excellent way to help teach students about how to network efficiently (Sacks and Graves, 2012), a vital skill in any future career path, and one that will stand them in good stead for the academic conferences of their futures. For those that are interested, this post by the UK Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group (MELSIG) talks further about how social media can be used to promote interaction and inclusivity, and how it is being done across UK HE institutions.

Social media can help bring geosciences into the classroom. Credit: Steveadcuk (distributed via Wikimedia Commons).

Social media can help bring geosciences into the classroom. Credit: Steveadcuk (distributed via Wikimedia Commons).

Skype and Periscope are excellent platforms for bringing geoscience and geoscientists into the classroom. By setting up a Skype chat with a geoscientist in an exotic location, students can get a feel for what it is like to be a geoscientist in the field; they are also presented with the opportunity to chat to real geoscientists about what it is that they do, and why it is that they do it. This is also an extremely cost-effective (in terms of both time and money) method to communicate with geoscientists from across the globe. Periscope brings with it the opportunity for genuine two-way communication in a versatile and flexible manner. If you are a university lecturer then why not set up a live feed when you are out in the field, your students could then watch as you climb a volcano/identify rock types/ take chamber measurements of gases, whilst asking you questions that you can respond to in real time, effectively bringing them with you on your own personal learning experience. You could also encourage your students to do the same, allowing them to share their geoscientific wanderings with the rest of their class.

These are just some suggestions for how a number of social media platforms might be used to enhance the learning experience. The possibilities really are as limitless as your imagination. However, it is important to realise that social media, in all of its many guises is effectively just a set of (admittedly very cool) tools, and that without the required content and competency to complement these, all that is left is a set of ineffectual instruments and a very confused and or uninterested classroom.

By Sam Illingworth,  Lecturer in Science Communication, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Marovich, M., Stanaityte, J. & Wankel, C.: Cutting-edge social media approaches to business education: teaching with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and blogs, IAP, 2010.

Rinaldo, S. B., Tapp, S. & Laveriel, D. A.: Learning by tweeting: Using Twitter as a pedagogical tool. Journal of Marketing Education, 0273475311410852, 2011.

Sacks, M. A. & Graves, N.: How Many “Friends” Do You Need? Teaching Students How to Network Using Social Media. Business Communication Quarterly, 75, 80-88, 2012.

Wang, Q., Woo, H. L., Quek, C. L. et al:. Using the Facebook group as a learning management system: An exploratory study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 428-438, 2012


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