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Tutorials for introducing human geography and academic study skills at university


Simon Cook, Department of Geography

College Postgraduate Teaching Prize 2017

This academic year, I have been responsible for developing a tutorial programme to support the first-year introducing human geography module. This programme was delivered to two tutorial groups, with each group having between six and eight sessions to attend.

The aim of this tutorial programme is not only to introduce students to core ideas with in human geography but also to the academic study skills required to be successful in human geography across the whole to the undergraduate degree. As such, the sessions I developed were centred both around human geography content and more generic academic study skills as directed by the module leader and Director of Teaching in the Department of Geography.

Tutors were asked to develop five content-based sessions which supported ideas discussed in the module, for which there were also four accompanying essays. Tutors were also asked to run one session on essay writing skills and one on understanding feedback. The precise content, themes and activities of this session were not prescribed and as such, were up to the individual tutors to devise.

In developing my tutorial programme, I reflected heavily upon my experience of running these tutorials in a previous year to pinpoint areas which I felt could be focussed on more strongly to enable students to flourish. I had recognised the difficulty some students found in moving from studying geography in further education to studying it in higher education. Notably, these centred on the very different type of human geography studied between the two and the requirement to have academic study skills of a higher standard. Therefore, I set out to develop a tutorial programme which would enable students to engage with and understand academic human geography on a broader scale – to understand how quite disparate topics can all be encompassed within geography, the common ground which ties these elements together as well as the approaches employed by academic geographers.

The second key aim of the tutorial programme was to introduce, test and practice a variety of key academic study skills throughout the entirety of the programme and not just within the specific study skill sessions. These aims were intended to help all my tutees, regardless of educational or personal background, to gain a secure grounding in human geography and the skills necessary to succeed in the degree.

The sessions themselves utilised a combination of preparation work, individual work and group work to engage with the ideas/skills at hand and these were underpinned by a strategy of developing a peer support network, whereby tutees can look to and trust one another, as well as me as the tutor, for guidance and advice. I would like to highlight a few of the key sessions and activities I developed as part of my tutorial programme that sought to introduce human geography in an empathetic way and to embed the teaching of academic study skills more widely into the programme.

 

The Geographical Imagination

 

The very first session I ran as part of the tutorial programme was designed to help students understand the breadth and range of academic human geography. Human geography at university can be very different to what it is at school and college and, as such, students can often find it difficult to make sense of the discipline as whole and why everything they may study at Royal Holloway counts as geography.

To tackle this head on, I devised a tutorial session and related essay which explored the concept of the geographical imagination. This is an idea that was introduced to students in the lectures for the module and seeks to identify eight key approaches of human geography – the ways in which human geographers seek to make sense of and ask questions of the world. In preparation for the tutorial, students were placed in small groups of two or three and assigned an academic member of staff from the department to research. They were asked to prepare a short verbal presentation which outlined who they were and share some information about their academic background, their research interests and their projects/publications. Crucially, they were then asked to tell us why their work is geographical. This involved identifying aspects of the geographical imagination within their work and seeing how their niche topic related to the discipline more widely. Between them, the groups were asked to research three very different members of staff, whose work would have challenged what they understood as geography.

The session itself began with a group discussion of the eight aspects of the geographical imagination, which were then returned to in the group presentations. This activity helped the tutees to gain a much clearer sense of what academic geography is and the many ways in which it can manifest, which helped them to grasp the course more broadly. The ability to identify different aspects of the geographical imagination was very useful practice for the accompanying essay which asked them to discuss the value of these approaches in understanding the similarities and differences between two key geographical sites – the city and the countryside. The tutorial ended with a discussion of a campaign to make London a National Park, which once more challenged their preconceptions, this time about places, and asked them to engage with different aspects of the geographical imagination to understand and make sense of these similarities and differences.

 

Sense of Place / Place of Sense

 

The second essay and accompanying tutorial was devised to stretch the tutees’ comfort zones a little further by drawing on a geographical concept which was a little challenging and unlike any form of geography they would have studied hitherto. The concept was sense of place and this relates to the meanings which people attach to particular places and the relationships between people and place. It neatly tied together several ideas discussed in their lectures – notably around identity, embodiment and cultural geographical understandings of place. Therefore, the essay I set was for the tutees to explore their own sense of place on campus – to explore how they relate to campus and examine that analytically.

However, sense of place is a concept which has been approached from a range of different theoretical and methodological perspectives within geography and could be quite tricky for students to make sense of and usefully engage with in their essays. The accompanying tutorial then, was set up to explore these different approaches to sense of place and their similarities and differences, something which could then be reflected upon in their essays. In order to do this, the groups were once again split into smaller groups of two or three and assigned a particular reading to do before the tutorials along with a general text introducing the concept. The readings each represented a very different approach to sense of place – different ways of understanding, of researching, and of representing sense of place.

In the tutorials, the groups were given time to discuss their paper with one another before being asked to produce a short PowerPoint presentation which briefly answered the following about the paper:

  • How did the study understand sense of place? How did it explain it? Can you identify the conceptual/theoretical approach adopted in the paper?
  • What did the study seek to find out?
  • What did they do in the study? What methods did they use to study sense of place?
  • What did they find out?
  • How did they write up their research/write about sense of place?
  • What does this study add to our understanding of sense of place? What does it suggest effects/contributes to our sense of place?

These questions were designed to highlight some of the major similarities and differences between approaches to sense of place, which students could then use to help inform their approach to their own sense of place which was required for the essay. Each group took it in turn to report back on their paper, after which a discussion of the similarities/differences was had. After the session, all the PowerPoint presentations were collated into a single PDF document for the students to keep and consult. This gave them a resource which not only summarised six key papers around sense of place, but also explained some of the key approaches to the concept. Thus, the essays about their own sense of place were much better informed and conceptually rich than I was anticipating.

 

Essay Writing

 

A collective resource was also the outcome of the session dedicated to essay writing in the tutorial programme. This session was designed to outline and engage with the fundamentals of essay writing in human geography prior to the submission of their first essay at Royal Holloway. This was a particularly important session as the students tended to have varying experiences of essay writing and understanding of what makes a good essay at university. The session was structured around the book ‘Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide’. This is a very approachable and accessible book which empathetically introduces students to the fundamentals of essay writing in the social sciences.

Each member of the tutorial group was assigned a chapter of this book to read and summarise in no more than 2 pages. This meant that the entire book was read between the group and each person was asked to send their summary to me prior to the tutorial. These were collated and turned into a mini-guide to writing human geography essays for each of them to keep and provided hints and tips about the following: What is a Social Science Essay; Stages of Writing; Matching the Answer to the Question; Thinking Critically and Formulating an Argument; Writing Introductions; Writing the Main Section; Writing Conclusions; and Some Common Worries. The tutorial itself entailed a discussion of each of these sections while working through a hypothetical essay question to demonstrate these and discuss how they work in practice. Overall, this made writing the first essay less daunting for the students as they had a clear understanding of what an essay should do and how it can be successful.

 

Understanding Feedback

 

The final session I want to highlight was the second of the dedicated academic study skill sessions in the tutorial programme. This was a new initiative this year from the department and acknowledges that often students do not know what to do once they have feedback returned to them. This session came after the return of their first essays and sought to identify common issues and create solutions for them as a group. Individually, students were asked to write on Post-It notes three things they did well in their essays and three things they could improve upon. This revealed that some members of the group received praise for elements of their essay that others needed to improve upon. Therefore, the tutees were paired as to learn from one another and together, devise a strategy for resolving the improvements necessary, which were then shared with the group.

This activity was paired with some I had prepared to practice some common errors I had identified in the essays. One such activity related to in-text citation and knowing when a reference was necessary. After a discussion of the importance of referencing, and when and why it is done, students were given an extract from an old piece of work of mine with the in-text citations removed. They were asked to go through it individually and highlight where they think a reference was required. They were then asked to compare this with a partner before sharing with the whole group. The process of identifying where and justifying why references were needed was an extremely useful process for the students, which was evident in their future essays where a marked improvement in this was noted.

 

Evaluation

 

These sessions and activities together as part of my tutorial programme have aided students to grasp the fundamentals of academic study and of human geography. Beyond that, it has encouraged a culture of peer support and collegiality where they can identify the strengths of their peers and help one another to succeed. I have had informal feedback praising the useful of these sessions from my students as well as email feedback from my Head of Department, thanking me for my hard work with this tutorial programme and that they had received very positive feedback from students about it. In future I plan to publish some open-access teaching resources based on these sessions to my blog – www.jographies.wordpress.com – to allow other teachers of higher education to utilise the sessions if they are of interest.

 

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