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How UCL Geography re-vamped entire first year curriculum

New programme aligned with Geography A-Level, the Connected Curriculum, and seeks to engage students in more field-based learning in London.

UCL President and Provost with 2019 Education Award winners

18 November 2019

Educators in UCL Geography were awarded a UCL Provost Education Award in 2019 for their collaborative project to overhaul the entire first-year curriculum. The project was called First Year Reform.

For UCL Geography, First Year Reform was a significant event. The first-year curriculum had not been changed within institutional memory. We aimed to improve our student's satisfaction and to embed central UCL initiatives such as Connected Curriculum.

Here, they explain how and why they went about it:

Ground-up review process

A broad group of the department's academic staff took part in the initial discussion around the reform. This group asked:

  • what do we think is essential to the discipline?
  • how do we articulate the relationship between human and physical geography?
  • what research and other skills are necessary for students to learn in the first year?

The key to solving these questions was to work from the ground up. It was no small feat given the differences between areas of the discipline!

Commitment to embedding research-based education

UCL’s distinctive approach to research-based education, UCL Connected Curriculum, aims to ensure that all UCL students are able to learn through participating in research and enquiry at all levels of their programme of study.

With this in mind, we faced two significant drivers to focus our reform

  1. a new Geography A-level
  2. embedding UCL Connected Curriculum.

It seemed like an obvious moment of opportunity to re-think our curriculum.

We wanted to keep our focus on research-based learning while improving our curriculum's stretch and rigour.

Putting student voice at the centre of reform 

We consulted students on proposed changes in the Staff-Student Committee (SSCC). In 2016, our students were first involved in the Connected Curriculum benchmarking exercise. This exercise informed our focus on areas that we needed to improve and reaffirmed our desire to put research-based education at the heart of teaching.

Engaging external stakeholders

We began by bringing in the author of a geography textbook, Peter Stiff to consult. This textbook included all recent changes to the new geography A-Level. He was also a perfect fit in another way; Peter was a former Fawcett Fellow (a Department of Geography initiative that brought school teachers into the department for their sabbatical to gain insight into university-level geography). It was now time to reverse the relationship, and for us to learn from him. He consulted on the initial structure of the redesign.

Buy-in from Senior Management

The review was instigated by the Head of Department and organised by the Deputy Head of Department (Education) (DHoD). Together they maintained an overview of the whole project and recruited the convenors.

Creation of collaborative teams

To ensure the changes produced an integrated set of core modules, we created module teams.

Once the design had been agreed, a group of module convenors were appointed for the new modules. These convenors met to ensure that all our desired concepts and skills were covered without overlap of content between the new modules. No mean feat!

Modules such as 'Thinking Geographically' and 'Geography in the Field' were designed to have an equal presence of human geography and physical geography. To do this, we appointed co-convenors from both 'sides' of the discipline.

This ensured that the modules incorporated the breadth of the discipline without overlaps or gaps.

Bridging the gap from A-Level to Degree

Student Evaluation Questionnaire (SEQ) and other evidence suggested that incoming first years felt the gap between their previous training and what we expected of them was too vast.

For years we had spent the first year demolishing their previous understandings of what the field of geography is. It left them feeling unhappy and damaged their self-esteem (they were, after all, really good at A-Level geography).  

Following this, we then had to work quite hard to win them back, both their academic success and, crucially, their feeling of belonging. We were determined to build a better bridge between the A-Level and university geography, with the idea that this would improve student satisfaction throughout all three (or four) years.

We also knew that we did not have internal knowledge of the new A-Level, and so it was important for help from outside the department to brief us on what we could expect incoming students to know based on their A-Level experience. 

Team-based approach

We wanted the whole department to feel invested in these changes, as most either teach on first-year modules, serve as first-year tutors, or both.

How long did it take to make the changes?

It took a year to come up with the structure and produce the module paperwork; we then took another year to advertise the changes and design new modules.

What was involved in logistics, time or resources?

There was a large amount of investment, mainly of time. It took a year to come up with the structure and produce the module paperwork; we then took another year to advertise the changes and design new modules.

This was the 'major' reform of the department for an entire year, and it occupied significant time at many Department Away Days. Of course, this fell on some people's shoulders more than others, especially when the reform became more advanced.

We also invested money into our external consultant. He volunteered his time, but travel expenses were covered. We also purchased several A-Level textbooks from our external consultant for staff to read and use in their lectures.

Impact on student satisfaction

We have seen a sign of a positive impact on our student's experience. SEQ data indicates that:

•    The new curriculum is providing a solid link between A-Level and university level geography, with 60% of Global Events students and 54% of Thinking Geographically 1 students scoring the starting standard as 'just right'.

•    Thinking Geographically 1 indicates the aims of the module are being achieved, from integrating human and physical geography: 

'Thematic lectures were approached by showing students both physical and human perspectives, and key contentions surrounding each topic. It provided for a nuanced and stimulating learning experience.'
Gets me thinking about geographical thought in different ways [ways I'm not used to in the past]'

•    Global Events had a very high (84%) satisfaction rate, and feedback suggests the module is helping students apply geography to the broader world

'I deeply enjoyed studying general political events we read about every day in a geopolitical and geographical way. It helped me consider many other events in such a different perspective.'

Taking stock a year in

We will meet to look back on the year and see what changes should be implemented based on initial staff and student experiences.

Top tips to overhaul your curriculum

  1. Get buy-in from the entire department and create a shared vision.
  2. Talk to the students and find where the weak points are in your curriculum.
  3. Don't be afraid to seek outside help in connecting with the outside world (e.g., the A-Level curriculum or the job market).
  4. Put people in charge of new modules who share your vision of the new curriculum.
  5. Don't rush the process. Going slow will allow connections between modules to emerge.