AbstractWith an aim to foster transferable skills and employability, the geography team at Oxford Brookes University is collaborating with students on the development of a digital research skills guide. Facilitated by a Teaching Innovation Award, the project includes a peer-mentoring scheme between second and third-year students and the co-production of published material to support the development of geographical skills. The project is embedded in two modules as well as an extra-curricular scheme, thereby ensuring both a high density of participation and longevity of the scheme. From the early design of the project to its eventual dissemination, the idea of staff-student partnership lies at the heart of the project.
Geography is a subject of skills. Students learn to make maps, survey diverse populations, construct searching interviews, or mine databases to reveal geographical distributions. It is a subject of fieldwork through space and time, which integrates skills from many other disciplines: anthropology, geology, biology, psychology, sociology. Many unusual intellectual syntheses arise through the resulting medley of techniques. For example, how do emotional responses to advertising vary across topographical boundaries? And is there any relationship between the arsenic content of a soil and the social-economics of the people who live in that area? Yet for students of the subject, the myriad of techniques which facilitate geographical research can be intimidating. It can therefore be hard to find materials detailing techniques and difficult to know how to design a research project that appropriately employs them. While several geographical research techniques textbooks exist (e.g. Clifford 2016; Gomez and Jones 2010) these are often in print, inanimate and limited in scope. These guides also do not cater well for students with dyslexia or those who learn best by ‘doing’ or by verbal communication.
To address these issues, the geography team at Oxford Brookes University have commenced an innovative teaching project to embed peer-mentoring and the co-production of a research skills guide into second and third year teaching. Firstly, third year students act as research techniques mentors for second year students, passing on skills and experiences while consolidating their own learning (Stigmar, 2016). This is particularly valuable for the skills which are hardest for academics to teach such as defining a research question at the outset (Walkington and Jenkins, 2008; Walkington et al., 2011). Peer-mentoring scaffolds this process by bringing experienced third year students into the project design tutorials. Secondly, the research techniques guide involves the co-production of an interactive compilation detailing key geographical research skills spanning the life of a research project. Sections are co-constructed by third year students and staff, while second year students are given the opportunity to create materials, such as videos, blogs, and pictorial content, from their fieldwork abroad. In this way, the project both enhances geographical skills and offers transferable qualifications in e.g. mentoring, communication, website construction, and text editing. As each student cohort in turn both benefits from and contributes to the research guide, it is also designed to be refined and customised through future generations of students. This brief practitioners’ account will outline the aims and ideas behind the project at an early stage.
Skills Development and Employability
Equipping students with transferrable skills is a key contributor to enhancing confidence and employability amongst graduates. Within this project, third year students act as mentors within the second year module ‘Geographical Enquiry and Field Research’. Peer-mentoring (Streitwieser and Light, 2010) is used widely across several subjects at Oxford Brookes University, and has been shown to enhance transferable skills for employability (Calma and Eggins, 2012). After formal accredited training, which students can add to their CVs, they advise and guide the fieldwork research projects of the second year students, consolidating their own knowledge of research techniques while simultaneously improving the support ratio for the module.
Second year students, having benefited from inherited experience through the mentorships by the third year students, plan and undertake their own fieldwork research abroad within the module ‘Geographical Enquiry and Field Research’. Part of their assessment for this module involves producing texts in which they reflect on their methodological choice and experience. Not only do these activities themselves provide invaluable experience with transferable skills for students, they also contribute materials to the digital research techniques guide, the primary output of this project. The project therefore brings together insights on the pedagogical value of peer-mentoring, staff-student partnerships (Healey et al., 2014, 23), and connected curricula (Fung, 2017); and it links directly to University-wide initiatives relating to employability and student voice.
While the project is still at an early stage, six months in at the time of writing, students have begun reflecting on skills and employability. During the initial mentoring training session for third year students, they were asked to articulate their motivations for taking part in the scheme and their own experiences of mentoring. Among the 11 students who took part, a recurring theme was the desire to build their CVs: to be able to show potential employers that they had done “something more” during their studies. Moreover, several reflected on positive experiences of support from family, friends, and fellow students in the past; experiences that they now wished to pass on. Subsequently, following the first peer-mentoring session, second year students noted how it was easier to discuss specific challenges and concerns with someone who had been through the same process themselves. In turn, the hope is that this latter group will also eventually feel equipped to pass on their experiences to the cohort to follow them; and, further ahead, that these are experiences that they will bring with them when starting their graduate careers.
The Digital Research Techniques Guide: A Collaborative Creation
The digital research techniques guide will be designed as a website with sections for each of the key skills required for a modern geography research project, from inception to publication. A section might include a written introduction by a third year student on, for example, topographic mapping. This could be accompanied by a video produced by second year students, where they demonstrate the practical skills of mapping during their second year fieldtrip to Spain. They would have designed and scripted the video to show the equipment and process, but would also have edited the video. A third section might be a blog, also produced by a student, recounting the problems encountered during a mapping research project and some of the solutions they employed. The sections will be edited, and the malleable format of a website allow links to be made to external sites, as well as internal links to other sections such as (for this example) the section on Geographical Information Systems (digital data mapping) or fieldwork health and safety. As well as this work constituting assessment submissions for modules, the students can cite the experience on their CV or in interviews, powerfully supplementing the traditional canon of graduate skills at a time when employers are looking increasingly beyond academic grades.
A Collaborative Cycle of Learning
The principles of engaging students as partners are outlined by Moore-Cherry et al. (2015) and Moore-Cherry and Healey (2018) where two interacting categories of student-staff partnerships are defined: 1) student engagement in learning, teaching, and research; and 2) enhancement of learning and teaching practice and policy. While the first category might be satisfied with routine teaching and dissertation supervision, the second category is altogether more radical, requiring the students to be creators and enhancers of teaching and learning. Our project fits this latter category through the student production and editing of learning materials (the digital guide) and the deployment of mentors in tutorial sessions. Importantly, Healey et al. (2014) state that there must be “equality of opportunity for students to be engaged in appropriate partnerships and that there is a move over time to increase the number of students so engaged and their depth of engagement”. Our project meets these requirements by giving every third year student an equal opportunity to become a mentor or to contribute to the skills guide, while all second year students have the option to create a blog (reflecting on their fieldwork skills development) for the skills guide. We also aim to increase the number of mentors over time and the longevity of the project is promoted by embedding participation within two modules of the geography degree. The guide will also be updated annually by new student submissions, thereby keeping content up-to-date while also allowing flexibility in content from year to year, reflecting changing staff research expertise and feedback from the student collaborators and users.
Measuring Skills Acquisition
Measuring the impact of such a project can be challenging as baseline data is generally needed. Fortunately, the geography programme at Oxford Brookes University is in a good position in this respect, as data on students’ perceptions of their own skills, confidence, and knowledge has been collected as part of a current project (the ‘CLASS’ project, see Brampton et al., 2018). Hence, by continuing to collect data on students’ own perceptions as well as measurable outcomes on skills-related assessments, it is possible to consider the success of the project. Not least, in line with the collaborative nature of both mentoring and skills guide-production, hearing students’ feedback and thoughts throughout the process is an intrinsic component. Pushing beyond only a quantified ‘outcome’, students’ own involvement in the decision-making process of what constitutes successful acquisition is a key aim. For example, a success indicator for the mentoring programme will therefore be whether students felt this aided their project design prior to their year two fieldwork and also their confidence in designing final year dissertation projects. As noted above, employability is not just about grades but also about confidence and awareness of one’s own knowledge.
In addition to the above, the digital skills techniques guide will be hosted online, allowing the team to easily record footfall on individual sections of the guide over time. Approximately 900 Oxford Brookes geography-students will likely have participated in and benefited directly from the project in 10 years. As the guide will be externally available, it is also possible to report on its use outside of Oxford Brookes University, thus gaining an assessment of the external impact of the project output.
In summary, our collaborative project provides students with opportunities to enhance their transferrable skills through the co-production of a digital, geographical research techniques guide. This is coupled with an enduring mentoring scheme which, as well as enhancing communication skills and employability for the mentors, also provides relatable experience for the mentees with the aim to aid the design and undertaking of undergraduate research projects. The success of the project will be evaluated both quantitatively and qualitatively.
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