Summary (the short version)

  • Patchwork Assessment (or Patchwork Text Assessment) is an alternative to exams or traditional coursework, and may be particularly appropriate for introduction as part of a module being redesigned for flexible digital delivery.
  • It involves students creating or curating numerous “patches” of content or activity through the module, and using them as the basis of a final summative assessment that adds up to more than the sum of its component patches. It is not merely a portfolio, as the components themselves are not summatively assessed.
  • Advantages include opportunities for improvements in inclusivity,  student engagement, and the deployment of strategies for generative learning. 
  • Disadvantages include unfamiliarity to both students and staff, and potentially significant workload in developing new assessments and inducting students into the process.


I have been asked to put together some notes about Patchwork Assessment for the benefit of colleagues who might be encountering it for the first time while developing alternative assessments in place of traditional unseen exams. As a “beginner” in this myself, I have organised the notes in Q&A format, and I invite colleagues to correct me if they think I have misunderstood anything, missed any big questions or given any wrong answers. My approach here has been to adopt and adapt rather than to copy slavishly from a template, and I imagine that colleagues reading this will do the same: take these notes as a starting point for their own ideas.

Here are my responses (PGK) to imaginary Questions from Curious Colleagues (QCC).

Q & A about Patchwork Assessment

QCC: Before we start, are these just your own ideas or is there a framework of pedagogic research and experience behind this?

PGK: There is an extensive framework of published research and experience around Patchwork Assessment, but my answers here are personal opinions based partly on that framework and partly on my own experience. For a starting point into the literature about Patchwork Assessment, please see the reference list at the end of these Q&As. Two  key sources to begin with would be Winter (2003) and Jones-Devitt et al. (2016).

QCC: So, is Patchwork Assessment just a fancy term for “Portfolio”?

PGK: No. Some of the literature is quite adamant that thinking about Patchwork Assessment as simply a portfolio assessment is unhelpful, because we are not assessing a collection of material but assessing something developed from that collection, the collection being an extended student activity that precedes the assessment item. However, I confess that when I first started to think about Patchworks, the idea felt at-least somewhat related to the idea of a portfolio. Now, I find it helpful to differentiate between the patchwork collection (the patches or items that you might think of as a non-assessed portfolio) and the final patchwork assessment (the assessed item that emerges from, or uses, the patchwork collection). We are not assessing the collection, but assessing something that the student creates after they complete the collection. Some sources do refer to the final assessment as a stitching together of the patches, but I think of it as needing to be more than just that: more than just the sum of its parts.

QCC: If it’s not a portfolio, what how does a Patchwork Assessment work, then?

PGK: There are two stages to the activity.

(1) Throughout a module, students create and assemble (short) items of work (patches) that are not themselves summatively assessed, (but may be formatively assessed to provide constructive feedback, or may be shared and discussed in peer groups). These patches can and should be quite varied, ideally with students having a choice of which ones to engage with. They might include personal notes on a set reading, a short reinforcement exercise, an online group discussion, a reflective commentary on a lecture, a topic summary, or a student choosing their own local case study or application of a theme from a taught session and producing a development, commentary or illustration of that in their own preferred format. Blog or vlog entries might work well, or some type of course-long workbook. A lot of these activities could be things that we like to image students might be doing anyway as part of their independent work, but we are giving them a bit of a steer and a push. Tutors might “prompt” activities alongside each lecture or online session. These items are not themselves summatively assessed and it is up to the module leader how closely they want to “enforce” engagement. Having students share and discuss their activities with their peers in a shared module space can be helpful.

(2) At the end of the module, when students (should) have assembled (at least a partial) collection of different items from those that have been recommended through the module, the summative assessment requires them to do something with their collection. This might be an applied or practice-based task where the collection is used as the basis of something such as a planning application or a grant application or a professional report or a job application, or at its simplest it  could be that they are asked to produce a written reflection on their collection, with items from the collection being presented as illustration or evidence within that summative report but not themselves being assessed.

If it is set up properly, the quality of the final summative piece will depend partly on students having effectively engaged with the collection of formative patchwork items along the way, without the collection itself actually being assessed.

QCC: Does the tutor have to mark all these little pieces of work!??

PGK: No. The patchwork items are not themselves assessed. They are materials that the students are compiling for themselves, to use when they do the final component. It is up to module leaders whether the students have chances for interim submissions, peer-group discussions, etc in order to get formative feedback as they work up their patchwork, but certainly there is no formal assessment of this stage of the activity. Most staff will need to manage this process carefully to keep their workloads appropriate, and there is no requirement that staff will be heavily engaged in this stage of the students’ work once the framework of instructions to students is set up.

QCC: What if a student simply doesn’t do the in-course formative items? Can they just write the report at the end and somehow get away with it?

PGK: If they haven’t collected their items, they can (and must) still do the summative assessment, but if it has been set correctly their work will be severely limited by the lack of evidence or illustration from their patchwork items. The final piece has to be designed to build on (rely on) the collected items, so the quality of the overall assessment will depend on the quality of the collection even though the collection was not in itself assessed.

QCC: What if a student does excellent work on the (formative) patchwork items but does a poor job on the summative write-up: do they get credit for the component items?

PGK: The assessment is based entirely on the summative item. This will include reference to the patchwork components as examples, illustrations or evidence, but the mark is assigned for the summative piece, not the patchwork parts. Theoretically, a student could do good work creating their component items but then get a poor result if they do not use them effectively in the actual assessment.

QCC: Do the students present the patchwork items within the final report?

PGK: This will depend on the exact nature of the final report that you have set. It could be set up so that the patchwork items are “behind the scenes”, or so that they have to be incorporated in some way within the report, or as an appendix. If students are be asked to submit their collection there is a danger that the exercise reverts to the level of a portfolio. Alternatively they could just insert items (or parts of items) from their portfolio as bits of evidence or examples for things they are doing in the summative assessment. The tutor does not need to read and mark all the collected items… the final report should be free-standing (albeit with those references back to patchwork items or activities).

QCC: So what is the final report…  is  it “about” the patchwork items?

PGK: This is up to the tutor to decide and will depend on the nature of the module. A simple approach would be to have students write a final report that basically describes their patchwork collection, but I don’t think this really makes much of a step up from basic portfolio-plus-reflection. A more sophisticated approach could be, say, to have students complete a new task or solve a problem using their patchwork items. They could build from their patchwork to develop a new textbook outline, or create a public-facing or industry-facing document about the module, the topic, or their experience… Or based on a patchwork of local case studies a student might compile a national-scale proposal.  It is really up to the imagination of the module designer to find activities or missions that will enable students to create something new and freestanding that somehow draws on their experience of assembling the patchwork and somehow uses their patchwork items towards some greater outcome. In some contexts there could be a specific “question” for students to write in response to: “Making specific reference to items from your patchwork and/or to the patchwork as a whole, demonstrate how x, y, z, and propose how A and B in the next ten years”. This is for individual tutors to decide in their own module contexts, and provides a huge amount of flexibility.

QCC: Do you announce the final assessment up front, or at the end?

PGK: Again, either way could work depending on how you organise the module. If you want students to knowingly build a patchwork for a particular purpose, and if you want them to make decisions for themselves about what to collect en route,  then giving them the final assessment “question” at the very start of the module would make sense. On the other had if you set the exact components of the patchwork yourself (for example as a basic year-long workbook of exercises) then it might make sense to reveal the exact assignment at the end, a bit more like an unseen exam. At the moment I think that announcing everything up front gives the students a greater degree of responsibility and autonomy.

QCC: How does the student know what to do and when to do it… is there a roadmap?

PGK: Some modules might build the patchwork creation into a weekly “task list”, basically telling students what to do and when to do it. (eg Week 1: complete KLE exercise 1, read reference items 1 & 2,  and write a 200-word reflection on your existing knowledge…”). Other modules could leave it much more to students to decide what to do when, but in that case very clear suggestions, examples, etc would be needed. Certainly, for students who have not done this before, I think that really very clear guidance will be necessary, even if the guidance is based on sets of choices. For example, there might be pathways leading towards different optional final assessments, so students collect items relevant to their particular target. In my own context, I can imagine having suggestions such as “At this point in the course for your patchwork collection either identify the most intensively researched examples of a soft-bed and a rigid-bed surging glacier (if you are working towards patchwork-text assessment option A) or identify a research programme that has used numerical modelling to simulate surge behaviour (if you are working towards patchwork-text assessment B)”.

QCC: What’s the advantage of this over a more traditional assessment?

PGK: There are several advantages: for example – inclusivity and motivation to engage. Students may be better motivated to engage with their module throughout, as they can collect, create and compile their patchwork components based on activities week by week as the module progresses. Also, it is usually up to the student to identify the pivotal moments in learning that they want to include as patches in their collection. It will be hard for students to leave everything till the end and rely on last-minute revision as they might do for an exam, as opportunities such as group activities, lecture-connected exercises, etc roll by throughout the course. Another advantage (especially if the module offers lots of choice or flexibility in what a student can include in their patchwork) is inclusivity, as students will have a variety of different activities underpinning the assessment, and should have the opportunity to select what items to work on or what media, methods or platforms to use. Patchworks promote assessment for learning rather than just assessment of learning, and   encourage the use of  student-centred teaching methods. There is more about this in the literature (see reference list).

QCC: And what are the disadvantages?

PGK: Having just embarked on introducing this type of assessment into my own modules I would say the initial disadvantage is the set-up cost in the tutor’s time. It would be very quick and easy to replace a traditional exam with, say, a take-home exam or yet another essay, whereas inserting a Patchwork Assessment into an existing module feels a bit like taking the sugar out of a hot cup of tea, or threading the veins into a raspberry ripple ice cream. Patchwork Assessment doesn’t feel like a bolt-on; it is something that needs to be integrated into the fabric of a module in a fairly complex way. Students will require a significant amount of direction at the start of the module to understand the importance on continuous engagement and the value of developing and assembling worthwhile patches that will eventually stitch together as a component of the final assessment. This will involve a more substantial fraction of the module’s total hours than would be needed to explain a simple essay-plus-exam assessment structure. 

The HEA practice guide identifies one particular issue that is with thinking about at the outset: resistance! Both students and colleagues may find this novel and initially disconcerting, and may need to unlearn some of their preconceptions about how learning and assessment are aligned.

QCC: Your introduction said Patchworks could help with “generative learning”. What’s that?

PGK: Generative learning is a term often used alongside “active learning” to differentiate between “passive” learning activities such as listening or reading that involve memorization for inserting knowledge into the brain, and activities such as  organising, applying, summarising or re-teaching that involve learners using the material that they are trying to learn, which leads to a deeper level of learning and retention (eg Fiorella and Mayer, 2015). In our context, that might be achieved by setting patchwork activities that include these types of activity and will lead students away from over-reliance on time sitting in front of a lecturer or reading pages of text over and over again. Inviting students to summarise and re-teach something from their reading would be an example of a generative learning activity. Enser (2020) provides a short discussion of the value of summaries (summarising a lecture, summarising set readings) as a way of engaging students with generative learning.  Patchwork assessments can give tutors good opportunities to embed these sorts of activities in a distributed manner throughout the module, also enabling the implementation of strategies such as spacing, interleaving and dual coding in such a way that students do those things as part of their own generative learning rather than simply “receiving” them from the tutor standing and delivering.

QCC: Can you provide a concrete example, with student resources, of how to do this in Geography?

PGK: Watch this space!


Enser, M. (2020). What’s the key to remote learning? You already use it. TES Times Educational Supplement 21st June, 2020. https://www.tes.com/news/whats-key-remote-learning-you-already-use-it

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. (2015). Introduction to Learning as a Generative Activity. In Learning as a Generative Activity: Eight Learning Strategies that Promote Understanding (pp. 1-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107707085.003 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264233729

Jones-Devitt, S.,  Lawton, M. and Mayne, W. (2016). HEA Patchwork Assessment Practice Guide. 18pp. Higher Education Academy, York. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/patchwork-assessment-practice-guide

Winter, R. (2003).  Contextualising the patchwork text: addressing problems of coursework assessment in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International Vol. 40, No.2, 112-122.  http://www.cetl.org.uk/UserFiles/File/reflective-writing-project/PatchworkText-winter.pdf

Always. Forever.
The whole of the rest of time.
That’s when I’ll miss you.

I remember, as a teenager, discovering a Pete Atkin / Clive James song that had a line about “the few good books that really count”. That struck a chord. What really counts? Since then I have written a lot, including a few books that have gone to multiple editions, but I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that any of it really counted for much, or for anything at all. But how would you judge such a thing? Am I waiting for a Nobel Prize, or an international best-seller, or what? What would show that something I had written really counted?

This week I saw somebody on Twitter post up three lines from an old poem of mine. I think it might have been a haiku that I made in response to an online daily prompt, years ago. At the time I must have thought the lines were OK, and, as you do, I posted them out there into the ether to make their own way. And I forgot about them. But here they were  again, posted up on somebody else’s timeline with my name at the bottom  – almost as if I was a real writer, and this was a real poem.  I clicked “like” and I tweeted back my pleasure that they had found, liked and reposted my lines.

They tweeted back. “Oh yes,” they said. “Had I not noticed how they tweeted those three lines each year on this same date?”

Always. Forever.
The whole of the rest of time.
That’s when I’ll miss you.

And there it was. I have no idea what this day represents, but these  lines, for them, and so now for me, too, had counted for something. Enough for that reader to draw them back, each year, on this day, to do their thing. These are the lines they have chosen to do something better, for that reader at least, than any other lines could do.

Such a small thing, perhaps. Just one person on Twitter, whom I have never met, and is on another continent on the other side of the world, almost as far from where I live as it is possible to be, calls up my three sad lines each year on this date. For me, that’s my Nobel Prize, my international best-seller. Three lines that count for something, for someone. That’s all I can ask for.

But now I feel sad, that such sad lines of mine are in somebody else’s heart.




Here is an extract from my next novel. This is the bit where Anna, the scientist, takes Martin, the artist’s agent, to the bridge at Kangerlussuaq and talks about art. This bit happens in Greenland in the late 1980s.


Reaching the doorway, Martin reached forward to push the door open for the girl, but found he was pushing on a door that opened to a pull. Anna laughed, took the same handle and pulled the door open. “You really need to learn a few words of Danish”, she said. “Look, it says ‘pull’.”

“No, it says ‘traek’ – what is that? Is that Greenlandic?”

“No, it’s Danish for ‘pull’. It’s a very useful little word. You should learn some of those”

As they went through the door Martin’s attention was caught by a large painting that filled the wall of the little entrance lobby in which they stood between the outer doors into the parking area and the inner doors that led into the transit hall. Anna was at the inner door, ahead of him, and saying “See? traek!” She opened the inner door for them both to go into the transit hall, where similar paintings were hung high on the walls all around. The style seemed familiar, and for just a moment Martin wondered…

“These aren’t your father’s, are they?”

Anna, surprised, looked up at the paintings. “No, no.” She laughed and turned to face the boy “Are you serious? They are nothing like his. They’ve always been here. I don’t know whose they are – perhaps they were commissioned by the architect – I have no idea. But it is a good job you didn’t say that to my Dad. The other AGA people at least seemed to know their art, and he respected that in them, if nothing else.”

“I know my art. I just thought…” He stood back from the wall and squinted up to get a clearer view of the painting closest to them. It was a soft impressionistic landscape of hills and a river with a bridge. “Is that not the sort of thing your Dad would paint?”

The girl screwed up her nose “He always says he doesn’t paint things, he paints the ideas of things. That one looks to me like just a thing. It reminds me of the thing, not of the way I think about the thing. So, no.”

Martin looked at the painting a little longer. “It reminds me of a bridge. It looks perfectly like the idea of a bridge to me.”

Anna sighed, perhaps a little impatient with somebody who turned out not to know as much about art, and about her father’s art, as she had imagined he did. Suddenly he was just a boy in London shoes standing in an unfamiliar place showing that he did not know… that he did not know her.

She said: “Have you ever been to that particular bridge?”

He said. “I have no idea – where is it?”

“If that were one of my father’s paintings you would know right away if you had been to that bridge because the painting would make you feel just the way you did when you were there. Look at it – how do you feel about that bridge?”

Martin was struggling. He raised his shoulders and squinted his eyes… and then gave up. “I have no idea – it’s just a bridge. I don’t think I recognise it.”

The girl was frustrated. “Remember now exactly how you feel about that bridge in the picture.” She paused, and the boy looked again at the picture high above him. He was starting to regret having mentioned it, and beginning to get a bit bored of the soft landscape with its little bridge.

“Now come with me. But remember that picture and remember that feeling.” Anna turned briskly and walked back the way they had come in. leaving the boy to hurry behind her to catch her up as she stood at the inner doorway out of the transit hall. She stared pointedly at the boy and down at the door handle. “Skub. Push. Now you know two Danish words.”

Martin reached down to the handle with the word skub engraved onto it, and he pushed. “There, said Anna, “you learn by seeing and doing” and she reached for the handle of the outer door herself, but the boy reached past her and they put their hands on it together.

“Skub” said the boy and pushed. The girl took her hand quite quickly off the handle and walked ahead through the doorway. She led the boy back through the little parking area, which was blocked completely by a truck marked with the TEC logo, and turned to the right along the road past the back of the airport building. They walked together along the road past the junction where the track up the valley split off to the left, and followed the tarmac around a long bend to the right that curved past the end of the runway.

“Kangerlussuaq is only here because of the runway” said Anna. Originally, when it was an American Air Base, all the buildings were over on the far side of the runway. Then for years there were essentially two separate airports using the same runway, the Americans over there and the civilian Danish and Greenlandic airport over here. Now everything comes through the Danish side and the old American base has been converted to things like extra accommodation and science facilities. The road goes past all of that and down to the river.” She stopped suddenly and turned to the boy who was half a pace behind her – “where there is a bridge!” She turned again and walked on.

“Ah, you’re taking me to learn about bridges.”

“No” she half turned her head to call back to him “I am taking you to learn about art. Keep up. If you can’t talk about art my father will never agree to anything.”

“You’re helping me?”

“Of course I’m helping you. We both want the same thing. Not the contract, I don’t care about that – although…” she pretended to look thoughtful “I suppose it would be a shame if you lost your job. But no, I don’t care about the contract but it would be nice if my father would move on, and painting again might help him with that.”

The road here passed over a narrow bridge beneath which the river from the ice hurried out towards the fjord. Anna leant against the railing, looking down at the water rushing underneath. Between the bridge and the opening of the broad waters of the fjord was a long stretch of tidal mud and sandflats, and before that, running right up to, and underneath the bridge, an area of curiously smoothed and sculpted rock, covering hundreds of square meters, through which the river cut a sharp gorge.

“It doesn’t look much on a day like this,” she said, “all neatly contained in its channel, with the sun shining, and the bridge here for us to look down from. Look around – see the flat grey rock stretching down to the sea. Look at the shape of that hill across the valley. Look, see the design of this bridge… do you recognise it?”

“Yes, yes,” the boy held up his hands as though in submission, thinking he had seen the girl’s point. “It’s the bridge from the painting at the airport. OK. I get it.”

“No, you don’t get it.” She shook her head and walked ahead of him to the far side of the bridge. At the end of the railings she turned off the road and scrambled down the embankment to the smooth rocky surface beside the gorge. The river was rushing, forced through the narrow gap like water bursting out of a tap. Up close the water seemed heavy with grey dirt, and surprisingly fast. And surprisingly loud. The sound echoed up off the walls of the gorge and back down from the bridge that was above them as Martin squatted down beside her.

“It looks different up close” he shouted above the roar, “I’ll give you that”.

“All this water,” she said, “comes off the ice sheet. Melted from ice that has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands – can you imagine? The Romans were in Britain two thousand years ago, the Egyptian pyramids were built four or five thousand years ago. This water was ice, in that glacier just there, for hundreds of thousands of years. It fell as snow and then waited all that time, slowly moving out towards the edge, and then – this year, a particular snowflake, a particular ice crystal finally melted, flowed into the river and within hours, after thousands of years as ice, in just an hour after waking up and coming alive it is flowing through here and then,” she pointed at a spot on the surface of the rushing flow under the bridge and quickly swung her arm round with the flow and out towards the fjord “and then whoosh, it is through here and out in to the sea. And that little bit of the sea here that the river flows into, that goes out into the Davis Strait, which connects to the Labrador Sea, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean, which is connected to the Southern Ocean, and the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. It is all one big world ocean that this snowflake evaporated out of when we were still Neanderthals living in caves and now” (she spread out the words one by one for emphasis) “after, all, those, years in the ice it is flowing, finally, back into the sea. It’s an amazing, amazing journey.”

“And this river” she carried on, “if you look at the map you will see it carries all the water draining of a huge area of this section of the ice sheet. Even when climate is steady the ice is constantly melting at the edges and being replaced by new snow in the middle, but with climate warming more and more of it is melting. There is a huge amount of water coming through here. Even now, at low flow near to the end of the season – how much water do you think is coming through here as you watch?”

The boy had no idea even how to measure or count water flow “In what? Tonnes, Gallons?”

However you like, whatever makes sense to you when you imagine it.”

“OK, well…” the boy looked down into the water and tried to imagine it as a weight, because, more than he had ever noticed in a river before, perhaps because it was so opaque and flowing so fast, this water seemed to have real weight, real momentum as it flowed past. “I don’t know – a tonne every second” He thought he was wildly overestimating what was, after all, a fairly narrow river.

“Today, a quiet day, this is about one hundred tonnes a second, if you want to think in tonnes” Anna replied. Martin’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“We measure water flow in cubic meters per second, ‘cumecs’ for short. A cubic meter of water weighs about one tonne, depending on its sediment content, so we’ll just say a cumec is a tonne. This water is flowing at about two or three meters per second, it goes fast through the gorge, and the gorge when it’s this full has a cross sectional area of about thirty square meters.” She saw Martin looking unsure. “I mean it’s about ten meters wide and where it is up to today it is about three meters deep, so that’s ninety cubic meters, or tonnes for you, of water flowing past this point every single second. She counted them out loud for him as they passed: ninety, ninety, ninety, ninety. But this is the river being quiet. In one of the big floods they calculated the discharge, the volume of water flowing – you won’t believe this – was fifteen hundred cumecs – fifteen hundred tonnes of water per second. Per second. The water than was nearly six meters deep here, way over our heads, and going even faster. At peak flow in one of the big floods as much as a hundred million tonnes of water comes under this bridge in a day.”

“I’ve actually seen one of those floods, and even I, when I stand here on a day like today, even I can’t really imagine, or really remember what that was like. It’s almost too big to hold in your head afterwards. And look at these rocks.” She stood up and walked a little way down stream away from the bridge, and onto the smooth, polished rock between the bridge and the fjord. It was a landscape unlike anything the boy had seen before, It was bare rock, and he could see the same patterns of crystals and the odd striped structure that he had noticed in all the rocks around the airport and when he was out at the glacier, but here the rocks were not textured like rock but like glass, or like metal that had melted and flowed and then set into curious waved patterns and then been highly polished and burnished as if to make some kind of huge organic sculpture.

“Some people say that this pattern is caused by the big floods carrying so much sand and silt that they sculpt the rocks into this shape. Other people say that even a flood like that would not be so powerful to do this without just breaking the rocks apart, and they say that this happened underneath the glacier, when ice hundreds of meters thick covered this whole area. Under the ice, at high pressure, these floods were still happening, but pressed against the rock under the huge pressure of the glacier above, they made these shapes. Look.” She knelt down and ran her hand around a curious looping groove in the rock. She reached up and took the boy’s hand, and as he knelt beside her she guided his hand into the curve of the rock so that his fingers could feel how it curved up out of sight into a tight but complex pattern inside the curls and swoops of the carved groove. Imagine, under the ice, all those years ago, in the dark, under all that pressure, the force of what must have done this.” She let go of his hand and stood up “And now here it all is, this evidence – if you are a scientist like me – all this evidence in the landscape of what happened. You, you look at this and you see curiously shaped rocks. Me, I look at the rocks and I see that huge ancient subglacial flood.”

“Well, not any more, now I look at them and I see…” He hesitated. What he saw was the girl, talking with such emotion about a world that she appreciated in a way that he had never thought of. He did not finish his sentence, and the girl carried on.

“If Dad painted this, his painting would not just be a painting of the bridge, it would be a painting of everything we just talked about, all that imagination, all your feelings, and where the water came from, and that enormous length of time, and the water being so old. But none of it would be there on the surface. It would be showing through, shining through… bleeding through from underneath.”

The boy looked out to the west out across the rocks to the fjord. Far, far in the distance, perhaps 50 miles away through the clear arctic air, mountains at the coast were brightly capped in snow. The girl turned to face the other way, looking up past the bridge, towards Sandflugtsdalen and the ice.

“After my mother was killed and I came out here with my Dad, I used to walk around these rocks thinking it was the last chance, the last place we might find anything of hers that had been washed downstream. Anything she had lost as she fell. I don’t know what I was looking for – not specifically the notebook. Just anything. But this water… The last time she was alive was in this water.”

Martin looked up saw that she was crying. She turned quickly away from him and walked across the rocks back towards the bridge. He caught up with her and she wiped tears from her eyes. “None of that is in the painting in the airport, not for me,” she said. “I can’t recognise this bridge in that painting. If my Dad had painted it, his painting would make me feel the way that I feel about this place, which I can’t even describe. When there are things that mean so much that you can’t even describe them, that’s what poetry is for. That’s what my Dad used to paint for. I asked him, not long ago, if he would paint this bridge, this river. He said it was too big. Some things are too big to paint. I think that is his problem. That’s why he stopped painting. Everything inside him became so big that he could no longer fit it onto canvas, and now I think it has all become so big that he can’t even look at it.”

With tears still in her eyes she turned again, but slowly this time, and they walked together back across the bridge towards Kangerlussuaq. They walked side by side in silence.


The deadline for submitting your dissertation is almost upon us, and many of you have already completed and submitted your work. Well done. However, there are inevitably always a few students in these last few days desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage or, to put a more positive slant on things, trying to make sure they have perfected their opus before finally handing it in. If you are in that position, here are a few last-minute tips for you.

  • It’s probably too late now to redesign your project, develop a new sampling strategy or deploy a new analytical method, so don’t worry about anything at that scale. Relax. It’s too late. Instead, focus on quick fixes and last-minute checks (I’ll suggest 3 quick fixes below). Obviously do a careful proof-read, make sure you have followed all the House Style rules, and check the regulations about exactly how to submit the assignment. Check that your Conclusions map onto your Aims. Check that your Discussion maps onto your Literature Review. Check that your pages are bound in the right order. If you think it has all gone horribly wrong, look at Chapter 10 “Help! It’s all gone horribly wrong. What can I do?” in Parsons & Knight (2015) “How to do your Dissertation…”.
  • Quick-fix no.1: The Abstract. The abstract is one of the most important bits of your dissertation, one of the bits that most students mess up and one that can very quickly be fixed to make a good strong starting point at the front of your dissertation. The examiners typically look at the abstract several times, and it is often the first thing, and then the last thing, they will check at they assign your mark. Even if your dissertation is riddled with flaws, a strong abstract can still put the examiner in a positive frame of mind. The abstract needs to be simple and to-the-point, providing in one sentence each: your aim, your reason for doing it, your method, your observations and your conclusion. There is a model abstract in Parsons & Knight (2015) (it’s box 9.7 and page 136) that you can use as a checklist to make sure your abstract covers everything it should, or that you can use as a template if your own abstract is totally shot to pieces.
  • Quick-fix no.2: The Conclusion. Like the abstract, the conclusion is something that the examiner will dwell on, and is a point where you can convince the examiner of your outstanding excellence even if the rest of the project has holes the size of Arizona in it. Keep the conclusion brief: don’t use it to whine about how you didn’t have enough data or used the wrong equation. You can put all your whining and grizzling in the discussion. In the conclusion, focus on the positive. Include just clear, direct statements of what you have found out. You can even turn your failings into positives: “this project demonstrates clearly that method X, which was employed here, is not the correct method for future research to employ”. (If you play that gambit, make sure you also change your overall aim to include something about “testing method X”!) Use a numbered list or some bullet points. Tell the examiners that you did something, just in case they hadn’t noticed. This is your last chance to impress them.
  • Quick-fix number 3: The Reference List. Your examiners are not so naïve and foolish that they will be blinded to your intellectual inadequacies by a long shiny reference list. However, examiners are easily impressed by a long shiny reference list, and if there is nothing else for them to cling on to, being able to give you some credit for the quality of your sources will perhaps enable them to find you a few extra marks. At this late stage you don’t have time to rewrite your literature review or spend another three weeks in the library, but a couple of hours on Google Scholar or your preferred academic search engine can do wonders. Here’s the quick trick. Insert sentences into your literature review or methods section along the lines of: “many other researchers have employed similar approaches including Adams (2012), Baker, (2014) and Clarke (2016)” or “Similar work has been carried out in New Zealand (Adams, 2012), Bali (Baker, 2014) and Jamaica (Clarke, 2016). Even if you don’t now have time to get to grips with these papers that you have just scraped up from Google, or build them convincingly into your story, you can at least list some papers and then, of course, you can add them into your meagre reference list making it less of a liability to your prospects.

There are a lot of other quick-fix tips for last-minute checks and repairs on dissertations, but at this stage you don’t have time! The three above should at least give you something, whether it’s a hike up from appalling failure into the realms of a bare pass or, I hope, a lift from an already excellent project into one that your examiners will find to be outstanding. For more advice, of course, I will refer you to Parsons and Knight (2015) and Knight & Parsons (2003).

Good luck.



Parsons, T. and Knight, P.G. (2015) HOW TO DO YOUR DISSERTATION IN GEOGRAPHY AND RELATED DISCIPLINES (3rd Edition)  (Routledge, London)



NB: This post is published both here and (in due course) on Keele University’s Learning and Professional Development Centre “Solutions” blog: http://lpdcsolutions.blogspot.co.uk/ 

It seems appropriate that my first blog entry for Solutions, which I intended to submit for the start of the academic year and which was supposed to be about teaching time management to newly arrived students, should have been delayed by two months because I have been overwhelmed by – amongst other things – teaching time management to newly arrived students.

Most academics think about the start of October in the way that other people think about the start of January: a new year, big hopes, good resolutions, a fresh start. The new academic year brings with it a fresh crop of the bright young intellects that, changing every year, help to keep our own ideas fresh and constantly renewed. It is an exciting, promising time. I have had nearly forty new years now as a university lecturer or student: enough academic fresh starts to fill two of the lifetimes of my average undergraduate. I’ve done this before, and for me it is not scary. But for you, dear student, this is the first time. We see this academic induction, this welcome week, this fresh start, from very different perspectives. And I need to remember that.

We can try to serve as good examples to our students, but we don’t always have to be models of perfection. The fact that I have time-management problems of my own does not undermine my position in teaching time-management skills to students. It strengthens it. I am teaching from the front line of right now, not from long-remembered experiences of “when I was in your position”. I can face a problem on Monday, figure out a workaround on Tuesday, and teach it to my tutorial group on Wednesday. In my mid fifties I can’t pretend to put myself in my new students’ teenage shoes or claim to be facing the same struggles that they are facing as they settle into University. But I can share with them my equivalent struggles, and show them that fighting battles, finding coping strategies, and dealing with everyday academic problems are normal things that we are all learning to do. If a student sees that I am still learning, and still struggling, perhaps the student will feel less inadequate about their own struggles and their own early setbacks. It’s OK to find University difficult. These challenges are supposed to be here.

And here, for me, is the challenge of induction week. We want to be positive, supportive, and encouraging, but we also have to be honest, realistic and pragmatic. We want to say well done for scoring those A-level grades, but we also have to point out that much of what was covered at A-level was fundamentally flawed. Many of my students begin their degrees hoping for clear answers and reliable certainties. I have to tell them that there are no clear answers and that study at University will introduce them to a whole new set of uncertainties. Welcome on board, but hold on tight.

One of my Welcome-week activities that seems to help students feel at home is the start-of-course diagnostic assessment. Students seem accustomed  to having lots of tests and quizzes at school, so having a 15-minute short-answer test included alongside the many unfamiliar experiences of induction week seems to steady the ship for some of them. I tell them that the idea of the test is to help me work out the correct level to pitch material in the early sections of the course, and that it will also give them a broad indication of how far their pre-University work has prepared them for this new stage in their academic journey. They do the test, I let them mark their own or their neighbour’s paper straight away while I talk them through the answers, and as I take in their marked papers I give them a handout with all the questions and all the correct answers on it for them to take away. A couple of days later I see the students again, and tell them that in fact the first test was just a rehearsal, and the real diagnostic assessment is today. I tell them to put away any notes or devices, and I hand out the new, real diagnostic assessment. It is, to their surprise, identical to the one they did before. And here I deliver the first big lesson of the week. I was never interested in whether they knew the answers to the questions on the test. It doesn’t matter: they are only at the start of their learning journey. What I am interested in, and what I want to bring into the students’ line of sight, is what they did when they were presented with a body of information – answers – to take away. Usually, none of the students, or certainly very few, have done anything with the handout from the first test or followed up topics that they were unsure about. The marks for the second test are usually no better than the marks for the first.  And here is the teachable moment: the students can see that they totally blew their opportunity to do well on the second test by not following up the feedback on the first test; and they see that what I care about is not their factual knowledge but their approach to learning and their engagement with course materials. If there is a “mark” for the diagnostic assessment, it is the difference in scores between test one and test two. Most important of all is what you chose to do after test one. Or perhaps it is what you will do after test two. Welcome to the programme. Welcome to university.

Generally, this two-stage diagnostic assessment works well, but one potential downside is that I am in a small way tricking or misleading the students, and I don’t like to mess with their trust too much early on. It is important that the students see the key lesson from that exercise (why I had to trick them with that first test), and it is important to (re)establish trust quickly through other activities. One small way that I try to do that is by joining in with the students on further in-class exercises that they do. If I ask a tutorial group to take 60 seconds out and try to write a one-sentence answer to a sample question, I take that same 60 seconds and try to come up with a sentence of my own. Not one that I prepared earlier, but one made in the same time that the students are making theirs. I can then be much more believable if I agree (or disagree) with their argument that 60 seconds was not long enough, and they can even sympathise with me a little if, when I read out my own attempt, there is some comical error in it. If the students can then suggest improvements to my attempt, just as I suggest improvements to theirs, then we are (as a happy by product) well on the way towards addressing issues that surround the new NSS question about whether students feel part of a learning community. Of course they do – they are teaching me at the same time that I am trying to teach them. We are all in this together, even if we are looking at it from different perspectives of experience. And that is one of the most important lessons to incorporate into induction week. Even if it means that the time management exercise has to wait until next time!

We moan a lot when things are done badly, so let’s remember to say “thanks, well done” when things are done well. I have two instances where I would just like to say a little thank you and recognise good service: one from the AA and one from the NHS.

People criticise the NHS (National Health Service, for my non-UK readers), and my little example might seem trivial, but how about this for good service. I was moaning about some random ache or pain, so at 8.30 am my wife phoned our GP’s surgery to see when there might be an appointment for me. The receptionist offered me an immediate appointment and I saw the doctor at 9.15. The doctor thought that since I hadn’t been in for a while, and I am not as young as I used to be, perhaps I should have a bit of an MOT so he put me into the system for a blood test and an x-ray, both of which could be done at my convenience without appointment at the local hospital under the NHS. He printed out the paperwork for me to take away with me,  and I thought that since I was free I might as well go for the x-ray right away. No queue at the clinic, got in without a wait, and by 10am  the x-ray was done. Couldn’t do the blood test because they had to do it when I hadn’t eaten, so we saved that for the next day. Pitched up at the hospital bright and early and the blood tests were all done by 8.30am. So, within the space of 24 hours, we phoned the surgery, had an appointment, went for an x-ray and got a full set of blood tests.  That’s good service, NHS. Well done.

Since the first example was about the doctor giving me an MOT, it seems appropriate that my second example is to do with the car. It’s an old SEAT Ibiza, getting to the age where a few little things are starting to go downhill. Rather like myself. So, anyway, a warning light comes on. I look in the handbook and it says “check with your dealer, this could be serious”. I ring the dealer and they say I can drive it in, but they will charge me £80 just to do a diagnostic test, regardless of whether they find anything to fix! Also, they said, they can’t guarantee that it will be safe to drive it in with that warning light on. Not much help, and a rip off. So I ring the AA (Automobile Association) for advice. “Don’t worry” they say, “we’ll come out and have a look”. The come, they look, they fix it. Turns out that the warning light was just saying that one of the brake lights was faulty. The AA man fixed the brake lights, reset the warning light, and didn’t even charge me for the new bulb. Compare that with the dealer who didn’t mention that it could simply be a faulty bulb and who was going to charge me £80 just to take a look. Yes, I pay an annual membership for the AA, but instances like this make it seem very worthwhile. Well done to the AA: great service. To the dealer: you just lost yourself a potential future customer.

Credit where it is due, and voting with your feet when service is poor. That’s my message for today!

I have spent a lot of my career for the last 30 years or giving advice to young academics, and hearing their advice for me. Early on in that period I was young myself and was fortunate to have fantastic mentors and advisors throughout my early career. Thank you to all of you both for the advice you have given me and for allowing me to think through and reflect on my own ideas about so many of the issues that young academics – and not-so-young academics – face in their careers. In the last few years I’ve put random bits of advice onto social media here and there, and onto my own web page, and looking back at those I realise that my “advice to young academics” posts have have generated the most interest and stimulated the most conversation. Therefore I have decided to try and be a bit more organised about posting up that kind of material. From now on I will try to include tips for young academics more often into my Twitter feed @petergknight http://www.twitter.com/petergknight and I will try to develop that theme here too, with an “advice for a young academic” tag, or theme, or category here on my wordpress blog. A tag? A category? A book? Who knows… give me a break – I’m not that well organised: I’m an academic. My first bit of advice for a young academic is always to be aware that you are going to get a lot of advice from a lot of people, and most of it will be useless to you. Taking advice wisely is an important skill to cultivate as many senior academics have not cultivated the skill of giving it wisely.

A great deal has been written in the last few years about so-called “imposter syndrome” – the feeling experienced by many young academics that somehow they don’t really belong in their new role as a lecturer and that somehow they should never have been allowed to make the step up from being a student. The fear is that you are not good enough, that you don’t deserve this, that you won’t cope and that you will in due course be found out and exposed. There are books about it. There’s a TED Talk about it. Seeing what has already been written makes me feel like an imposter even thinking about writing this post.

If you are in that situation I have two pieces of advice to get you started:

  1. Get used to it. We all feel that way. Welcome to academia.
  2. Don’t worry. You are not an imposter. You are as good as it gets.

If you have got the job and you are now a young lecturer, well, you’re it. There is no imaginary, model super-lecturer to whom you are not matching up. Don’t imagine that you are God’s gift to academia, but equally don’t beat yourself up about being an imposter. Be realistic. Be honest. Just get on with doing what you can do and with steadily trying to develop your academic craft.

To some extent newcomers in any profession feel a little bit the same way that you do, but most professions don’t make such a big deal of it as we do. Partly this is because the very nature of academia is such that you have just been thrown into a big pool of competitive and arrogant individuals who are trying to convince the world that they are brilliant and who are trying to climb their greasy pole by seeming more brilliant than their “colleagues”. Sometimes even senior academics ease their own self-doubt by making sure they look better than their junior colleagues.  Partly imposter syndrome is worse for us because in academia the new recruits don’t just come in off the street, they convert directly from the ranks: from “the other side of the lectern”. Suddenly you go almost overnight from being a student to being a teacher. Of course you won’t feel confident right away. Of course there will be lots of things for you to learn. Of course lots of things will go wrong and make you feel inadequate. Don’t worry, this is what academic life is like. And it will always be like this, for your whole career, because you will always be able to find colleagues who are, indeed, genuinely brilliant. We can all have our heroes and heroines, but we don’t have to feel inadequate because we are not them.

You are not an imposter; you are just discovering the self doubt that is part of the territory of academic life. If you stare it in the face and turn it to your advantage it will not feel like a problem. If you are an imposter then we all are, which means that you are no less worthy than anyone else to get on with it and do your best.

So here is a longer list of tips for young academics suffering from imposter syndrome:

  1. Get used to it: it comes with the territory. Most good academics get this feeling.
  2. Turn it into a positive: use it to encourage reflection and development.
  3. Realise that you are actually not an imposter: you have strength and merit.
  4. Make a list of all your qualifications and strengths: recognise your virtues.
  5. Talk to senior academics and discover that they feel the same way.
  6. Talk to other young academics and discover you are all in the same boat.
  7. Helping others with their worry about this will help you with yours. Hold a workshop.
  8. You do not have to know everything, and it’s OK to say so when you don’t.
  9. It’s OK to learn on the job and to be on a learning curve.
  10. Keep asking for help and advice, keep learning, keep developing your craft.
  11. Never use “being an imposter” as an excuse for not being your best.
  12. Throughout your career a lot of people have looked at your CV and your achievements and have moved you up the ladder. Even if you have an unconventional background, or even if you are still learning the ropes, and even though – like all of us – you have a lot to learn, that does not make you an imposter. It just makes you one of us. Welcome to academia.

Partly because imposter syndrome has been openly identified and so widely discussed, more and more young academics are saying that they feel this way. In reality, there seem to be two completely separate levels of imposter syndrome. At one level, and by far the most common, I see young academics coming to terms with a challenging new career and attaching this label to their own poorly-defined portfolio of unease. At another level, and much less common, are those people for whom academic imposter syndrome is part of a broader problem of panic and anxiety issues. For this latter group, of course, I really would be an imposter if I tried to offer advice other than “seek professional advice”.

For the former group, those young academics who have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome as a neat way of defining their early-career status, I worry that in dignifying the notion with a fancy name they will allow it define them. For you I have one final piece of advice. If you have picked up the idea of imposter syndrome when in reality you are just a young academic getting started in a challenging career, just put it down again, and let it go. You are not an imposter. Don’t get a syndrome.

Bucket Lists

I’ve encountered all sorts of people lately who have made themselves a bucket list. Some of them think their time is running short and so they have made a list of things to do in the time that is left. Others are just organising their goals and plans and trying to make sure that life doesn’t pass them by while they are waiting for it to arrive.

But whatever the motivation, most of the lists I see are all very much the same. They are filled with big adventures and extravagant journeys. See sunrise at Machu Picchu. Sky dive from a balloon. Eat this extraordinary food. Swim with that extraordinary fish. Some are philanthropic, raising money for good causes. Some are the culmination of a lifelong personal dream. Some are made up on the spur of the moment when faced with the challenge of making a list. But the list is nearly always a list of things the person wants to do before they go. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bucket list of things that a person wants to become before they go. I’ve seen lists of things that people want to achieve, or acquire, but never a list of things that we want to let go. I’ve seen lists of grand, magnificent, daunting things, but never a list of small things.

Is that how we see the measure of ourselves – in the big things that we have done? In the places we have been? In our adventures? Yes. Perhaps we do. But in the end, will we say “look – here is what I have done”? Or will we say: “look – here is what I have become”?


1. There are no rules of writing.

2. If you want there to be rules for writing, that’s ok. You can make some up.

3. If you follow rule 2, you must delete rule 1.

4. If you delete rule 1, you’re on your own.