Posts Tagged ‘teaching’


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

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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)



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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!

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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.

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I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

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When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.


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I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.

In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.

The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see  The Art of Travel at Amazon]

The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.

Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.

Their lists surprised me.

Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.

Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.

Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?


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If you exceed the word limit…

If the dissertation handbook says “write no more than 11,000 words and provide a word count” and you put “word count 11,673” on your submission, you should not only fail your dissertation but fail your entire degree, and all your work should be publicly burned. That is, of course, my personal opinion and not that of my employer.

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Alain de Botton recently published a list of “ten commandments for atheists”, and I thought it might be fun to try and think what the ten commandments for Geographers might be! It might also make a good teaching exercise, getting students to come up with their own versions of such a list. Here’s a first attempt from me:

Ten Commandments for Geographers

1. Thou shalt be curious about the world around you.

2. Thou shalt make detailed, accurate and thoughtful observations of the world.

3. Thou shalt communicate effectively the observations that you make and the implications thereof.

4. Thou shalt strive always to see the big picture as well as the fine detail.

5. Thou shalt explore.

Phew… that’s enough for now. I’ll try to think of 5 more for a for a follow-up post. Suggestions please! You could always give these first five to your students and let them come up with the rest.

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Haiku, again

Starting another round of trying to get students to try writing Haiku as a way of honing their observation and reporting skills, I looked back here to see whether I had said anything about this exercise previously. The entries are quite well hidden, so I thought I’d re-post some of the text here so it would be together in one place… in case any of the students seek it out!

“One of the hearts of Geography is the search for a sense of place: the quest to identify, capture, record and represent the essence of a location. Japanese haiku poetry does much the same thing. Sometimes at the scale of a bug under a leaf, sometimes at the scale of a view to the distant horizon, Haiku try to capture in a succinct and tightly formalised way the essence of what a geographer would call a landscape.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.”

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