Five top tips for teaching geomorphology

The blogs on our website are regularly research-focused, but an important and occasionally required part of doing a PhD, is assisting with teaching. In fact, if you would like a job in acadaemia after finishing your PhD, it is extremely useful to have a variety of teaching experience that you can write about on your CV and talk about in interviews. At PhD level, whether you teach to gain experience or support yourself financially, it is beneficial to consider how you may improve your teaching of geomorphology and convey the significance of studying geomorphology to your students.

Morgan and Danielle from the forum have a variety of teaching experiences between them, and so came up with five of their top tips for teaching geomorphology effectively:

1. Apply what you are teaching to real situations. A common grumble from students is that they don’t really see the context or benefit of what they are doing in the laboratory, field or during computer classes. Having some standard answers to these questions is worthwhile as they will crop up regularly.

  1. Research: Linking to your personal situation can often help i.e. telling them what you did in your undergraduate dissertation (something similar) and how it got you to where you are today “Sediment sieving got me to Everest Base Camp studying rock debris on glaciers” or “Coring skills I obtained during my undergraduate dissertation enabled me to be selected to help a colleague on research in the USA.
  2. Employability: employers are looking for you to have these practical skills “ An environmental consultant will be soil/ water testing as part of their job” or “The modelling skills you have gained today will be useful as employers often require competent Microsoft excel and word skills” or that as part of this, remember that the majority of the people you teach will most likely not stay in academia – you need to promote the use of these skills for non-academic use as much as academia.

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2) Ask questions, lots of questions. Geographers tend to have excellent problem-solving skills. Therefore, they learn better if they work out answers by themselves, rather than just getting a lot of facts. If a student asks you a question about how or why to do something, try and turn this around and make it into a discussion. If they can work out the answer for themselves they are more likely to remember it. They may resent not getting a direct answer at the time, but will realise that this type of thinking is beneficial… eventually!

3) Make everything as hands on as possible. If you are able to plan the sessions you’re teaching make them practical. Geographers learn better when they can get stuck in. Whether that be a tutorial about planning essays (cut up the different sections of an old essay and get them to determine whether it is the introduction conclusion, results etc. and put it back together), or in a laboratory. (get students to help you in demonstrations, so they are all more engaged). Engaging students is key!

4) Use technology: This is related to the last point, but to engage students they need variety! Although formal lectures are still incredibly important, interactive teaching and visual learning is becoming more prevalent. Resources as simple as Google Earth can be effective in helping students understand surface processes, or using the internet to watch time-lapse videos of meltwater stream development or lake level change over time. There are lots of videos out there, freely available, which demonstrate practical field techniques such as coring.

5) Scale. Whether that be temporal or spatial, scale is arguably one of the most important concepts in Geomorphology and it is important to get your students to understand this early on, so then they think about what they see or read in terms of scale. This is also an exciting concept and emphasises to students how broad geomorphology can actually be. We often examine surface processes from the sub mm to the mile, at timescales of seconds to millennia, so try and get this across to your students with appropriate examples.

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And some more general teaching tips:

Be approachable – you are the person in between a lecturer and the fellow student. This means you get to be in charge (kind of) but have a lot of fun too, so make the most of it. Be the person the students can come to with stupid questions or if they are having problems with another student on the course. Put the students at ease, use your own experience from being a taught student to give them confidence. Show your enthusiasm for what you are doing. But remember you are not trained to deal with some of the more complicated situations that can arise, so seek help from someone senior when necessary.

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Remember some people may not be very keen – just because someone is taking a course, doesn’t mean they want to be there (even a fieldtrip to New Zealand – if your parents have forced you to go but all your friends have gone on the other field trip). Don’t just dismiss them as grumpy, make more of an effort with them to find out what they are interested in and engage them in appropriate discussions. The opposite is also true in that some students may appear disinterested, but there may be an underlying issue there, or they are yet to find a part of their course that they really enjoy. Think back to the moments when you realised you loved Geomorphology and wanted to continue studying and try and engage them. All of the students achieved good grades and made the decision to attend University. Finding the studentsthat are really interested makes all of the preparation worth it, and developing that interest is so rewarding.

Take time to prepare – On occasion lecturers may appear to do minimal preparation, but that is because they have taught the course that you are assisting on before, they may have even designed it, and the course material is probably based on their area of expertise.Remember, all of this probably isn’t the case for yourself. Therefore you need to be prepared for students questions by doing the reading you set them and by making sure you know what a tutorial/ practical/ field day entails. It will make you more confident. The more willing and prepared you are, the more enjoyable the teaching will be.

Written by Morgan Gibson and Danielle Alderson.

Photos courtesy of DGES, Aberystwyth University.

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