Category Archives: Authentic assessment

The ‘Geography and Environment Undergraduate Research Assistantship’ – could it work for you?

By Fiona Tweed (Staffordshire University)

The inspiration

Some years ago, I was contacted by an undergraduate from Germany who had heard about my glacial research and wanted to work with me as part of her ‘Research Placement Semester.’ Not having heard of this sort of initiative, I agreed and a productive five months followed in which the student effectively became my research assistant and we managed to complete a number of research tasks that would otherwise have waited for some of my (increasingly rare) ‘spare time’. Struck by how useful the experience was, I designed a Research Assistantship module to fit into our modular structure; I share that experience here as it has worked well for Geography at Staffordshire University over the past few years and others are now using it as a model.

The module

The Geography and Environment Research Assistantship offers students the opportunity to work as a co-learner on a research project, supervised by a member of staff. The Research Assistantship is essentially a research-engaged form of learning and teaching (e.g. Jenkins, 2000; Griffiths 2004; Healey, 2005); it gives students with the aptitude for independent research an opportunity to gain and apply skills associated with the execution of a research project. The project is expected to be centred on a problem or issue that can be examined through fieldwork and/or by library/archival investigation or by the analysis and/or presentation of data that has already been collected. The purpose of the module is not only to increase understanding of the particular research topic, but also to offer students some wider insights into the process of academic research. The module is particularly suitable for those wanting to go on to do postgraduate research or consultancy and addresses a number of graduate attributes and employability goals.

Fitting it into the modular framework

The research assistantship was developed as a final year 15-credit Geography option module. It was designed to be flexible, functioning as a more intensive single-semester module (12 weeks) or as an activity that could run over two semesters, providing that the work contained within it totalled 150 hours. Assessment for the research assistantship is by means of a 30-minute oral presentation to discuss key findings of the project work and a reflective report, including a work diary. The presentation constitutes 30% of the marks for the module; the reflective report is worth 70% of the module marks and has a 1750-word limit. We are currently tinkering with the weightings and word limit on the basis of recent student feedback.

Selecting appropriate students

Projects are advertised at the start of the academic year and potential student applicants are invited to tender an appropriate curriculum vitae and a covering letter. Checking applicants’ skills and aptitudes against the criteria for each assistantship is a key part of the selection process, as it would be for employment. Interviews for the individual assistantships are scheduled if decisions cannot be made on the basis of the written application. Students are counselled about this process when making module choices, as are any students who are unsuccessful in their applications. Staffordshire University has an equality policy to which the selection process for the research assistantship is subject. Successful applicants transfer from one of their options modules to the Research Assistantship within the first two weeks of teaching.

Student, staff and client experiences

We made the Research Assistantship available as a final year Geography option module and have recruited 3-7 students each year. To-date, we have had 38 research assistantship students who have been engaged in a wide range of research assistantships working with members of staff in Geography and more widely in the University, as well as with external clients. Student feedback has been consistently outstanding; the module: “was a brilliant opportunity”, “gave me a chance to thrive in the academic environment”, “has allowed me to grow”, “was a great and rewarding experience” and “gave more freedom and independence to make the work my own”. Several students also remarked that being a research assistant had boosted their confidence, that they had enjoyed practicing professionalism and that they welcomed the sense of responsibility that the experience had given them. Staff members said that working alongside a student research assistant was rewarding and gave them a chance to reinvigorate their research. Staff have worked with a research assistant and used the research as a springboard from which to develop grant applications, commenting: “Research assistants performed vital tasks that would have been very difficult for me to find time for otherwise. It goes to show how effective undergraduate students can be in assisting staff to do research.” Several staff have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to engage in research in conjunction with the students, i.e. the ‘co-learning experience’ (see Le Heron et al., 2006). External clients comments centred on the reciprocal nature of the work, the usefulness of being able to “tap into student knowledge” and the fact that the assistantships “help the client to conduct research in an environment where resources are scarce”.

So, what are the challenges?

If there are any cautions, they concern i) selecting the right student for the nature of the work that needs to be undertaken; ii) keeping a firm eye on progress; iii) careful monitoring and planning to ensure that students have clearly defined tasks and outputs; and iv) realistic expectations on behalf of all parties. Feedback from external clients also underscores the need for effective time management on behalf of the client as well as the student and “the need for the client to be sensitive to the student’s array of work for other modules”.

Enhancing graduate employability

Employment has been secured as a direct result of assistantships; for example, a student working on sustainable building materials went on to work for the firm for which he had done research and another research assistant took a job with the council with whom they had worked. Several graduates who did assistantships are now establishing ‘second generation’ research assistantship relationships with us as external clients. The module has given students the opportunity to gain advanced understanding of the intellectual and methodological basis of a particular research question, to acquire research skills and to be part of a co-learning environment.

Spreading the word

I have written up the development of the module as a research paper (Tweed and Boast, 2011) which has recently been selected for inclusion in a Special Interest volume ‘Pedagogic Research in Geography Higher Education‘, to be published by Routledge in November 2015. I have also disseminated the experience of designing and running the Research Assistantship at staff development workshops and at national events. At Staffordshire University, the student research assistantship model has been adopted by Biological Sciences who are using it on their Masters awards; it has also been adopted by undergraduate Psychology who are using it at second year undergraduate level. I have received a number of requests to share the experience of implementing this module with academic staff from other HEIs; if you’re interested, please get in touch. If you are running a similar module I would also welcome exchange of experience and ideas. For more information on the design and development of the module, please see Tweed and Boast (2011).



  • Healey, M. 2005. Linking Research and Teaching to Benefit Student Learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29, 183-201.
  • Griffiths, R. 2004. Knowledge production and the research-teaching nexus: the case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education 29, 709-726.
  • Jenkins, A. 2000. The relationship between teaching and research: where does geography stand and deliver? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 325-351.
  • Le Heron, R., Baker, R., and McEwen, L. 2006. Co-learning: Re-linking Research and Teaching in Geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30, 77-87.
  • Tweed, F. and Boast, R. 2011. Reviewing the ‘Research Placement’ as a means of enhancing student learning and expanding research capacity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35, 599-615.

A tale of two cities: urban regeneration in Reading and Luton.

By Alina Congreve (University of Hertfordshire)

When I started work at Reading University, I took over the urban regeneration module that urgently needed refreshing. Coursework involved students writing essays to answer questions such as ‘Shall we build the channel tunnel rail link?’. The course was run twice with quite small numbers, in one term for third-year undergraduate students and in the other for MSc students. Most of the students who selected the option did so because it had a reputation for being easy. I took a decisions to run the module once and run it well, combining the third-year and MSc groups.

In trying to design new, engaging coursework I set up a meeting with the head of regeneration at the Borough Council. After a very shaky start to our meeting he mentioned two projects that he was thinking of paying commercial consultants to do with a budget of about £30,000. I offered to do them both for £7,000 with my students. The projects involved students working in two low-income neighbourhoods, collecting information and ideas from local residents to support neighbourhood plans. Once someone is paying you for work you have to do it, so I used the money to pay a regeneration practitioner to mentor the students. They were expected to complete stages of work by set milestones and the regeneration practitioner met with them several times as they reported back on progress.

Community facilities at Amersham Road

The students worked in teams and when in the community they were always in groups of two or more. Within their teams they had their own specific brief, to minimize the risk of a student free riding on others efforts. Students liked the combination of team-work and individual effort being rewarded. They learnt a lot about young people in those neighbourhoods who had very different experiences from them, including those who had turned down training and apprenticeship because their family needed them to earn money. They ran focus groups, talking to older people who travelled into the city centre to get groceries because they were intimidated at their local shopping parade with fears about their safety.

TwoCities image

The students identified the way youth provision did not cater for 8-12 year olds, leading to them being drawn into trouble at an early age. They also provided innovative solutions and came up with fresh ideas to draw in private sector support. They approached large Reading based employers based in the town and suggested schemes where staff working in IT could volunteer one day a month to help older residents improve their skills. They also suggested improved timings to local bus services so residents were not so cut off from employment. These were were taken up by the bus operator. Students presented their findings at the end of the module to the Council and community representatives.

Starting at Hertfordshire with a new MSc planning course, only a small number of students signed up to the regeneration optional module. Concerned the group was too small for the students to have a good learning experience, I approached a colleague who ran the Tourism and Hospitality Management MSc After some discussion she allowed the regeneration module as an option on her programme. It took time to build up contacts and networks that I had developed at Reading. Hatfield has been subject to an excessive number of student projects that have added little value to the problems of the town. Looking a bit further afield I heard about the work of Luton Culture, a third sector organization that runs that arts, museums and community facilities. In the town centre an arts venue, the library theatre, had been almost unused for 18 months. There were ambitious plans to re-open the venue with a lively programme of theatre, comedy and music. There were a number of ideas Luton Culture staff would like to explore, but were stretched for time. These included: creating links between users of the library and the theatre; introducing a loyalty card; working with schools; and creating a volunteering programme for young people. The students carried out desk research and contacted other arts venues by phone and email. Whilst half the lecture content was delivered by a regeneration practitioner and half by me, there was no budget this time for practitioner mentoring. With the smaller group (15 students) this was feasible but it would be much more challenging with two or three times that number.

A key feature to the success of both projects was the commitment and support of staff at Reading Borough Council and Luton Culture. They were able to provide information, contacts and other practical support, such as local venues for meetings, that meant the students could get off to a quick start. They also provided an enthusiastic audience for the students work, ensuring that their first experience of delivering work to a client was a positive one.

So, was is the benefit for the University? Or to put it another way, how can you persuade your head of department you should be spending time on this? A key hook is positive local press coverage. In many university towns there is a lot of negative publicity about students, often focused on rowdy behavior and untidy front gardens. To have a story in the local media about students making a positive contribution to the town can start to change that. Some universities have community awards for students who make a significant contribution to the community, and winning or being shortlisted for awards is good for the department. Professional bodies are keen for both staff and students to be engaged with real world problems and this type of project can provide evidence of that engagement. From a personal point of view it can also help your own career development, engaging with senior figures in local government and giving interviews to the media.

So what are the challenges? Surprisingly, few come from the students. A few students are initially skeptical, but this can be largely overcome if you open the module in the right way. This is going to be challenging but it is going to be interesting and it will look great on your CV. One challenge is time pressure, and while English universities have professional staff whose role includes engagement or work placements, the scope varies widely. You will get very different levels of practical assistance depending on where you are. Local authority budget cuts have put pressure on funds and getting even small amounts of money to pay for additional support is more challenging than five years ago. The biggest barrier I currently face is the university ethics procedures. This can take 6-8 weeks for even a simple questionnaire or focus group with residents to be approved. As a result I have had to adapt so that the projects are carried out without the need for ethics approval. We still have quite a bit to learn in making these kind of projects a regular part of students learning rather than the exception.