Geography at Oxford Brookes University

We bring together recent graduates who share their memories of studying at university with a member of their teaching staff. Nia, Max and George talk with Professor Helen Walkington and look back on studying Geography at Oxford Brookes University. Together they discuss their experiences and reflections on our theme, improving student engagement.

“Everyone has a different experience of engagement and how it feels to be engaged and that can also change for any one person over time,” says George. “And just being busy may not be contributing to learning”, says Max. Helen shares that she sees engagement as cognitive, emotional and professional development (of a student) and describes the ‘dark art of planning learning’ as importantly about just-in-time, good sequencing of learning activities. You’re looking for a student to think this is the right time to be doing this, to think, “I’m struggling with this, and, oh! Look! The next lecture is on this.”

Earthquake! George remembers the fully engaged class
“You [Helen] led a class on hazards where we had to listen out for a trigger word that meant we needed to evacuate the room, to simulate responding to an earthquake. The whole class was full of energy—super engaged! It’s one of those lectures that sticks with you. It was fun, we were all a bit on edge.”

The alumni talk persuasively, with rich examples of the relational element of learning and engagement. They talk of the power of a professor who believes in you and invests their time in supporting their learning, for example with office hours, as well as the powerful impact of peers. They talk of their dislike of group work and reflect on the benefits of reading and commenting on each other’s work; they extol the importance of setting one’s own ambitions for learning and to not be limited by those of your peers. 

Be the professor!
Nia asked one of her professors what to do in his class to get a 60 percent mark. Instead of simply telling her, he supported her to reframe the question as ‘how can we make this work better?’. He worked with Nia, asking questions and stretching her thinking on the topic. In the end she got 82 percent, “… beyond what I thought I could ever achieve”. George replies, “it feels good to have a professor who believes in you … and knows you could do better.” George had a similar experience of transformative feedback—questions to prompt her critical reflection—on her dissertation. These encouraged her, as she wasn’t happy with her draft, to “get rid of it” and write it again. “You [Helen] never sent me away with ‘do this, do that’, but instead with questions.” George sums up the impact of this transformative feedback: “… you’re the professor when you can critique and improve your own work.”

Whatever the differences in their definitions and experiences of engagement, most teaching staff would recognise George, Max and Nia as students who were engaged and successful—they achieved their learning goals and look back fondly on their time studying geography as undergraduates. What can we learn from their testimonies? Perhaps one major takeaway is the powerful impact of authentic assessment, of assessment as learning, of assessment as generating learning and artefacts that have value beyond the attribution of a grade. 

Demonstrable and shared expertise
Max describes how engaging it is to take on the role of the expert as a student learner— disrupting the hierarchy of expertise. He recalls assessments and co-curricular activity where this happened, for example when creating a trail guide to a heritage site. He remembers being motivated by authentic assessments and experiences that would give him a competitive edge in the graduate labour market. Nia agrees that “this will look great on your CV” is a great motivator. George recalls just how proud she was of her work for the University’s Get Published initiative when she translated her dissertation research into a poster, evidencing her grasp of the topic by making it understandable to her family.

Has the reunion been worthwhile? Kat and I leave the Zoom call and the conversation between these students and their professor continues. It has clearly been of interest to them to come together again to listen, talk, and share their memories and insights into engagement. Perhaps the final word is with Nia who suggests that student engagement is not who learns the most, but about recognising the value and transferability of all learning. If, as educators, we can get that right for the whole class, these alumni agree, we’ll have engaged students and lively learning-focused classrooms.

Recommended resources from Helen
Helen Walkington is Professor of Teaching and Learning at Oxford Brookes University with a passion for student engagement through research-based learning. Here are some resources from her that readers will find useful to develop effective practices that support students learning in research mode.

Undergraduate research: Ensuring a high-impact and resilient experience for all
A blog post co-authored by Helen on why all students should do research-based learning.
Read here on Elon University’s Centre for Engaged Learning blog.

Salient practices for mentoring student research
Ten salient practices for mentoring student research, with lots of resources and tips for each practice.
Read here on Elon University’s Centre for Engaged Learning website.

Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence
A journal article on what award-winning mentors do when working with student researchers (journal access required).
Get access here on the journal’s website.

Students as researchers: Supporting undergraduate research in the disciplines in higher education
A guidance document published by AdvanceHE on supporting students doing discipline- based research.
Read here on AdvanceHE’s website.

Would you like Teaching Insights to convene a conversation with you and your students to use as the basis for an article? Please see our Contribute to Teaching Insights page for details on how to get involved.


With thanks to Georgina Gibbons, Max Jones, Nia Thomas and Helen Walkington. 

As reported by Jackie Potter and Kat Kwok.



How to cite

Editorial Team (2021) Geography at Oxford Brookes University. Teaching Insights, Available at: (Accessed: 21 September 2023)

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Posted in Alumni Reunion, Edition 1, October 2021Tagged , , , , ,