Supporting undergraduate teaching in quantitative geography: making the connections between schools, universities and the workplace

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


The discipline of geography has a long tradition of pioneering research and teaching in quantitative methodologies. It has high-end expertise in areas such as GIS, geostatistics, spatial statistics, spatial econometrics and the use of geoinformation in scientific visualizations. It retains the belief that there are common patterns of behaviour, the understanding of which is critical to appreciating society. It is the ability to extract knowledge from geographical data that feeds into evidence-based public policy (including crime or disease mapping) and also to private sector strategies (e.g. locational decision-making supported by large firms such as ESRI or Experian).

Nevertheless it, like many allied subjects, has faced a general deskilling in, abandonment of and suspicion towards quantitative methods in social scientific research. Misunderstanding and under-appreciation of these methods is a vicious circle that gets transmitted from one generation of learners to the next.

Our response to this situation is to strengthen the connections between schools, universities and workplaces. What is important is continuity in the learning experience, and for pupils and students to appreciate at an early stage that quantitative methods are both an essential part of what it means to do geography and a vital transferable skill that will assist in future career choices.

To that end this research, with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), adopts a strategy targeted specifically at assisting researchers and teachers of quantitative methods to engage pupils and students with those methods, and to offer peer networks of learning, support and of knowledge exchange. It will do so by:

(1) Undertaking a scoping study of teachers' experience, familiarity and understanding of quantitative methods, of the importance given to them in upper secondary school and early years undergraduate curricula, what the barriers to learning are, and what might be done to overcome them.
(2) Producing a range of web-enabled case studies and vignettes for teachers of quantitative methods (at University and in schools) demonstrating the importance of quantitative methods in geographical research and in the sorts of jobs geography students might go into.
(3) Cataloguing the resources available to support teachers of quantitative methods, especially within higher education, and to provide a simple website as a point-of-entry to those resources.
(4) Developing a peer network to support the teachers and teaching of quantitative methods in geography, meeting face-to-face and with special sessions at the RGS-IBG annual conference.

Whilst the project will have obvious benefits to the discipline of geography, its impact will be more widely felt. That is because almost one third of the more than 20 000 full-time undergraduate students in the UK go on to further study in a wide range of subjects not solely limited to geography, and because geography students go into a wide range of jobs including retail, business, finance, government and public service, conservation and environment, IT, health, media, teaching and research.

The project is timely: it has the opportunity to inform discussions about the geography curriculum with information on what is being studied and what could be done to support quantitative methods teaching beginning at A-level. It has the opportunity to direct future updating of the QAA benchmark statements for geography and related social sciences, emphasising the importance of quantitative methodologies such as descriptive, inferential and relational statistics, numerical modelling, remote sensing, geocomputation and geospatial analysis explicitly.

In summary, the projects aims to support change in the quality of quantitative methods teaching within geography, knowing that to do so will diffuse into the social sciences and into industrial sectors more widely.

Planned Impact

The principle beneficiaries of the project will be researchers and teachers of quantitative methods, within geography especially. They will benefit from peer support, knowledge exchange and resources to support their teaching and to engage students. It follows that the students will also benefit, not only in regard to their short-term learning but also in regard to their longer-term career prospects (skills in quantitative methods being highly sought after).

Indirectly, the commercial and public sector users of quantitative methods may benefit from the exposure our case studies give to their work. However, our broader interest and that of the call under which this proposal is being made is to help reverse the shortage of undergraduates with quantitative skills, to the benefit of the UK's economic competitiveness.

Of course, such an impact will take some time to be realised and can only occur as part of a wide range of initiatives and actions. Nevertheless, we repeat what we have written in our case for support: Students cannot be made to study quantitative methods. But, as practitioners, we can choose to support their learning by meeting students in regard to what they know before coming to university and where they hope to be when they leave it.

By recognising that the issue of undergraduate quantitative methods teaching needs also to address earlier learning, the impact we aspire to is a demonstrable change in the attitudes and abilities of students to quantitative methods. Such an impact has disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, social, public and private sector beneficiaries.
Description Our report to the geographic community highlighted the following:

A student in geography can expect to be taught and to use quantitative methods at school and at university. Typically GIS, descriptive and inferential statistics.

Teachers report that quantitative methods are not well integrated in the geography curricula. At university, standalone quantitative courses can give the impression that quantitative methods are not part of the substantive themes of human geography in particular.

Teachers appear less confident in their knowledge of quantitative methods - especially geospatial technologies - and find it less enjoyable to teach.

In universities, quantitative methods appear to be taught by instructors with the expertise to do so, who enjoy their teaching and feel it is valued.

Almost half of the university students surveyed said they struggle with quantitative methods, especially those who did not study maths after GCSE. Nevertheless, students see the value of quantitative methods for their future career.

We believe the Benchmark Statement for geography should be revised to be more specific about the role of quantitative methods and the importance of numeracy.

We believe geography is well positioned to support and to benefit from the increased emphasis given to quantitative methods. Geography draws strength from its links across the sciences, social sciences and the humanities, and most likely this has helped to preserve the importance given to quantitative methods when it has declined in other disciplines.

However, we are not complacent: we suspect that the levels of quantitative methods training - perhaps especially in human geography and outside some specific departments - are not sufficiently high.

An important consideration is what actually we mean by quantitative methods in geography: does it simply reduce to 19th/early 20th century statistical methods with a measure of GIS thrown in? Or does the age of 'big data', complex data, longitudinal data, crowdsourcing and the development of numerical models of global processes demand other types of skills and knowledges?

We found agreement that students need to be excited by data and what you can do with it, with this excitement beginning at school and continuing into universities. Formulae may be necessary but they rarely inspire. Effective use of data to provide dynamic visualisations that are of relevance to, social or environmental geography (for example), do.

The challenge, and opportunity, is to demonstrate the relevance of quantitative methods in practice - not just for career goals but for all sorts of geographical scholarship - inspiring the next generation of geographers to acquire a strong quantitative skill base. Improved connections with better signalling of the needs of schools, universities and employers, can only help.

The videos and accompanying learning resources we produced for the project are at
Exploitation Route They have informed the Royal Geographical Society's contributions to the revisions of GCSE and A-level geography, and to the updated QAA benchmark statement
Sectors Education

Description The findings of the research have led directly into the review of the QAA benchmarks for geography, to the A Level Content Board recommendations and continues to inform work and projects produced by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
Sector Education