Observations and Reflections during International Study

Self-Regulation and Independence

“You have to think and ask yourself ‘Why?’ ” – Dr. Mryka Hall-Beyer

Background

Geography is a interesting discipline that combines technical, scientific skills, as well as social and culture knowledge. It is the study of how location affects the characteristics of a place or event. Dr. Mryka Hall-Beyer has been teaching in the field of geography for over 40 years and has had many exciting experiences throughout her career. One of her favorite parts of teaching in geography is the opportunity to travel with students to field schools, both within Canada and internationally. Although it can be difficult to assess students during and after travel, Dr. Hall-Beyer has found ways to make it valuable and interesting. International travel study is a unique opportunity for students to construct their own meaning from first-hand observation and reflection. Assessments should be designed around this idea. Along with her colleague, Dr. Aaron Williams, who pioneered the international study program, Dr. Hall-Beyer has developed an assessment method that helps students get the most out of their trip abroad.

Strategies

During international travel with students, Dr. Hall-Beyer has noted that the most important thing for them to do as geographers is to make observations and ask “Why?”  This is done in order to get students really thinking about how many factors influence the geography of a place. Observations can be made about anything, because when studying geography, everything is connected. For example, students can start off by observing how roads are laid out in a particular city. That connects to when and how the city was built and developed, the types of transportation used on those roads, and the types of people using those roads. Student observations lead to critical analysis of the location and comparison between different places.

Dr. Hall-Beyer notes how easy it is to look at a new place with preconceived ideas, especially when first adjusting to a new time zone, climate and daily schedule. She says students often jump to conclusions based on their immediate impressions. Students often initially feel like everything about the new place is either completely superior or inferior to their home in Canada. She asks students to watch themselves for this type of reaction. It is okay to have these impressions at the start, but they have to use their analytical skills to think about why they feel that way. She encourages students to compare the place to their home. Would the people or landscape here work with some of the ways of living from home? What would have to change? Could some of the ways of living here be adopted at home? Why or why not? Students also need to pay attention to the many ways that different observations are connected to one another. Changing one aspect of a place affects various other aspects, so nothing can be analyzed out of context. Comparison cannot be done without thinking of the many factors that influence one specific observation.

At the end of these international trips, Dr. Hall-Beyer gives her students a final exam. It is not a traditional exam, and it has one, open-ended reflection question. Students are expected to compare and contrast two different places. They have to use their observations to defend their answer. But observations go beyond just what the students see, hear, smell, taste, and experience in the different locations. They have to use knowledge of history, geology, sociology, economics, transportation or topography to critically analyze their observations and determine why places are similar or different. This demonstrates how much students understand about the places they have seen, from a geographical perspective.

Outcomes

Dr. Hall-Beyer says that most students who embrace the trip are very successful on the final exam.  The final exam’s main requirement is that students refer to their own first-hand observations to make their points in relation to the question. Since the question is open-ended, they can take it in a direction that is meaningful to them, providing they made thoughtful observations.  The only students who don’t do well on this type of assessment are the ones who lack curiosity and just hide away in familiar territory like McDonalds. “Although”, says Dr. Hall-Beyer, “Why not analyze who is in the McDonalds? Where is it located? Why? What is the clientele like? Why? You can make observations everywhere.”

Geography is a wide-spanning discipline, so there is no limit to what and how students observe. Having the ability to make it personal also makes it valuable to students. The final exam is also not anxiety-inducing for students when they have this choice. They know they can do well if they put some effort into making meaningful observations. This means that the assessment method complements the trip and adds to the student experience, instead of taking away from it.

-Ashley Weleschuk