Contributing to the development of Geography Master’s degree curriculum

The Digital Geography Lab has been participating actively in the curricula development of the Geography MSc and BSc Programmes. During 2020-2022 Tuuli acted as the Director of the Geography Degree Programmes.

Therefore it makes sense to share an article covering the renewal process of the Geography MSc degree programme structure in the Digital Geography Lab blog. The article has been translated from the original publication in Finnish:

Toivonen, T., Kainulainen, H. T., Kosonen, K., & Ruth, O. (2023). Havaintoja maantieteen maisteriohjelman uudistamisprosessista. Terra, 135(2), 98-105. []

Observations on the reform process of the Master’s Curriculum in Geography

In this article, we describe the process aimed at reforming the curriculum of the Master’s Programme in Geography at the University of Helsinki. The reform process was carried out during the years 2021–2022 and it was coordinated jointly by the Degree Programme Director, Deputy Director, Education Planner and one dedicated university teacher. The impetus for documenting the process in the form of this article came from the leadership studies by Professor Tuuli Toivonen. Toivonen served as Degree Programme Director and Olli Ruth as Deputy Director during the reform. The roles changed in summer 2022. Coinciding with this change, the processes moved from planning the structure of the curriculum to planning the implementation of courses.

Background of the curriculum reform

Teaching at the university is defined by the curricula of study programs. Typically, the curricula define the general degree structure and study tracks, as well as the learning outcomes, contents, scopes and competence assessment methods of study modules and courses – as well as the teachers responsible for the courses.

The curricula of the University of Helsinki have been in transition during the past 20 years. In the turn of the Millenia, European countries started the so-called Bologna process that aimed at harmonising the university degrees in Europe. This led to degree reforms at the University of Helsinki first in 2005 to be continued in the mid-2010s. The aim of these reforms was to make the bachelor’s and master’s degrees clearly separate, thus improving students’ opportunities to move from one degree programme to another between these study stages. In addition, efforts were made to strengthen the link between studies and working life. In the next phase, in 2017, the University of Helsinki implemented a reform called the Big Wheel, which introduced new system of three-year curricula. The old majors were replaced by degree programmes and minor subjects by elective study modules. The first curriculum period of the reform was 2017–2020 and the second 2020–2023.

The third Big Wheel iteration will be 2023-2026 and for this, the curricula were planned during the years 2021–2022.

During this third recent iteration, it was decided that the curriculum of the Master’s Programme in Geography would be examined thoroughly and developed further. The previous structure Programme dated back to a time when students continued directly from a bachelor’s degree in geography to a master’s degree programme, and there were hardly any students transferring from other degree programmes. At that time, teaching at the master’s level was divided into three study tracks: physical geography, human geography and geoinformatics. Those studying to be geography teachers followed one of these study tracks and took teacher’s pedagogical studies as minor subject. The students identified with their study tracks quite strictly, which hindered the development of geographer identity.

For the degree program boards, curriculum development is typically one of the greatest endeavors during their four-year term. The aim of the curriculum reform for 2023–2026 was, on the one hand, to strengthen the distinctiveness of the programme by strengthening geographical thinking and geographer identity. On the one hand, the aim was to create an opportunity for versatility in studies allowing students to either specialise deeply or to create expertise as a generalist. Overall, the wish was to allow students to follow their interests instead of forcing them to study following predefined study lines.

The curricula reforms tend to be laborious processes, especially when significant changes are made to the curriculum. The matrix organisation of the University of Helsinki adds an extra spice to reform processes: teaching and research staff work in departments or other units, and they contribute to one or more degree programmes. Hence, the director of the degree programme does not have a supervisory position with the teachers but needs to negotiate with them and the head of department about their availability for teaching duties.

The curriculum reform was a joint effort

According to the university’s bylaws, the board of the degree programme is responsible for preparing and presenting the curriculum to the responsible faculty. In practice, however, curriculum reform is a joint process of the entire teaching staff, and it benefits from close interaction with students. Therefore, at the beginning of the process, we identified six key actors.

Coordination group: Degree Programme Directors Tuuli Toivonen and Olli Ruth, Education Coordinator Katariina Kosonen and University Instructor Heli Kainulainen, who had time dedicated for  curriculum development, formed the curriculum reform coordination group.

Programme Board: An eight-member Master’s Programme in Geography Board with a four-year term of office, covering as wide a range of different areas of geography as possible.. Student representatives also participate in the management group of the degree programme.

Teachers: All teachers teaching in the Geography degree programme, including permanent staff responsible for content (professors, university lecturers and university instructors), researchers with a 5% teaching obligation, and part-time teachers hired separately on a course-by-course basis.

Students: All geography students were invited to participate in the planning. The changes now made to the curriculum will only partially affect students who have already started their studies, as students have the right to graduate during the next three-year curriculum period according to the curriculum that was in force when they started their studies. However, students have the best practical expertise in, for example, overlapping teaching content or the functionality of alignment and scheduling.

Other stakeholders: Employers hiring newly graduated geographers have occasionally expressed wishes regarding the content of teaching. As geographers are employed in many positions and fields in society, the consultation of this group took place indirectly through the consultation of teachers having collaborations with stakeholder, and students already in working life outside the university.

Faculty and University Study Administration: The preparation of the curriculum and its administrative practices are supervised by the Rector of the University and the Dean of the Faculty. The Faculty Council approved the final curricula.

Mapping development needs

At the beginning of the process, we mapped the current state of geography teaching and curriculum reform needs. We did this firstly by 1) the director personally interviewing all permanent teachers, 2) discussing development needs in the degree programme board, and 3) asking students for their thoughts on development needs through a questionnaire sent to them. Secondly, we assessed the key indicators and statistics and their developed over the recent years: the degree programme’s annual budget, the statistics of the number of applicants, student satisfaction according to the course feedback, intake vs. graduation statistics, job satisfaction survey of the university staff, and statistics on the employment of graduates compiled by the faculty’s alumni network.

The mapping showed that there had been relatively little joint discussion on the objectives of the degree programme during previous curriculum rounds, as the three-year curricula had remained largely unchanged at least since the beginning of the Big Wheel reform. As the teaching staff had gradually changed, the understanding of the study plan and degree programme structure had partly disappeared. Based on the interviews, the teaching and research staff wished for more clarity and alignment in the structure of the study plan. On the other hand, there was a wish to lower the borders between the existing study tracks. Both teachers and students called for more flexible studying and a change to a broader picture of geography. There were also concerns about the attractiveness of studying geography with the establishment of new multidisciplinary degree programmes, despite strong belief in the importance of geography in society.

In terms of human resources, statistics showed that geography had fewer teaching staff per student than other degree programmes at the faculty. Many teachers suffered from a high workload and a feelings of inadequacy, and some felt that teaching responsibilities were unevenly distributed. On the other hand, it was found that the budget available for hiring hourly teachers had remained sufficient and that the faculty had reacted well to the shortcomings. Still, the shortage of university lecturers was clear.

The statistics showed that the number of student applicants had remained high, and geography had maintained the high number of applicants. Statistics and student surveys also show that geography students at the University of Helsinki are satisfied with their studies and the percentage of graduates relative to student intake is high compared to the other programmes at the Faculty of Science. According to statistics, geographers are also well employed in jobs corresponding to their education after their studies.

The actual curriculum reform process

The process of reforming the curriculum had fours phases:

1) Creating a strategy for geography degree programs

We began the actual development of the curriculum for 2023–2026 by creating a strategy for the Geography degree programmes (both BSc and MSc). The strategy guides the work of the Board in particular. The first version of the strategy was created within the Board, after which the entire geography staff and the students were invited to comment and modify the text. The strategy follows the university’s higher-level goals and identifies the values of the discipline, including tight connections to science and research, as well as individuality, community spirit and encouragement to try and experiment.

2) Getting organisanised for the curriculum reform

We agreed on various team configurations to advance the development of the curriculum. The coordination group made a proposal in which, after minor changes, the following forms of organisation were identified:

The coordination group meeting on a weekly basis. The degree programme director, the study coordinator and university instructor dedicated for the development work were responsible for preparing the process meetings and managing the process. The coordination group actively made suggestions and ensured that the process proceeded on time. The agenda for the meetings was constantly open online, and everyone was able to enter matters requiring discussion there in advance.

Smaller planning groups were created for the study tracks and joint courses, which held meetings as needed. Although efforts were made to partially get rid of the old study tracks, it was still sensible to develop teaching in smaller groups based on the old study tracks. The groups were formed from teachers interested in developing human geography, natural geography, geoinformatics and teacher education. Some of the teachers were in several groups and each group was represented in the management team.

The degree programme board continued its monthly meetings. A standard item “Progress of curriculum development” was added to the agenda. As the management group included a contact person for each smaller planning group, they coud report on the advancements. Additionally, the university instructor dedicated to the curriculum work was invited to the meetings as an expert participant.

All teachers met together four times a year. The joint teacher meetings provided a platform to follow and discuss about the progress of the curriculum reform. The teacher meetings already have a long tradition, but now the meeting schedule was created for the entire year, the scheduling was made in accordance with the curriculum reform timeline and the meetings were titled to follow the phase of the reform.

Student meetings were originally planned to be held once a semester. During the process we noticed that more frequent meetings were needed. The student meetings helped to assess how the reformed curriculum would look from the student’s perspective. They helped to take better into account, for example, exchange studies and the need for flexibility arising from different life situations. The teacher education was modified extensively based on students’ comments.

The study administrations of the faculty and the university actively steered the process, as all the university’s degree programmes revisited their curricula simultaneously. During the academic year 2021–2022, the Faculty directors’ forums for the study proframmes allowing the vice dean, the stidy administration staff and the degree programme directors to meet, ensuring a two-way exchange of information.

Figure 1. Timetable of the process during the academic year 2021-2022, as illustrated for the process participants.

3) Actual development work

Based on the needs identified in the initial assessment, three major changes were made to the curriculum. First, space was made in the degree structure for new joint geography studies that are compulsory for all students. The aim is to connect the students and strengthen their geographer identities regardless of the their background studies. Secondly, a module-based structure was implemented in order to move from strict study tracks to a looser structure that better respects the diversity of geography. The module structure allows students to build their degrees to provide either deep specialisation or broad expertise. The modules helped to distribute teaching responsibilities and visibility more evenly, as each professor was given responsibility for at least one module. The third reform concerned teacher education. A separate study line was built for teacher students to allow gaining the subject and pedagogical competence needed for teacher qualification even with the minimum number of credits for the degree.

4) Development of communication practices

During the curriculum renewal process, efforts were made to also improve the internal communication of geography degree programmes. We took several measures to improve communication, most of which were minor changes to existing practices: 1) The management group meetings and their contents were communicated more systematically than before by distributing agendas and minutes in accordance with uniform practices, 2) all material related to the curriculum reform was collected to a dedicated Moodle site, to which all geography teachers had access, 3) public notes were written from each teahcher meeting and 4) emails related to the curriculum process were systematically titled so that they could be easily searched later in one’s own mail archives, regardless of the sender.

The outcome and evaluation of the curriculum reform process

The end result of the design process

The new Master’s programme structure was completed on time in spring 2022 (Figure 2). After this, during summer 2022, the teachers wrote module and course descriptions following the new curriculum. The Faculty Council approved the new module-based curriculum with course descriptions in November 2022. The actual testing of the functionality of the curriculum will take place in 2023–2026, when the module-based model and new joint master’s degree courses in geography will be taught for the first time.

Successful implementation of the curriculum still requires pedagogical planning and meetings with teachers even after the study plan has been approved. A large part of the pedagogical solutions related to the content of the new courses were made from the faculty’s point of view after the curriculum design process had already been completed. In winter 2022–2023, the Master’s Programme in Geography organised two meetings intended for the entire faculty, where they discussed together the alignment of courses, scheduling for different teaching periods and study-related workload. The new module structure was found to increase the need to develop study counselling, as a result of which the PSP guidance (personal study plan) for master’s studies was redesigned to better support the different stages of study.

Figure 2. A general view of the module-based structure of the new Geography Master’s programme curriculum.

Self-assessment of the design process

The new curriculum will only be ready after it has been tested in practice. Table 1 presents our self-assessment and identifies some successes and failures associated with the process, as we see them at the moment, just before the teaching according to the new curriculum starts. We build our self-assessment on the leadership frameworks identified by Bolman & Deal (2008) and Gallos & Bolman (2021), and evaluate the outcome and the process through four frameworks: 1) structural, 2) human resources, 3) political and 4) symbolic. (In the Finnish version, we use the translations by Vuori (2011), who has examined the frameworks in the context of universities of applied sciences in Finland). We consider this multiangle examination beneficial, as the set of frameworks offers the opportunity to examine both the process and the end result from many different perspectives. We also combine the frameworks with the classic SWOT terminology, and identify challenge/strength and threat/opportinity of the process and the outcome. We hope that this self-assessment, combined with the description of the process, will help others to get ideas for their participative reform processes.



Table 1. Our self-assessment of the implementation of the curriculum reform process  and the new curriculum. We have broken down  the table through the four management frameworks of Gallos and Bolman (2021) and  apply concepts familiar from SWOT analysis: We consider the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum reform process, and the opportunities and threats in terms of the end result.


FRAME curriculum reform process reform outcome – the new curriculum


Did the reform process or will the future curriculum work so that process was clear and structured, like an oiled machine?


The responsibilities were successfully divided between the participants and the schedule and stages of the process were communicated effectively. The meetings were planned well in advance and participants’ time was used efficiently.



It’s hard to find time in busy people’s schedules,  and not everyone was always able to show up. As a result, time-taking reiterations were needed and there was not always time to discuss everything as planned.


If successful, the module structure is attractive to the student and demonstrates the multidisciplinarity and possibilities of geography.



The modular structure may appear confusing to students and/or teachers, and instead of alignment, it can feel unclear. Efforts will be made to combat this by clear web descriptions and tutoring.




Did we / will we succeed to identify the strengths of the faculty and distribute responsibilities fairly?


The teachers were committed to participating in all phases. There was a feeling of working together, which further strengthened the discipline and improved opportunities for developing things jointly also in the future. We were able to increase resources through negotiations, which facilitates implementation.

WEAKNESSES: Occasionally the meetings had too much content and there was no time for proper hearing of all the parties. Some conflicting views surfaced when fundamental issues were discussed and there was not time to address all of these in detail.


In the modular structure, everyone has a clear place, visibility for their own research theme or interest, and the responsibilities are spread more equally within the professor community.



The structure may be vulnerable if the module relies heavily on input from one teacher and changes take place. The inherent staff turnover can pose challenges to the teaching resources of individual modules, especially if the modules are strictly research-oriented, and hence depending on those active in the respective research.

METAPHOR: JUNGLEDid we / will we succeed to strengthen the competitiveness of geography and internal and external networks?

The organization into working groups allowed the balanced development of the curriculum. The link to the university-level process was handled smoothly and transparently through the study coordinator.



It would have been interesting to engage stakeholders outside the university in the process. However, the range of stakeholders was broad and varied that extensive consultation had to be abandoned.


The degree programme become more fresh, which makes it even more interesting and competitive than earlier. The new module structure allows diversity to flourish. Studies from Aalto University were also integrated into the degree, which increases students’ opportunities and networking possibilities.



Different modules may compete internally for students. While competition is not necessarily negative, it may weaken the cohesion of geography. The planning of joint studies with different disciplines and actors outside the university could have been even more extensive.




Did we / will we succeed to strengthen the geographer indentities?



There was a strong spirit of co-creation of curriculum. The teachers were committed to considering not only issues close to them, but also the broader picture. For the first time, a strategy for geography written. Students were participating throughout the process and gave constructive feedback and development ideas.



Fixed term researchers had a clear place in the process, but from their position, participation in curriculum work can be difficult. The expertise of this group was not necessarily heard in the best possible way, and the opportunity was missed to strengthen their participation in the development of the discipline at the department.


The students’ geographer identity is strengthened through joint studies and diverse selection joint opportunities. The new structure also supports those who have transferred from elsewhere to the Master’s Programme in Geography. The new module structure appear relevant to real-world problems. The planning of joint studies also brings teachers together, which will strengthen cohesion and collegiality.



The modular structure may allow teachers to focus only on their own subject without greater collegiality. On the other hand, as courses of several teachers are gathered to the modules, discussion between teachers and cohesion will be ensured.




Bolman L.  G. & Deal T.  E. (2017) Reframing Organisations. 6. p. Jossey-Bass, New Jersey.

Vuori, J. (2011) University of Applied Sciences immediate supervisor leading change. Management Research 30(3), 191–206. <> 5.6.2023.

Gallos J. V. &; Bolman, L. G. (2021) Reframing Academic Leadership. 2. p. Jossey-Bass.


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The Digital Geography Lab is an interdisciplinary research team focusing on spatial Big Data analytics for fair and sustainable societies at the University of Helsinki.

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