Preliminary Examination - Year One

The Preliminary Examination is designed to introduce first-year students to new concepts, ideas, and approaches in geography and to allow the deeper exploration of topics with which they are already familiar.

The Preliminary Examination consists of four compulsory courses relevant to both physical and human geography:

  1. Earth Systems Processes - introduces students to concepts in physical geography and includes lecture courses on 'Geomorphology', 'Climatology' and 'Ecology of the Biosphere'.
  2. Human Geography - introduces students to concepts in human geography and includes lecture courses on 'Space and Place', 'Networks and Mobilities', and 'Power and Identity'.
  3. Geographical Controversies - a study of geographical controversies past and present emphasising critical understanding of the use of evidence and data in geographical argument.
  4. Geographical Techniques - introduces students to the theoretical and practical aspects of geographical techniques used in both human and physical geography, and includes lecture courses on 'Statistics for Geographers', 'Methods in Physical Geography' and 'Methods in Human Geography'. Students will also attend short local one-day fieldtrips.


© Neil Mullins / [Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]

First year students are introduced to the key elements of geographical techniques through lecture and classroom based teaching on the 'Statistics for Geographers', 'Methods in Physical Geography' and 'Methods in Human Geography' components of the 'Geographical Techniques' course. These skills are then further developed through day and half-day field exercises in Oxford and the surrounding area. The physical geography fieldtrip to Swanage will take place at the start of term.

Qualitative and quantitative techniques in human geography are developed through field exercises in Oxford that explore the city's ethnic and economic diversity and aspects of its historical geography.

Students will write up both projects individually and submit them as fieldwork folders, which will be assessed as part of the Prelims examination.

Find out more about our fieldwork through Out and About: The SoGE fieldtrip blog.


At the end of the first year students:

  • Sit four written exams based on the above courses;
  • Submit a Geographical Techniques fieldwork report; and
  • Submit a Geographical Controversies folder.

Final Honour School - Years Two and Three

The Final Honour School gives second and third year students the opportunity to specialise and tailor their degree to suit their own interests and is taught through a mixture of lectures, tutorials, seminars, workshops and practicals.

The Final Honour School comprises the 'Geographical Research' core subject, two foundational subjects, three optional subjects, a dissertation and a fieldwork report.

Core Subjects

  1. Geographical Thought: Histories, Philosophies, Practices - this compulsory lecture course underpins the Final Honour School by addressing the relation between conceptual and methodological issues and the practice of research.
  2. Foundational Courses - these provide a foundation for the option courses by addressing the core theoretical debates and major current issues in each part of the discipline. Students choose two of the following three courses:

    a) Space, Place and Society - This foundational course provides a human geographical perspective on space, place and society, taking account of relevant and major concepts in geographical thought, and acknowledging differing theoretical approaches. Specific cases and practices will be introduced at a range of geographical scales. The course provides an integrated approach to look at themes such as power, globalization, and uneven development. It builds upon the Prelims course in Human Geography, developing the three themes introduced in the first year in more nuanced ways, at a variety of scales and with a stronger engagement with contemporary theoretical perspectives and debates.

    Some of the questions this foundational course considers are:

    • What are the contemporary spaces of development and how do they differ from those of the past?
    • How might a politics of place contribute to new relations of responsibility, care and solidarity in a globalising world?
    • How are the tensions between movement and security managed at national borders?

    b) Earth System Dynamics - The course will provide a comprehensive assessment of Earth system dynamics based on the research expertise in the department, cutting across a range of temporal and spatial scales. It will build upon core physical geography material delivered in the Prelims course and utilise and amplify some of the key concepts introduced in the Geographical Research course. The course begins by exploring the driving forces of climatic change at tectonic, orbital and millennial scales. The dynamics and change occurring in climate systems, ecosystems, and geomorphological systems are then explored. Finally the course considers the interlinkages between all these components within the overall earth system.

    Some of the questions this foundational course considers are:

    • What is the role of feedbacks within the earth system as drivers of environmental change over orbital and millennial timescales?
    • What is the role of the global hydrological cycle in past and present climate change?
    • How do geomorphic systems respond to climatic change century to millennial timescales?
    • Which landscapes will be most sensitive to geomorphological change as a result of future greenhouse gas-induced warming?
    • What is the importance of the oceans to the present-day functioning at the global scale of climate and terrestrial ecology?

    c) Environmental Geography - This foundational course provides an interdisciplinary approach to issues in environmental science, thought, histories, policy and management. The course will be empirically-focused, and draw upon some of the concepts and theories introduced in the Geographical Research core course. Both physical and human geographers will be involved in its delivery, students will be introduced to both scientific and policy aspects of environmental issues and the course will provide tangible evidence of the need for integration between the different branches of the subject. Students will be expected to become familiar with key problems and solutions involved with human engagement with the environment and show knowledge of the physical processes involved. The nature of past, current and future environmental change at a range of scales will be introduced. A range of case studies will be used, varying from year to year, which may include topics such as tropical deforestation, land degradation, community conservation and transport planning.

    Some of the questions this foundational course considers are:

    • How can international trade be managed so as to minimise impacts and maximise benefits to the environment?
    • What are the key scientific uncertainties involved in the successful and sustainable management of common property resources?
    • What methods and theories are most useful in predicting land use change over the next 20 years?
    • What are the scientific debates surrounding geoengineering solutions to climate change?
    • What might be the impacts of future climate change on flow and water availability?

Optional Subjects

Students choose three optional subjects from the following list:

African SocietiesAfrican Societies - This optional subject aims to examine Africa's relationship with the rest of the world. The key questions are: why has Africa suffered disproportionately from global economic crises and continues to be dependent on external assistance? What are the historical foundations and contemporary manifestations of the struggles over resources, political freedom, and other issues of social and economic transformation? What are the material conditions of life for people living in Africa, in terms of livelihoods, food security, health and well-being; what are the struggles over identity: gender, ethnic, sexuality? Why are militarism, wars and low intensity violence prominent features in African societies? What are the bases for African renewal in the 21st century?
Biogeography, Biodiversity and ConservationBiogeography, Biodiversity and Conservation - This optional subject develops an understanding of the biogeographical dynamics underpinning patterns in biodiversity and of how environmental change shapes these patterns. Human influences on biogeography and biodiversity will be examined in relation to current debates concerning nature conservation, focussing on how the study of biogeographical dynamics informs conservation policy.
Climate Change and VariabilityClimate Change and Variability - This optional subject offers an opportunity to understand the physical workings of the climate system in its mean state, in variability around that mean state and in changes to new states. The course provides a primer in the most important modes of variability and the novel methods for predicting climate anomalies many months into the future. Particular attention is given to the climates of Africa. We then review the main drivers of climate change on decadal to centennial timescales, both natural and anthropogenic, explain how the climate is controlled by the flow of energy from the sun, how greenhouse gases work and the role of the oceans in climate change and predictability.
Climate Change Impacts and AdaptationClimate Change Impacts and Adaptation - This optional subject aims to build on first year climatology teaching and provide students with a deeper / wider knowledge of: the operation of the climate system, how it is studied, how the climate of the recent past has varied, and how we can predict climates of the future.
ComplexityComplexity - This optional subject explores what complexity is, how it is investigated, what we have learnt, and what the implications are in various Geographical contexts. A 'complex' system can be described as one containing many discrete elements, which through their aggregated interactions have the potential to produce significant system-wide (emergent) behaviour. Many natural and human-made systems display such characteristics - examples include the structure and behaviour of social and ecological networks, economic markets at global and national scales, the internet, ecosystems and landscape-scale geomorphological processes. Arguably some of the greatest challenges we face over the coming century relate to our ability to understand and ultimately control complex systems with interdependent human and environmental components.
Cultural SpacesCultural Spaces: Geographies of affective experience - This optional subject explores the spaces of affective experience in the modern world, with a focus on: geographical, social scientific, and humanities based approaches to understanding geographies of affective experience; techniques and practices, including media, film, performance, and music, through which these geographies are produced and modified; cultural and political contexts within which geographies of affective experience are understood and contested.
Desert Landscapes and DynamicsDesert Landscapes and Dynamics - Over 40 percent of the earth's land surface, and perhaps as much as 47 percent, is dry-sub-humid, semi-arid, arid or hyper-arid, supporting a human population of around 850 million. This course aims to provide students with a strong grounding in the environmental (principally geomorphological) processes operating in drylands, their controls, and their temporal and spatial dynamics.
© Steve Slater / [Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]Geography at War - This optional subject investigates the relationship between war and space through the lens of contemporary political geography. How do geographical knowledge, military strategy and logistics interact to create the conditions for modern warfare? What is the role of material and ideological space in enabling and resisting violent conflict? And how does all of this matter to us? In grappling with these questions, the course explores a wide variety of military conflicts including two World Wars, the Cold War and the so-called War(s) on Terror.
Geographies of FinanceGeographies of Finance - This optional subject introduces students to the vocabulary of finance, drawing on the cutting edge of research relating to the global financial system, financial centres, financial globalisation, and their geographical footprint. It addresses, among others, the following questions: what institutions need to underlie a sound financial system? How are financial centres created, how do they grow and decline, and how do they compete with each other? What are the costs and benefits of financial globalisation?
Geographies of NatureGeographies of Nature - This optional subject introduces different strands of this work, illustrating its potentials and problems with reference to diverse hot topics in contemporary environmental politics, including the carbon economy, 'natural hazards', environmental citizenship, nature on display, public deliberation, the body and wildlife.
Geopolitics in the MarginsGeopolitics in the Margins - This optional subject examines geographical understandings of marginality in international politics, with particular emphasis on: the recent history and political context of a range of 'geopolitical anomalies'; indigenous and unofficial diplomacies; state-like functions of unrecognised polities; the spaces of borderlands; and the idea of 'Zomia'. It turns attention to how postcolonial approaches in the field of critical geopolitics might inform an understanding of political legitimacy, (non)recognition, representations of 'the exceptional' and alternative geopolitical futures.
Island LifeIsland Life - The condition of insularity is hugely significant geographically. Increasing degrees of insularity have important implications for the self-sufficiency of island systems and for their relationship to larger, continental systems. Moreover, because of the profusion of islands and archipelagos in varying geographical contexts and arrangements, we are able to study specific processes and factors and determine how they influence the dynamics of island systems. In short, islands provide natural laboratories or model systems by which we can understand important factors shaping ecological systems and human societies alike. This optional subject explores the insights we may derive from the natural laboratory approach in understanding island life, encompassing the geological and environmental dynamics of island systems, the particular conditions of human societies on remote islands, and the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of island biotas.
© ben bryant / Shutterstock.comNew Approaches in Urban Geography - What does it mean to think of urbanisation on a planetary scale? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new form of urbanisation and, if so, what are the consequences for how we, as geographers, think about, research and inhabit cities? Has the category of the 'city' become obsolete? What conceptual and methodological tools might we deploy in describing and analysing societies undergoing rapid urban change? These are challenging and pressing questions for human geographers and this course introduces the concept of 'planetary urbanisation' and examine the wide variety of urbanisation processes that are currently reshaping the urban world. It considers contemporary issues in their historical context and integrates theoretical innovation with new methodological experimentation.
The Quaternary PeriodThe Quaternary Period: Natural and human systems - This course explores key themes in the science of the Quaternary Period (especially the Late Quaternary, with much material focussed within the last 100,000 years), and how major climate and environmental changes have interacted with physical, ecological and human factors to shape the Earth we live in today. In this optional subject we explore, in depth, themes that highlight research developments and major advances in the last decade, as Quaternary Science is a fast moving field that is often interdisciplinary, often controversial, and always exciting. This optional subject frames the current unprecedented rates of change in the Earth system in longer-term dynamics, focusing on their causes, effects, the empirical evidence base and models. The topics we cover reflect current research expertise in the department.
Transport and MobilitiesTransport and Mobilities - This course introduces students to the fields of transport geography and geographies of mobilities drawing on the cutting edge of empirical and conceptual research in both domains. It addresses, among others, the following questions. What is the role of transport and mobilities in the contemporary globalised world, at the level of regions and cities, and for individuals? Why and how is mobility central to issues of social justice and equity? How are transport and mobilities likely to change in the coming decades? How are transport and mobilities shaped by institutions and policy-making?

Please note that the optional subjects list is subject to change each year. There are no restrictions on the combination of courses chosen.

Each optional subject is taught through a combination of lectures, seminars and small classes. There is a written examination for each subject and students are also required to submit an extended essay for each subject.


In their second year all students attend a week-long overseas fieldtrip in the first week of Trinity Term. There is a choice of fieldtrips currently to Berlin and Tenerife. Each of these fieldtrips links the theoretical material covered in the course with empirical examples and opportunities to practice appropriate filed techniques. Students complete a fieldwork report which is assessed as part of the Final Honour School examination.

Find out more about our fieldwork through Out and About: The SoGE fieldtrip blog.


The dissertation is an important component of the degree - it gives students the opportunity to undertake their own piece of original research which they write up as a 12,000 word dissertation. The dissertation may be on any topic, as long as it is geographical in nature. Students start planning their dissertations during their second year and usually spend the summer vacation doing the research and writing up. Oxford undergraduate dissertations regularly win national prizes.


The Final Honour School is assessed as follows:

  • One written exam on the 'Geographical Thought: Histories, Philosophies, Practices' paper;
  • Two written exams - one for each of the 'Foundational Courses';
  • Three written exams - one for each of the 'Optional Subjects';
  • Three extended essays, one for each of the 'Optional Subjects', of 4,500 words each;
  • One geographical dissertation of 12,000 words; and
  • One fieldwork report of 4,500 words.