Exam Insights 2019: first impressions of the GCSE Geography Edexcel B exam

So, just like that, another exam season is over and the GCSE Geography exams of 2019 are completed. With this being the second cohort of Year 11s to sit the reformed Geography specifications, I think that many Geography teachers were intrigued to see another set of live papers – what would be tested this year? How would the fieldwork be tested? How challenging would the extended writing questions be?

As always, each paper had a mixed response. Some students came out relieved; others were puzzled by a question or two and some pleasantly surprised by how well they think they might have done. For me, the most important thing to do in exam season is ensure that as many of us from the Geography department as possible are there at the start and end of each exam. At the start to settle any nerves and answer any last-minute questions; at the end to provide motivation and reassurance for any students that might need it. Once again we prioritised this and once again, I felt it was hugely appreciated by students.

With Year 11 and Year 13 lessons now freed up, thoughts turn to the next cohort: the class of 2020. In terms of lessons learnt, this second set of papers has given me a clearer idea of what to do to challenge the most able students and those striving for a grade 8 or 9. Reflecting on the papers of the Edexcel B specification, which I teach, there are a couple of key ideas to take away. Last year, it was the inclusion of the word ‘topography’ in a 4-mark question that many Geography teachers felt would distinguish the most able. This year, the equivalent question was one asking students about ‘intermediate technology’ in top-down development. Now, as any teacher of the Edexcel B specification will know, these words are clearly on the specification and we have no reason to be surprised at their use in exam papers. However, with the vast amount of subject-specific terminology expected of our GCSE students, it is likely that these questions were unfortunately left blank by many. I would speculate that this is not because they didn’t know anything about these ideas but rather, they didn’t recognise the terminology and thus, didn’t attempt the question.

In terms of preparing the most able for future exams, I will plan to have a revision session focusing solely on the most challenging terminology – what does it mean? In what context is it used? How can we apply it across the GCSE course? In time, hopefully fewer students will be ‘caught out’ by these questions!

Thinking further about what we can learn from these exams, we now have an even clearer picture of what is required of our GCSE students – knowledge that we can take and embed into Key Stage 3. This is particularly pertinent at a time when many departments are reviewing their Key Stage 3 curriculum in light of the new Ofsted framework. Key questions to consider include:

  • How much of the GCSE terminology are we exposing our students to at Key Stage 3?
  • Where are the opportunities to build more complex and challenging vocabulary into Key Stage 3 topics?
  • How many of the GCSE skills have we built into Key Stage 3?
  • Which topics currently lack a skills focus and can be tweaked to help build a foundation for future study?

Finally, the biggest focus for my department and me has to be continually reflecting on how we prepare students for the unseen fieldwork and unseen resource questions. Here, I am referring to Paper 2 of the Edexcel B specification but in all courses students are required to engage with an unfamiliar fieldwork scenario and answer questions about how it can be improved, why certain sites were chosen or whether or not a conclusion drawn by students is accurate. Since first teaching this course, we’ve made huge improvements to our provision of GCSE fieldwork and (I believe) have seen a big improvement in the confidence and ability of students to answer these questions well. However, a significant limiting factor remains our lack of fieldwork at Key stage 3. We are constrained by the organisation required with such large numbers and of course, cost. Moving forward, embedding more fieldwork (be that on-site or off-site) is a priority for me at KS3. I firmly believe that more experience of undertaking fieldwork will aid students in the unseen fieldwork questions.

Once again, after results day, the opportunity to recall and see student’s scripts will be of huge value, allowing us to gain an insight into how the papers were marked and the level of writing expected for a grade 5, 7 and 9. Then of course there is the examiner’s report published each summer – a unique resource offering a valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of responses. From this report, we’ll embed snippets of model answers into lessons and exam feedback sessions, continually seeking to improve our teaching of the specification. But, for now, perhaps the most stressful part of the year is over and so let’s enjoy the end of the summer term and the end of another academic year!

Kate Stockings is Head of Geography at The Hampstead School having completed her PGCE at the University of Cambridge 2014-2015. She is an author for OUP and has just completed her Masters in Education.