How do you assess “thinking like a geographer”? – Part 1

Geographical issues are wide-ranging, important, complex, and they present themselves on a range of scales. As teachers, we happily spend weeks developing students’ knowledge and understanding of case studies that represent these issues. I want to question how this material is being assessed and why examination boards assess specific aspects of geographical issues. I am also interested in the assessment of research skills amongst our students and wonder whether linear examinations are perhaps a better measure of memory than true geographical awareness, passion and understanding.

It seems sensible to begin with an example:

When GCSE students think about natural hazards, they are likely to turn to floods, volcanoes or perhaps earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis to demonstrate their knowledge of the causes, effects, responses or management of such events. If examination boards demand that candidates know about more and less developed countries, students are likely to have events in specific countries in mind and will hopefully apply their knowledge to meet the needs of the question. Surely then, if we provide students with the right list of causes, effects and responses which are specific to an event, one would hope they will remember these points in order to work in detail under examination time pressures. In this way, it seems that examinations are a measure of student memory rather than a measure of true geographical awareness and passion for the subject. Do we feel that examination questions assess our students for the quality and richness of their geographical understanding or are we simply measuring their ability to recall points and apply them to specific question settings?

Playing it safe vs thinking like a geographer

At a more advanced level, A Level, geography becomes more synoptic but my experience as a teacher points towards students wanting to ‘play it safe’ to ‘meet the needs of the mark scheme’. I spend time with my students working on the balance of their answers with common questions arising: ‘how much time should I dedicate to case studies? how much should I focus on theory? should I consider rich and then poor countries or should I compare and contrast them within the same paragraph with two different case studies?’

So what would happen if we just asked our geographers to write what they know about natural hazards or disasters? Would this become too difficult to mark or would it enable our students to express their passion and love for the subject? Perhaps mark schemes could be adjusted accordingly to measure ‘thinking like a geographer’ – the degree to which our students express passion; an understanding of scale; an appreciation of rich and poor; what it means to live in a hazardous area. What would such a mark scheme look like? Perhaps they would award marks for some of the following areas:

  • Level of passion and enthusiasm
  • Level of structure
  • Use of key terminology and technical detail
  • Spelling punctuation and grammar
  • Ability to draw disparate areas of a specification together (to make links)
  • Use of a range of reliable sources
  • Incorporation of images / videos which relate to candidate’s response (more on this below)
  • Use of case studies to demonstrate theory discussed
  • Strength of conclusion

To be continued. . . 

Image: OUP

Nick Dyson

Nick DNick Dysonyson is currently Head of Sixth Form at Burgess Hill Girls, and also works as an examiner. He has held a variety of teaching roles during his career, including: Newly Qualified Teacher Coordinator, Head of Geography and Head of Careers. Outside of the classroom, he is also a keen windsurfer.