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Geography examinations

‘The GCSE course will deepen understanding of geographical processes, illuminate the impact of change and of complex people-environment interactions, highlight the dynamic links and interrelationships between places and environments at different scales, and develop students’ competence in using a wide range of geographical investigative skills and approaches.’

DfE, Geography GCSE subject content, 2014 

Topics on this page:

  • What do I need to know about examinations and be able to do?
  • Current geography examinations
  • Analysis of GCSEs
  • Exploring A level examination specifications
  • Fieldwork in examinations
  • Preparing students for examinations in geography
  • Adaptive learning for GCSE classes
  • Marking and assessing with examination criteria
  • Planning a unit of work for an examination specification
  • More about examinations
  • Reading

What do I need to know about examinations and be able to do?

During your training and induction you should develop your understanding of:

  • The current specifications for geography examinations
  • The part played by fieldwork in examinations
  • How to prepare students for examinations in geography
  • How examinations are marked
  • How examination data is used.

You should have practical experience of:

  • Teaching examination classes
  • Assessing work completed by students using examination criteria and mark schemes.

You will find out a lot about examinations and teaching examination classes from your school. This is excellent experience, but consider it as a case study. You need a broader understanding of examinations than you can obtain from just one school because there are different examination specifications and different ways that teachers develop their curriculum and teach students.

You need to be aware of other courses and how their content and assessment approaches are similar to, or different from, the ones you teach. You can explore this on examination board websites, where you can see specifications and sample examination papers, by reading articles in Teaching Geography and through your visits to other schools.

Key reading

  • Biddulph et al (2021) Examinations in perspective pp. 242-247.

Current geography examinations

GCSE and AS/A level geography examinations have been revised and the new courses were examined for the first time in 2018. The revised GCSE qualifications introduced a different grading system (9–1 to replace A*–G), more challenging content and new assessment systems.

  • Refer to Geography: GCSE subject content from the DfE. This sets out the learning outcomes and content coverage required for all GCSE specifications in geography.

Specifications take different approaches. The awarding bodies provide information for teachers on their websites. The GCSE assessment objectives are common to all examinations set out in the GCSE Subject Level Guidance for Geography from Ofqual.

GCSE geography examinations follow either a thematic approach of physical/human themes or an issues-based approach, in a people-environment context. For example, one is subtitled ‘Geographical themes and challenges’ and another ‘Geography for enquiring minds’. Some GCSE specifications explicitly advocate enquiry learning through a framework of geographical enquiry questions that encourage an investigative approach and engaging pupils actively in the enquiry process.

  • Refer to Rawlings Smith (2017) pp. 263-4 for information about selecting and resourcing A level specifications.

Find out about GCSE specifications, questions and mark schemes and think about:

  • What a GCSE specification includes. Look carefully at the one taught in your school.
  • What GCSE choices a school has. Go to the GA website for information and links to the awarding bodies’ websites: AQA, EDEXCEL, EDUQAS, OCR. 
  • How assessment approaches and content differ. (Refer to Digby (2015), which gives an overview of the content of each draft specification)
  • Choose a specification that appears quite different from the one taught in your school and closely compare them. Discuss your analysis with your geography mentor and discuss the reasons why the school selected the specification they teach.
  • Look at the specimen questions and mark schemes for the GCSE taught in your school. See if you can answer all the questions or whether it exposes any gaps in your subject knowledge.
  • When you are in your second school during your initial training, have a similar discussion with the head of geography and ask them about their choice of examination specification.
  • Read GCE AS and A level subject content for geography from the DfE, which sets out the knowledge, understanding and skills common to all AS and A level specifications.
  • Carry out the same investigation for A level examinations as you did for GCSE. Go to the GA website for information and links to the awarding bodies’ websites: AQA, Pearson/ EDEXCEL, EDUQAS.
  • Discuss your analysis with your geography mentor. Why did they select the specification they teach?
  • Discuss how they resource their teaching of the specification they have chosen.
  • In your second school, have a similar discussion with the head of geography.

Fieldwork in examinations

At GCSE, there must be ‘different approaches to fieldwork undertaken in at least two contrasting environments’ and schools must confirm that they have offered all students these opportunities. There is no teacher-assessed coursework as part of the GCSE examinations.

The geography GCSE subject content makes clear that students are expected to understand ‘the kinds of questions capable of being investigated through fieldwork and an understanding of the geographical enquiry processes appropriate to investigate these’ (DfE, 2014 p. 8).

The examination requirements for fieldwork at A level are a minimum of two fieldwork days at AS and four days at A level. AS geography is assessed entirely through terminal examination. For A level, 20% of the assessment is a teacher-assessed independent investigation that incorporates fieldwork and research. The range of fieldwork-related knowledge and skills to be assessed at AS/A level is broad and includes:

  • Physical and human geography
  • Field research questions
  • Observing and recording phenomena
  • Devising and justifying practical approaches
  • Applying existing knowledge and concepts to the field
  • Coherent analysis of findings.

The Awarding Organisations have their own route to enquiry diagram (as shown) – see Fieldwork through enquiry.

Preparing students for examinations in geography

Across your initial training experience in two schools you should spend a substantial amount of time teaching and team teaching examination groups, so you can learn how to teach students from year 10 to year 13 (depending on the age range you are training to teach). 

You need to have some continuous teaching of these classes over several weeks to give you experience of planning and assessing. You will understand that teachers are often reluctant to give their examination classes over completely to an inexperienced trainee teacher, so you should expect to be closely monitored in your planning and teaching. Welcome this, so you can rest assured you are not limiting the chances of your students for examination success.

Thoroughly prepare your teaching; in particular, make sure that your subject knowledge of the topics is secure. Read well beyond the course textbooks if the topic is new for you. Always discuss lesson content with the class teacher if you are unsure. Look at mark schemes and criteria or shadow mark some work with your mentor to get a sense of the level at which you need to pitch the subject knowledge in lessons and the expected standards for students.

Key reading

  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge, chapter 14 ‘How to help students achieve in their exams’.

The main advice reinforces that there are not quick fixes. Good teaching has to begin on day one and the strategies that Harris sets out are all part of good teaching. There is nothing particularly different about GCSE or A level teaching. However, there are some techniques that students need to know and be confident in if they are going to achieve their best. Understanding the command words in questions, adopting effective revision practices, and knowing how to use case studies effectively are three that are important.

Preparing most students for examinations involves, for example, making sure they understand the meaning of ‘command’ words used in examination questions.

Case study questions are a common feature of geography exams and require students to memorise lots of information. Students can easily get mixed up and confused when recalling case study facts because their working memory has been overloaded. Consider how you can help them to simplify case studies to the most pertinent and useful facts to illustrate the geographical example. 

A good way to help students to commit the information to their long-term memory is to simplify it in a diagram. Students also need to be taught the technique to use a case study effectively to answer examination questions if they are to gain all the marks available.

Other aspects of the GCSE examination that require good preparation are the longer answers for higher-tariff questions and questions that require evaluation of provided resources. Simmons (2016) shows how students can develop their answers to achieve higher level responses.

  • For some good advice, refer to What we learned from the GA’s Secondary Phase Committee for some tips and suggestions on how to approach exams through teaching and preparation.

Refer to these references:

  • Guidance from examination boards on-line.
  • For advice on preparing students for examinations see:
    • For GCSE: Chapman and Digby (2006); Enser (2019), chapter 4 ‘Should we be practising for the exam?’ and Rogers (2017), part 5 exams and ideas pp. 70, 74, 75.
    • For A level: Spencer (2018) and Warn (2006)
  • Read the Chief Examiner’s annual report for the GCSE/A level specification you teach. Read about using examiners’ reports in Palot and Hore (2019) at A level and Rynne et al (2020) for GCSE.
  • See PowerPoint: GCSE geography: preparing for success (AQA) Keith Bartlett and Issue evaluation for all abilities (AQA) Rebecca Blackshaw.

Geography departments often use revision techniques, including the use of past papers, ‘fault and fix tests’, teaching memory techniques. They also often run ‘revision sessions’ prior to examinations to try to increase students’ chances of success. See Puttick (2013) to read about his research project into GCSE geography revision. Harris (2017) reminds us that many students will require guidance and support to revise effectively since they do not always know how to go about it.

Discuss with your geography mentor, and other geography teachers, how they prepare students in examination ‘skills’. How does the school and department organise revision and examination preparation? Ask if you can participate in revision lessons to gain further experience of GCSE classes.

  • Read about revision strategies in Brown (2019) and Harris (2017), chapter 14.
  • Refer to Exam revision time from the GA’s Secondary Phase Committee.

Teaching examination classes is high stakes in schools because of the league tables, and Progress 8 scores that hold schools to account. It is a serious responsibility for all teachers. This can lead to the temptation to focus exclusively on preparing students for the examinations. 

Iwaskow (2013) gives an HMI perspective when he urges teachers to avoid this and writes, ‘in order to improve the quality of geography, teaching needs to refocus on learning rather than training in exam technique.’ The message is clear: for geography examination success, students need to develop geographical argument drawing upon rigorous knowledge and understanding. Sustained good teaching over time is the only way to achieve this; there are no short cuts.

Key reading

  • To prepare post-16 students for examinations, read Rawlings Smith (2017), especially Building up to exams on page 272 and Figure 11 A level geography: personal preparation game plan; also see Copnall (2002).

Adaptive learning for GCSE classes

Teaching strategies are no different for examination classes than for key stage 3 teaching. Look at Model Live, which shows how a geography teacher can model a GCSE answer by building it up with the class through questioning and discussion.

Use a wide range of strategies that involve active participation and assessment for learning. The PowerPoint ‘Meeting the Challenges of the new Edexcel GSCEs’ shows a wide range of ideas for teaching strategies that are examination related. The greater maturity of most students means they should be better independent learners than at key stage 3 and make good use of success criteria for peer and self-assessment to help them understand the examination expectations and standards they need to attain.

In previous GCSE exams there were tiered papers that were targeted at students of different abilities, but currently all students sit the same examination. Mainstream GCSE geography classes are likely to include students with complex learning needs. 

Read about how one teacher meets this challenge in Pook (2017). Macdonald (2017) found the use of a question tracker particularly useful as an inclusive strategy. Discuss with your geography mentor how they approach preparing classes that include a wide range of abilities for the same examination.

Awarding bodies also offer ‘entry level’ courses in geography and you can explore the details of these on the relevant websites. Find out if these courses are offered in your school.

  • Look at the specimen papers for GCSE/A level on the awarding bodies’ websites. How do the papers use resources? What command words are commonly used in the questions? Are they different at GCSE to A level?
  • Consider how you would explain to students how to use command words and marks to guide their answers.
  • Discuss with your geography mentor how they use mark schemes and papers in teaching lessons for GCSE/A level groups and for classroom-based assessment.
  • Identify the questions you think are more difficult. Discuss these with your geography mentor.
  • Look at the GA webpage on Examinations explained, which considers questions such as: How are exams marked? What is a grade boundary? The page has factsheets to download which have been written by OCR to inform GCSE and A level students about the basics of examining.
  • Gain experience of both formative and summative assessment of examination classes.
  • Look for opportunities to plan and write your own assessments, using the examination format and criteria. If, as a trainee, you are in school during ‘mock’ examinations, this can give you experience of examination marking and moderation.

Planning a unit of work for an examination specification

The awarding body’s specification is NOT a scheme of work, although some do have models of planned units on their websites as well as the specification. Some examinations provide key questions in their specifications that can form a framework for planning geographical enquiries. Get experience of planning your own scheme of work for your students. Do this for both GCSE and A level classes.

  • Analyse previous questions on the topic you are planning and think about how you will plan for the students to develop the skills they will need to answer these questions when you plan your unit.
  • If you are writing a plan for A level teaching, think about how you will prepare your students for writing the longer answers needed for this exam.

More about examinations

In the press there are often comments about the rigour of today’s examinations in comparison with the past. An interesting read is Percival (2013) about the history of A level and Cook (2009) on the International Baccalaureate and geography.

There are often proposals for changes to the exam system. For example, in June 2022 the Time Education Commission recommended a British Baccalaureate offering broader academic qualifications at 18 and a slimmed down set of exams at 16 (see here for further information). You should keep abreast of suggested developments such as these in the press.

If you are interested in the reasons why students study A level geography, read Ferretti (2007). This reports on research undertaken at a time when A level entries in geography were declining (they are now on the increase). This topic could be an interesting mini-research topic for you to investigate in your school, in relation to either GCSE or A level.

For an analysis of geography results from the GA look at Geography GCSE and A level results.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2015) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 3rd edition. Abingdon: Routledge, chapter 8.
  • Brown, C. (2019) ‘Planned revision’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Chapman, R, and Digby, B. (2006) ‘Gotta get thru this’- GCSE examination’ in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Cook, B. (2009) ‘The International Baccalaureate and the globalisation of geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Copnall, G. (2002) ‘Improving students’ performance in AS-level Geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Digby, B. (2015) ‘Choosing a new GCSE specification’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, chapter 4.
  • Ferretti, J. (2007) ‘What Influences Students to Choose Geography at A-level?’, Geography, Summer.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge, chapter 14.
  • Iwaskow, L. (2013) ‘Geography: a fragile environment?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Macdonald, A. (2017) The question tracker; inclusive geography through dialogue’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Palot, I., Hore, H., Oakes, S. and Digby, B. (2018) ‘How can the AS examiners’ reports help to improve your students’ performance at A level?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Percival, J. (2013) ‘A-level geography 30 years on’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Pook, B. (2017) ‘Inclusive geography for students with complex learning needs’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Puttick, S. (2013) ‘GCSE geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Rawlings Smith, E. (2017) ‘Post-16 geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Education, part 5 exams and ideas pp.70, 74, 75.
  • Rynne, E., Hinchliffe,L., Hopkin,J., Gardner, D. and Pilkinton, E. (2020) ‘Using Examiners’ Reports from GCSE 2019 to improve future performance’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Simmons, M. (2016) ‘Developing written answers’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Spencer, H. (2018) ‘Going beyond’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Warn, S. (2006) ‘Preparing for public examinations’ in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Wood, P. and Sutton, A. (2002) ‘Decision making exercises and assessment in post-16 geography’, Teaching Geography, April.