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Fieldwork through enquiry

“The pre-eminent contribution fieldwork can make to geography education is to involve students in the act of observing and asking questions of, and in, the real world.”

Alan Kinder, 2018

Topics on this page:

Using an enquiry approach for geographical fieldwork | Models of fieldwork enquiry | The right questions | Data collection | Data analysis | Conclusions and evaluation | Case studies of fieldwork | References

Using an enquiry approach for geographical fieldwork

Enquiry and fieldwork are key features in geography examinations. At GCSE, students must show ‘understanding of the kinds of question capable of being investigated through fieldwork and an understanding of the geographical enquiry processes appropriate to investigate these.’

A level students have to complete an independent investigation – a geographical enquiry. The Awarding Organisations have their own route to enquiry diagram (as shown). It is based on one originally developed by the Geography 16–19 Project in the late 1970s.

These examination fieldwork requirements have had a direct effect on the key stage 3 geography curriculum since geography teachers recognise the need to develop enquiry skills using the route for enquiry throughout the secondary phase.

  • Read Meneer (2021) who explains how the new GCSE specifications concentrate more on the process of the investigation and justifying decisions.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can be a powerful tool to help students do better geography in fieldwork enquiries. See Geospatial technologies (including GIS).

Models of fieldwork enquiry

There is no one model for fieldwork enquiries. Very often the route for geographical enquiry is followed which is sequential framework of questions and activities. This had its origins in the Geography 16-19 project and has been very influential in approaches to fieldwork enquiries.

This is quite a teacher-centred approach. Teachers tend to choose the content to be studied and the key questions that frame the enquiry; they also tend to select the data collection methods. Students carry out the data collection and develop skills of presenting, analysing, interpreting and reaching conclusions.

  • Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) Chap 7 p 200 for an example of a ‘framed’ approach to fieldwork enquiry.

The diagram showing Robert’s models of fieldwork enquiry shows that framed approaches can be less teacher-directed, if students are given opportunities to participate in decisions over the enquiry questions and data collection methods. 

The teacher can facilitate the fieldwork, in terms or organising the sites, equipment and resources, without making all the decisions about aspects such as sampling strategy or data analysis.

Enabling students to make the key enquiry decisions is important to prepare them to work more independently which is required for the A level investigation. Therefore, schools recognise that giving students opportunities to develop these skills in the key stage 3 and fieldwork curriculum is important.

The right questions

The secret of successful geographical fieldwork enquiries lay in posing the right questions.  Questions should place some aspect of geographical thinking or a concept at the forefront of students’ minds. It should capture the interest and imagination of students so that it leads to  tangible, lively, substantial and enjoyable fieldwork.

Questions can be presented to the students by the teacher, as indicated in the framed enquiries shown in the diagram. But even at key stage 3, students should begin to devise their own questions.

GCSE students need to be aware of the decision making process even if they do not actually decide the questions they go on to investigate in the field. At A level, students will need to justify the enquiry questions in their individual investigation, but GCSE students can also be involved in framing fieldwork enquiry questions and evaluating them. 

Mini-enquiry tasks can be set for homework to give students freedom to decide on the question and data collection methods – these may or may not involve actual fieldwork. Widdowson (2024) provides an example of enquiry-based fieldwork, focussed on a single enquiry question for a day’s fieldwork in line with the requirements of both GCSE and A level. 

Data collection

A fieldwork enquiry requires the use of primary data. Teachers should discuss with students in pre-fieldwork teaching what fieldwork techniques and data collection methods to use. For example, students should prepare and trial questionnaires before they use them in the field to see if they work, and make sure questions are fully understood.

At GCSE students need to be able to justify the choice of techniques. They need to be taught where and why it is appropriate to use new techniques as they are introduced. Students need awareness of the reliability and accuracy of the techniques they use, such as sampling, and the importance of the choice of sites. 

The FSC encourages students to get involved in decision-making about data collection and they ask students to complete a form such as this (see inset) to explain how they intend to collect data.

Another idea suggested by the FSC is to ask students to record a 2 min video to justify why a fieldwork site is suitable – or not – for investigating an enquiry. Students should also be encouraged to think about secondary data, such as newspaper reports or previous surveys or census data that could help to support their enquiry.

  • Refer to Searl, C. (2021) Methods of Collecting Fieldwork Data, Sheffield; Geographical Association.

Data analysis

It can be very helpful for students to begin to consider what the data they have been collecting means while they are still in the field. Teachers can ask them direct questions to get them consider what they are finding out. Students should be encouraged to engage critically with their data at the fieldwork location.

Rough and ready graphs such as scatter graphs using stones, or piling up bags like histograms can help them to see relationships in their findings at different sites. Taking photographs on a smart phone and annotating them with software such as Skitch can help them to record what they have seen for later consideration.

Back in the classroom, students should discuss the best way to analyse and present the data. What can they interpret from the data and what meaning can be inferred? This process must not drag on over too long a period or it will be disconnected from the fieldwork. The way the data is presented needs to be clear and not confusing for others looking at it.

Can they select and justify appropriate presentation methods? Could they use Google maps or GIS to display the spatial location of data or the sampling sites? How can they best use their photographic evidence? Does the presentation of the data support and represent the findings of the enquiry? All these questions need careful consideration by students in their post-fieldwork analysis.

Students can use photos in several different ways. Annotation is a key analytical skill and it demonstrates interpretation of evidence in photo. Students can also compare photos of places taken in the past with new photos taken during fieldwork – a technique called re-photography.

Conclusions and evaluation

Students need to critically reflect on the enquiry methods they use and evaluate how effective they were. They must evaluate each stage of their enquiry. 

Questions need to be asked such as: What were the problems and limitations of the methods? What were the limitations of the data presentation? How did your methods affect the reliability? What influence has this had on your ability to draw a valid conclusion? As was said earlier, it is much easier for students if they begin to think about these things while they are still in the field.

Finally, can the student answer the enquiry question? Do they think their conclusion is reliable? How might they extend their enquiry, or do it differently next time?

When students bring together a final report they should link up all the six stages of the route to enquiry so they can show that the methods relate to finding out for the question, the data presentation is suitable for the methods they used etc. 

It’s important they become familiar with the stages, understand what is involved in each and how they are linked together. For quality fieldwork enquiry students must be actively engaged in each stage and participate as critical thinkers rather than passive followers.

  • Refer to Searl, C. (2021) Methods of Presenting Fieldwork Data, Sheffield; Geographical Association.
  • Refer to Rynne (1997) for a good example of the whole planning process for a settlement enquiry for year 7.

Case studies of fieldwork

  • Barratt, R., Burgess, H. and Cass, D. (1997) ‘An enquiry approach to geography fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge.
  • Meneer, H. (2021) ‘GCSE fieldwork: tacking the shift from content to process’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Owen, A. Investigating urban green spaces, GA web resource.
  • Peppin, K. (2020) ‘Getting outside! Investigating the school environment, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Rawling, E. (1975) ‘Supermarket for Llandovery: An exercise in field research’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Rynne, E. (1997) ‘An enquiry approach to geography fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, April.  – this provides a good example of the whole planning process for a settlement enquiry for Year 7.
  • Widdowson, J. (2024) ‘Fieldwork on the Elizabeth line– an investigation into the impacts of London’s latest rail line, Teaching Geography, Summer.


  • Kinder, A. (2018) ‘Acquiring geographical knowledge and understanding through fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2018) ‘Do the new GCSEs promote “sound enquiry and investigative approaches” to learning geography?’, Geography, Spring.
  • Widdowson, J. and Parkinson, A. (2020) Fieldwork Through Enquiry 2nd Edition Sheffield: The Geographical Association.