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Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms

‘Good achievement was the result of a good range of practical activities that enabled students to develop their geographical skills.’

Ofsted, 2011

Topics on this page:

  • What is meant by independent practice?
  • The purpose of independent practice: how to do it
  • Selecting activities for independent practice
  • Techniques for engaging students in thinking and decision making
  • Thinking hard
  • Types of activities for geographical learning
  • What is a teacher’s role in independent practice?
  • Reading

What is meant by independent practice?

We have seen in Explicit teaching that after some instruction and teacher-led questioning the teacher and students may work together to consolidate the new learning though guided practice. But to become really fluent in the use of a newly learned concept or skill, students need to use it and think about it through independent practice.

Independent practice does not imply that a student is working alone. In geography, many learning activities involve students working with a partner, or with others in a small group (see Collaborative learning in geography).

The purpose of independent practice: how to do it

Independent practice is an integral part of effective teaching. It is when students take the shallow knowledge they have acquired from new learning and develop it into deeper understanding (see Making connections for learning). 

To do this they need to think hard about the new ideas and actively use them so that the new knowledge is related to their existing knowledge. Once it has become embedded in schemas and deep understanding it can be effectively retrieved and applied in the future.

The tasks must support students in transferring knowledge from their working memory to their long-term memory. Thus, you should focus on what will make students think hard about what it is you need them to learn. Designing activities is not just about making them motivating, although this does help them to engage in thinking about the geography involved.

Therefore, teachers must ensure that students have repeated opportunities to practise new ideas, concepts and skills and are given appropriate guidance and support. This increases success. It is vital that students experience success, especially when they are novice learners because this will be motivating and encourage them to try hard. This is necessary if they are to think hard and deepen and extend their understanding.

When you introduce independent learning activities, you should:

  • Prepare students by clearly communicating what they have to do and what is expected of them
  • Monitor as they work, checking their understanding and intervening where required
  • Provide verbal feedback to redirect students if necessary and motivate them to persevere
  • Consider what appropriate scaffolding might be required to achieve success.

You may need to break up a complex activity into smaller steps. This can help students to tackle a task, but can also show the teacher where mistakes are occurring so students can be put back on track.

Selecting activities for independent practice

In geography, there are numerous teaching and learning activities that provide opportunities for independent practice of new concepts or skills. You will be spoilt for choice! Vary the activities you use; students will not be motivated if lessons adopt the same format of activities over and over again.

Focus on the intended geographical learning and the students’ learning needs when you select activities. Students’ prior knowledge is a key element in determining how well their learning will progress during independent practice. Unless you are aware of what students know or don’t know, you cannot select the right activity to develop their understanding.

If new knowledge is not being linked to previous knowledge, students might appear busy, but they will not actually be learning anything. You should also consider the geographical skills that an activity requires and whether students will need to be taught these first.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will they practise an existing geographical skill?
  • Will they be applying existing understanding in a new context?
  • What prior knowledge and skills will students need?
  • How will you introduce the activity?
  • Is the activity challenging enough?
  • What will you expect the students to produce?
  • How will you monitor, manage and conclude it?
  • Are general skills to be developed in the activity?

We saw in Geographical learning and memory that there is a relationship between memory and thinking, therefore a teacher must carefully consider exactly what geography the students are to think about in an activity. The geography must be remembered, not the activity.

Engagement is a word that is often used in the context of lesson activities. Hendrick (2020) discusses the difference between surface engagement and actual learning and warns about students who are keen to busy themselves doing tasks and give the appearance of learning without any long-lasting and durable learning. Students must be thinking hard if they are to achieve learning.

Do not fall into the trap of devising interesting activities for students, but forgetting the geographical learning. Student engagement requires designing well planned activities that challenge them to think about the geography topic in a new way and apply what they have learnt in different contexts. Focus on the learning you want students to achieve and think about creating the conditions in which that learning takes place.

Techniques for activities to engage students in thinking and making decisions

Students asked to: 
VerbaliseAsking students to explain what they learned to a partner can help them consolidate their learning and identify gaps in understanding.
Reduce informationAsking students to select the most important words from a text or parts of a diagram can help them recognise and identify key features. The teacher can impose a limit, e.g. reduce to five key words.
Transform informationTransforming information from one form to another aids learning because students have first to deconstruct then to reconstruct information. This can help reveal misconceptions. Examples include converting text to a picture, flowchart or diagram, or building a model to represent a process described in text or vice versa.
Sequence textProviding students with text that has been broken down into a series of sentences or phrases and then inviting them to put them in the correct sequence can help them develop an understanding of text structure. It is particularly useful in helping students understand and describe processes.
PredictAsking students to speculate about what will happen in a particular circumstance or what they expect to find before engaging with a task encourages students to engage with the learning.
ClassifyCollecting, sorting, categorising and even re-categorising data (e.g. through card-sort activities) can help students develop thinking and understanding of concepts.
Create cognitive mapsEncouraging students to create maps such as concept maps helps them link ideas together and see connections. Students could be asked to draw a map of what they learned in a lesson and to show how these ideas link with previous learning. Concept maps are useful in revealing misconceptions.
Rank orderProviding students with information on cards and asking them to rank order the information stimulates decision-making and discussion. Different decisions made by pairs can be explored in small groups where students have to justify their decisions. This is particularly useful for exploring complex issues and situations where there is no right answer.

When you plan lessons, select an activity (or activities) for the intended geographical learning and the students’ learning needs. Consider the geographical skills that the activity requires and whether students will need to be taught these. Are general skills being developed as well? Carefully consider how to introduce the activity. What will you expect the students to produce from the activity and how will you monitor, manage and conclude it?

Ofsted in Geography: Learning to make a world of difference (2011) commented that more able students often underachieve in geography because learning activities are not challenging enough. The activities you adopt should have appropriate cognitive challenge for your students and require them to analyse, interpret and evaluate information.

Thinking hard

The prime requirement for selecting activities for independent practice is that students must think for themselves. As a teacher, you must set your students an appropriate level of challenge. Indeed, they must face difficulty, struggle a little and overcome it, if they are to learn. Unless they think hard, they will not take the new information into long-term memory and so learning will not occur.

When you set students activities with sufficient challenge they will reflect on the content with which they are working. If they struggle, and get some things wrong, they will have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. This is all part of a good learning experience.

But can it be too difficult? Yes. Students must be challenged but if it is too difficult they are likely to reach cognitive overload and give up; then learning fails to happen. You need to set them work that is challenging, but achievable and within their reach. Discuss this with experienced geography teachers so you learn how to pitch the level of challenge. Ask for guidance on the type of scaffolding strategies you can use to support those that are struggling too much.

  • Read Holbrey and Parkhurst (2020). This article reviews a trainee teacher’s use of learning activities in geography and her tutor’s reflection.

Types of activities for geographical learning

Independent activities, in the form we have been outlining here, are often fairly short and contained within a single lesson. These activities have a very clear focus to bring about deep learning in a specific aspect of geography.

The theory behind this notion of ‘active learning’ is closely linked to constructivist theories of learning and the idea that students learn by being cognitively active and engaging their minds in their learning. The student actively constructs understanding through thinking about new material, processing information and making connections with previous learning.

The short activities below are designed to engage students and make them think. They are good techniques to use for independent practice.

Short activities

There are many types of short (i.e. within a lesson) activities that can be utilised for geographical learning:

  • Card sorting activities: These involve students matching, categorising, classifying, ranking or sequencing.
  • Activities for explaining: These are often paper-based and help students to organise ideas and to explain their geographical thinking, e.g. brainstorming, spider and bubble diagrams, mind maps, clues, odd one out. For spider diagrams and mind maps, explore some completed diagrams with students in the first instance. Concept mapping is a longer, more advanced activity for explaining relationships between concepts (see Roberts (2023) chapters 18 and 19).
  • Activities for developing students’ questioning skills, e.g. 5Ws, development compass rose, layers of inference, questioning frameworks, Socratic questions.
  • Activities for eliciting students’ prior knowledge and understanding e.g. intelligent guesswork (Roberts (2023) chapter 15).
  • Activities to develop skills in analysing resources e.g. five key points (Roberts 2023, chapter 16) or the layers of inference framework (Roberts 2023, chapter 17).
  • Activities for retrieval practice e.g. quizzes, taboo, storyboarding, maps from memory.
  • Activities that use images, data, maps and diagrams, e.g. Maps from memoryLiving graphsReading photographsPredicting with videoUsing data.

Do not be constrained by these groups of activities. You will find many others referred to in Teaching Geography articles or books such as Rogers (2017), Roberts (2023), Enser (2019) or Harris (2017) for activities used by geography teachers. Be prepared to think ‘outside of the box’. Read Blackwell (2023) who outlines how activities used in the corporate environment can transfer into the geography classroom.

Longer activities

Other learning activities with a much longer time frame often require more teacher preparation time and resources. Such activities usually occupy several lessons and are more open-ended.

Longer activities have different learning goals. They are less concerned with retrieval practice and independent practice of newly learned geography knowledge and concepts, but are more concerned with higher-order geographical learning, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Such activities require a teacher to spend time afterwards to fully debrief students to ensure that the learning intentions are brought to fruition.

These types of activities are considered within the section on Geography subject teaching and curriculum. They include geographical enquiries, decision making exercises, mysteries and role plays.

What is a teacher’s role in independent practice?

Ahead of the independent practice, explicit teaching should provide clear explanations and models to develop students’ understanding of the necessary knowledge and skills. They should prepare them for the activity in the I do and We do phases of the teaching. .

The teacher must carefully plan the time allocated to the activity and strike a balance between:

  • A) sufficient time for students to engage properly with the task and have time for discussion, and
  • B) setting a time target so that they do not waste time and the pace of learning is maintained.

The key to success is for students to be actively engaged and learning; monitor the learning gains to get a sense of when to draw an activity to a close and when to move on to discuss the outcomes.

When students are engaged in independent practice, check to see if any students need your support or further explanation. Monitor to decide if you should increase the level of challenge for some students or re-teach material to any who have not understood. Independent practice is the point in the lesson where you can begin to assess if students have successfully achieved the intended learning.

Do not be afraid to ‘take risks’ with different learning activities. Look for support from your geography mentor or other geography teachers if you are unsure. Ask one of them to co-teach with you if you are trying out an ambitious activity for the first time and feel you need help.

Keep a record of the range of activities you use with different groups to help monitor that you are using a variety of strategies across the age-ranges you are teaching. It can be too easy to stick with a few learning activities that you feel most comfortable with, so a monitoring sheet will help you honestly evaluate the range of different activities you are using.

Evaluating the learning activity

Think about the following.

  • The learning objectives you identified – were they achieved? How well?
  • What progress have students made in their geographical understanding?
  • What competencies/skills have they achieved?
  • Did it meet the learning needs of all students? Identify any where it did not – and why?
  • Was any more guidance/support required to carry out the activity successfully?
  • Did the activity motivate and interest students? If not why?
  • Did the form of grouping impact on attainment, behaviour or motivation?
  • Would you approach the activity differently next time?

Reading

  • Blackwell, M. (2023) ‘Adapting corporate activities to enhance geographical learning in the classroom’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge.
  • Hendrick, C. and Heal, J. (2020) ‘Just because they’re engaged, it doesn’t mean they’re learning’, Impact. Chartered College of Teaching, September.
  • Holbrey, C. and Parkhurst, L. (2020) ‘Can engaging teaching survive the knowledge revolution?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons. Bloomsbury Education.