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Consolidating geographical learning

“The practice of recalling information in order to strengthen this recall for the future…is a necessary part of the learning process and ensures that our students become knowledgeable geographers.”

Mark Enser, 2019

Topics on this page:

  • How to consolidate geographical learning
  • What is mastery in geographical learning?
  • Things to consider about consolidating learning
  • Misunderstandings and misconceptions
  • Discussion with teachers
  • Reading

How to consolidate geographical learning

The learning of geographical information is not a ‘one off’’. It is about the process of students engaging with new ideas and storing them in memory, gradually building connections within their geographical schemas and consolidating learning so that the ideas are permanent and accessible when required. 

In order to consolidate learning you need to make students think hard about it and apply it in a new context or practise the skill in different tasks. Howard-Jones and Yau (2018) point out that the three processes (engaging, building connections, consolidating) may occur in sequence or simultaneously. Geographical material must be actively used and reflected on, to achieve ‘mastery’.

Starting lessons with a tricky question is a good way to get students to think hard and dig deep into their memory to recall previously learned knowledge. A well-designed plenary, where you draw together the class to review learning, also helps to consolidate the learning that has taken place and to commit it to long-term memory. 

When you observe lessons taught by experienced geography teachers, note how they often begin a lesson by reviewing previous learning that is relevant to the new lesson topic and continually revisit key geographical ideas and concepts, as well as skills and terminology, during the lesson so that these become part of students’ ‘geographical repertoire’.

Interleaving is an idea drawn from cognitive science. It is about sequencing content with slightly, but not completely, different content. It is thought it helps students to draw comparisons between related but discrete content and help improve retention. Traditionally geographical knowledge is taught in themes taught in units, but if a mix of geographical themes is used by interleaving and we revisit content in a meaningful way it could result in better retention and learning. 

However, most evidence for the effectiveness of interleaving is from mathematics and there is little evidence for geography. Some teachers feel that interleaving could result in confusing students unless undertaken with care. For further information see Interleaving and curriculum design in Geography curriculum design.

What is mastery in geographical learning?

Mastery originated from the work of Benjamin Bloom (1968). He proposed that pupils should demonstrate ‘mastery’ of knowledge before they move on to learn new knowledge. A useful description by the Chartered College is ‘the point at which a learner has a high level of understanding of a given concept or domain’.

In day to day geography teaching, mastery means that students should be able to recall and apply what they have learnt. It means more than merely ‘knowing’ something having just met an idea or technique. Mastery might best be described as learning that ‘sticks’ and can be recalled over time.

There are some problems with the notion of ‘mastery’ in relation to geography. Firstly, it suggests that knowledge is either right or wrong. This might be the case with factual knowledge, but not all geographical knowledge is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. 

Secondly, it assumes that you can be sure that students have actually ‘mastered’ something. Learning in geography takes time and new ideas have to be seen in different contexts for students to understand them securely. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts. It is risky to assume that pupils have ‘mastered’ understanding a geographical concept or a skill so that you never have to return to teaching it. 

For example, teachers often feel that pupils have understood (mastered?) the technique of six-figure grid references in Year 7. But when they need to use this in later years, it often has to be retaught. So, did they attain ‘mastery’ in Year 7? For further information see Mastery learning and geography.

Things to consider about consolidating learning

  • Students find it easier to understand abstract concepts if they are linked to concrete representations
  • Dual coding, i.e. using both verbal/reading and visual representations together, can help learning
  • Students can face cognitive conflict when confronted with new information that contradicts with their existing ideas.

Many ideas about learning geography, including cognitive conflict, were explored by David Leat in his ‘Thinking through geography’ project. You can find out more in this download and Thinking through geography.

Misunderstandings and misconceptions

Geography involves the understanding of concepts, complex processes, patterns and relationships and in a wide range of topics. Therefore, before a teacher can consolidate learning they must be sure that students do not hold any misunderstandings and misconceptions. The DfE frameworks make clear what new teachers should know about misconceptions.

  • to know that where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly
  • to identify possible misconceptions and plan how to prevent these forming
  • to encourage pupils to share emerging understanding and points of confusion so that misconceptions can be addressed.

There are a number of reasons why misconceptions may occur, such as:

  • Weak prior knowledge
  • Students have not been taught new ideas clearly and carefully
  • Insufficient practice: a student has encountered a new idea, but has not engaged with it sufficiently so that it is not firmly rooted in their schema, and it is only half-understood
  • Lack of memory: a student has not absorbed the knowledge accurately in their long term memory
  • A limited/faulty schema: if it contains misconceptions, these can prevent a student making sense of new information.

Misconceptions can be difficult to unpick; it is best to prevent them happening in the first place. It is true that students are more likely to remember what they find out for themselves but they can also remember incorrect ideas just as well as correct ones. 

You should always be wary of this and check students’ understanding. Where students hold beliefs which are wrong, you must correct them. Think carefully about where and how possible misconceptions might occur as you plan your lessons and consider how to prevent them forming. Some ways to do this are to:

  • Develop students’ mental models in small steps
  • Ask lots of questions to check understanding
  • Make sure you explicitly link the students’ prior knowledge with the new concepts being taught.

Discussion with teachers

  • What strategies do they use to consolidate learning?
  • What examples can they share with you of how they use concrete representations, tangible examples or analogies to help students to learn and understand abstract geographical concepts.
  • What do they consider to be geographical mastery?
  • What do they consider are common misconceptions and misunderstandings in geography? What do they do about them?
  • Which learning theories do they feel have most influenced their teaching – and why?

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, pp 136-8 on intellectual development.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing.
  • Howard-Jones, P., & Yau, S. (2018) ‘Applying the science of learning in the classroom‘, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching). February.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Stubbs, A. (2020) ‘Minimising misconceptions through the design of explanatory sequencesImpact (Chartered College of Teaching) September.