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Making connections for learning

“Teachers need to be aware of how individual students actually learn and to be sensitive to their needs in particular contexts. Encouraging capability in all aspects of learning seems to me to be more important than any form of labelling.”

Margaret Roberts, 2006, Teaching Geography

Topics on this page:

  • What are schemas and why are they so important?
  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Generative learning
  • ‘Deep’ and ‘shallow’ understanding
  • Building geographical schemas
  • Novices and experts
  • The process of understanding geography
  • Geographical schemas and geographical understanding in your school
  • Lesson observation focus and discussions
  • Reading

What are schemas and why are they so important?

Students learn geography in fits and starts, not smoothly. As they learn new geographical ideas and concepts, the mind connects new information with pre-existing knowledge, skills, and concepts in their long-term memory. 

Cognitive science recognises that long term memory consists of a range of schemas; these are complex structures in the mind that organise and store everything we learn – ideas, knowledge, skills. They are built up over time and shaped by every student individually as they link knowledge together and create meaning from their experiences. Schemes enable us to generalise and make it easier to comprehend new information. They have been described as the ‘building blocks of cognition’ and reflect an individual’s preconceptions, prior experience, and personal development.

Learning is about developing schemas through acquiring knowledge and making connections with different schemas. In an information-rich subject such as geography, schemas enable students to interpret the vast amount of information available. Schemas are dynamic. They develop and change based on new information and experiences. You must work to develop students’ schemas because learning is essentially about changing them. You should assist students to organise schemas efficiently as they acquire knowledge and make connections with different information.

There is no limit to how complex schemas can become. Expert learners possess far more detailed and complex schemas than novice learners. Research shows that the more we know, the easier it is to remember and process new information, because there is more pre-existing information to relate and attach it to. Experts can process information automatically with minimal conscious effort.

There are some limitations as to how schemas affect how we process new geographical information. Be aware that memory can be inaccurate, and we often focus on details that confirm what we already believe. This can mean inaccurate learning or reinforcing stereotypes.

Refer to Roberts (2023) pg. 28, who discusses schema theory and its relevance to learning geography.

Linking to prior knowledge

Students use prior knowledge to help them to make sense of new material. Their existing geographical knowledge is stored in long-term memory whether from their own experiences or from geography lessons. 

When a student thinks about something in their working memory, they are making the new idea meaningful by relating it to their existing knowledge. They must make this connection. If students are presented with new information without making a connection to existing knowledge, the new knowledge will be lost.

Cognitive science tells us that knowledge actually makes learning easier. The more prior knowledge students have, the easier it is for them to process new information. Students with a rich base of knowledge find it easier to learn more and it enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. This is important to recognise when you are planning lessons. It backs up what many teachers will tell you, ‘if you want your students to learn how to think critically in geography, they must have something to think about!’.

Roberts (2023) explains how Vygotsky’s research found that children’s development of disciplinary concepts grew out of related everyday concepts and notes that ‘the implication for the geography classroom is that giving students opportunities to make connections between their everyday and disciplinary knowledge makes it easier for them to access disciplinary knowledge and can also transform their everyday thinking.‘ (pg. 29)

Margaret Roberts (2010) has also written this about learning geographical knowledge.

I believe that geographical knowledge cannot simply be ‘delivered’ to students. Students need to be actively involved in making sense of it for themselves. This involves connecting new information and ideas with what they already know and understand (Barnes and Todd, 1995). 

So the sense that students make of what they study will depend on the connections they make, and this varies considerably as each individual brings to the classroom different direct and indirect experiences, and different ways of thinking about the world. The role of language and talk between teacher and student is crucial in this process of making sense.

When you introduce new geographical ideas to students, think in advance about what prior knowledge they might have both from their own experience and from previous geography work. Find out their existing knowledge and any gaps. It is not feasible to do this for every student in the class, but you can use strategies such as questioning, a quiz, or a mind map to elicit what most students already know.

You must think carefully how to integrate the ‘to-be-learned information’ with the students’ existing knowledge. You will need to be flexible, because points can emerge during a lesson that make it clear that students lack some element of necessary prior knowledge or they hold misunderstandings. If this happens, you must be prepared to adapt lesson content accordingly.

As you teach a lesson, take time to connect the new knowledge to their previous experiences and learning with examples and explanations, so that you strengthen the prior knowledge as well as adding on the new.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 29-31, who discusses making connections to prior knowledge

‘Deep’ and ‘shallow’ understanding

Daniel Willingham (2003) is a cognitive psychologist who writes:

The teacher presents a strong, coherent lesson in which a set of significant facts is clearly connected to a reasonable conclusion. But, at test time, the students show no understanding of the connections. Some students parrot back the conclusion, but no facts. 

Others spit back memorized facts, but don’t see how they fit together. Though the lesson wasn’t taught in a rote way, it seems like rote knowledge is what the students took in. Why do well-integrated, coherent lessons often come back to us in a less meaningful, fragmented form?

Willingham explains the difference between deep and shallow knowledge.

The knowledge that these students appear to be regurgitating is probably … “shallow” knowledge: … students understand each isolated part, but their knowledge lacks the deeper meaning that comes from understanding the relationship among the parts.

This is a very helpful idea in an information-rich subject such as geography. Knowledge remains shallow until it has been related to something else. When connections have been made it becomes deep knowledge. As you teach new geographical knowledge, you should make explicit to students the links so it is more likely to be assimilated into their schemas. You must seek to enable students to ‘see the world’ geographically and build a big picture.

You will soon realise that deep learning is challenging. It is hard and makes demands on cognitive load. But this load must not exceed what students can deal with and must be relevant to the task currently in hand if it is to help rather than hinder learning. Also, if students do not have the necessary secure prior knowledge to connect the new learning to, it will remain shallow as bits of unconnected information. With nothing to tether it to, it will not become deep knowledge; it will not remain in the long-term memory; it will be lost.

  • Refer to p100 in Biddulph et al (2021). This uses the Mt St Helens eruption to illustrate Willingham’s ideas.

Generative learning

Generative Learning is based upon the theory that the learning process depends upon the memory and knowledge that already exists in our minds. According to Fiorella and Mayer (2015), it involves bringing together pre-existing knowledge, insights, and experiences with new knowledge. They proposed the SOI model for learning activities with three stages:

  1. selecting information from what is heard, seen or read
  2. organise the details in their active memory
  3. incorporate the new information into pre-existing schema.

They suggested some learning activities for generative learning. Those particularly useful for geography include:

  • Mapping: Using techniques, such as concept maps where students pick important words that indicate the main ideas, organise these ideas by establishing links between them, and incorporate new knowledge with pre-existing knowledge by specifying the overall pattern links on the concept map.
  • Drawing: Students provide a pictorial representation which involves selecting related ideas from the text, organising the concepts in pictorial form, and making use of pre-existing knowledge to demonstrate the meaning of the ideas in the drawing.
  • Self-testing: Students choose the most relevant information during retrieval-based learning, followed by organising and incorporating knowledge by making connections between new and old information.
  • Explaining to others: Students determine the most relevant knowledge, explain the details in their own words, organise the knowledge, and incorporate information with pre-existing knowledge during the explanations.
Read this blog by Mark Enser (2020) on Generative Learning and Reflective Teachers in which he uses the example of mind maps. He points out that although this strategy may be commonly used in geography, it does not mean it is always used to generate learning.

Read Briscoe (2022) who describes used a generative learning approach with a concept mapping activity when teaching about food webs in the savannah.

Building geographical schemas

Students’ schemas comprise of what they already know about a concept. Gradually they build up schemas of geographical information as experiences happen and new information is presented. They develop new schemas with the new learning and the old schemas are changed or modified. They may have learned this in geography lessons, in other subjects or through their personal experiences (of course, what they ‘know’ may be incorrect).

  • Refer to Working with Schemas in Perry et al (2021).

Because the long-term memory sorts and stores all knowledge into schemas, students do not need to remember each element of geographical knowledge as a separate entity. They are building conceptual understanding. 

Geography teachers should help students to develop and refine their geographical understanding by using activities that ask them to compareelaborate and map concepts. This will help to make their schemas clear to them and support learners to organise and extend their ideas. The geography teacher’s role is also to correct their schemas about important concepts in geography if there are misunderstandings.

One way to help students to consolidate their learning is by asking them to describe and explain to others in some detail something they have learned. This is known as elaboration. This involves making connections among ideas and connecting the material to their memory and experiences. It can also be useful for students to ask themselves or each other questions that require making connections between ideas or explaining them.

The more geographical knowledge and concepts a student learns, their schemas gather more items and make more connections. You might think it would then it would get too full! But long-term memory does not get overloaded, unlike working memory. In fact, cognitive scientists have shown that this makes it easier to draw ideas and items from your geographical schemas into working memory and it becomes automatic and effortless to recall the geographical items from a schema.

Novices and experts

A student who is new or inexperienced in a specific geography topic, concept or skill is considered a ‘novice’ (i.e, they lack experience in that area and have incomplete or underdeveloped schemas to draw on). Students who have more developed schemas, are knowledgeable or skilful are considered to the ‘experts’. This is not age-related, but topic-related. Every time a student meets something new they are a ‘novice’ and need support to become ‘experts’.

Ofsted (2019) refers to evidence that shows that when students are more ‘expert’ in a subject, different teaching approaches are appropriate. This is known as the expertise reversal effect. Novices need more help to gradually build their schemas on a topic and to link it to others. 

Experts possess more detailed and complex schemata and find it easier to perform complex tasks in their working memory. This indicates that enquiry-based approaches in geography work better with expert learners when they have some knowledge to build on. More explicit teaching works best for novice learners when they need greater direction.

  • Read more about the Expertise reversal effect in the article by Kalyuga (2020).

Occasionally a student makes a connection between new learning and existing learning, but there is a mismatch. This is known as cognitive conflict and it often happens when a student is confronted with new information that contradicts their prior ideas. If it is resolved the student forms the new concept – and they might say something like ‘Ahh – I get it’ when this happens! Find out more about cognitive conflict in the Thinking through geography.

  • Read Sherrington (2020) which provides a practical approach to schema-building.

In his concluding remarks Sherrington reminds teachers not to lose sight of: rich curriculum experiences, opportunities for students to think for themselves and confronting complexity. This is good guidance applicable to geography teaching. He writes:

The solutions lie in planning a curriculum rich in experience but with a strong instructional focus and sound formative assessment processes where the conditions of practice are varied, embracing simple and complex forms, and where students are learning to evaluate their knowledge for themselves. It’s so important that we don’t use simplified models of learning to fuel reductive policies such as the absolute requirement for daily teacher-led quizzing and to remember that the underlying complexity is ever-present.

 The process of understanding geography

Bennetts (2005) makes a very important distinction between knowledge and understanding. He describes geographical knowledge as ‘worthwhile and true information, whether facts or principles, which an individual can recall’. He sees understanding as ‘the notion of making sense of something, or giving meaning to something. This usually involves making connections, and comprehending relationships.’ 

This tells us that it is possible for students to know something in geography but not understand it. We have seen that, according to schema theory, students can only understand something when they can relate it to something they already know. A student cannot memorise something they do not understand.

Bennett’s diagram demonstrates the roots of understanding’.

This diagram shows how geographical understanding is a product of three elements: experiences, ideas and mental processes. Students’ experiences outside of school inform and influence their ideas and their thinking. 

These are their personal geographies. How they live, their relationships with others and the information they are exposed to – all influence their ‘experiences’. Today these are greatly influenced by technologies, especially social media and the internet. Additionally, students’ geographical experience in school helps them to develop ideas and structure their thinking.

Students construct ideas that enable them to interpret and make sense of their experiences. Ideas in geography include concepts, generalisations, models and theories. As the diagram shows, students’ experiences help to stimulate and shape their ideas, so this needs to be carefully considered when planning learning activities. In turn, students’ ideas influence how they perceive reality and make sense of their experiences. Their ideas can be very different to adults, or a teachers’ ideas.

The diagram also shows how experiences and ideas are linked by mental processes. We can help develop students’ understanding by using learning activities that require them to reflect on the meaning of ideas and explore relationships. Language is very important to help students clarify ideas in geography and communicate their thinking. 

By engaging students in discussions about their ideas, and writing about them, helps them to articulate their thinking and share ideas with others. Students need to link specific geographical vocabulary with an idea to become more aware of it and make use of it. As well as communication through language, students use maps and diagrams to explore, clarify and refine meanings, and especially, spatial relationships.

Therefore, for students to develop geographical understanding they have to actively engage in complex inter-relationships between experiences, ideas and mental processes. But it begins with knowledge. Without first gaining in-depth geographical knowledge, students cannot even start to put it together to see the connections. 

In order to build a breadth of geographical understanding students must use information on a diverse range of geographical topics and spend time thinking hard about the geographical content. Knowledge will be remembered better if it is studied and processed deeply. But it must still connect to existing knowledge, if it is to be remembered. 

Geographical schemas and geographical understanding in your school

  • Undertake some lesson observations that specifically focus on learning. Also, have some in-depth discussions with experienced geography teachers about strategies to help students to learn geography.

Lesson observation focus and discussions

As you observe experienced teachers’ geography lessons take the opportunity to focus on learning. Focus on two or three different students during a geography lesson. Use Bennett’s diagram to analyse the process of understanding they demonstrate during this lesson?

  • Consider the experiences they bring to the lesson and those during the lesson.
  • What ideas are they working with, and how do these link to their experiences? 
  • What mental processes appear to be involved?
  • Are your observations the same for all three students – if not, why do you think there are differences?
  • Discuss your findings with your geography mentor.

Discuss with geography experts – your mentor, your tutor, experienced geography colleagues – their views and ideas about how students learn geography. These matters should be in your mind throughout your training as you consider how to plan and organise your teaching to help students learn.

Discuss with them how they: 

  • help students build schemas
  • link learning to previous knowledge
  • focus on deep learning
  • get students to make connections to assist learning
  • use the process of understanding as shown in Bennett’s diagram to help students to grasp geographical concepts and processes that are difficult to understand
  • challenge student thinking when misconceptions arise through faulty schema.

What advice can they give to help you to plan teaching to aid students’ understanding?


  • Bennetts, T. H. (2005) ‘The links between understanding, progression and assessment in the secondary geography curriculum’, Geography, Summer, pp152-6.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge, Chapter 4.
  • Briscoe. G. (2022) ‘Generative learning in the geography classroom: teaching food webs’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Fiorella, L., and Mayer, R. (2015) Learning as a Generative Activity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kalyuga, S. (2020) Expertise Reversal Effect and its Instructional Implications, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), January.
  • Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: overview of research, Ofsted. p22.
  • Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C. R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K., & Youdell, D. (2021)Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Sherrington, T. (2020) Schema-building: A blend of experiences and retrieval modes make for deep learning, Teacherhead blog post.
  • Willingham, D. (2003) ‘Students remember … what they think about’, American Educator, v27, n2, p37-41, Summer.


  • Barnes, D. and Todd, F. (1995) Communication and Learning Revisited. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
  • Roberts, M. (2010) Geographical enquiry, Teaching Geography, Spring.