Different types of questions in Geography examinations

Short and extended prose/essay questions

A mainstay of the examination system, and one that makes a more prominent return in many of the new specifications. Essays in whatever guise can be the downfall for those who are unprepared.

The basic components of an A-Level Geography essay answer

are as follows

  • There is a correct and appropriate response to command words.
  • There is relevant content to the question put forward.
  • There is an approach which is both confident and direct.
  • Work is paragraphed, with one correct, relevant and strong theme running through the essay.
  • There is a structure to the essay, guided by an appropriate plan (written on the paper that is handed in).
  • Case studies are used but not overused, and these draw on a variety of scales (local, regional and global, if required).
  • Where a comment on process is needed comment is offered.
  • Balance is achieved between too much fact and the more discursive aspects of the essay.
  • Diagrams and sketches are used that move the essay on.
  • With regard to structure, a basic introduction is important (it should capture the examiner’s interest). An ‘expansion’ of ideas in the middle section of the essay (the ‘meat’ of the essay) should appear next, followed by a conclusion. (It is important this is not a repeat or a summary of what’s gone previously.)
  • That you have allowed enough time to sit back and correct mistakes and omissions.

Short and long structured questions (SLSQs)

All the examination boards are utilising these types of question in their assessment suites. Such questions are sub-divided up with each section building on the last.

With these questions the single most important thing to do is to read the rubric (the instructions for the exam). Answer the correct number of questions, and aim to spend time commensurate with those parts of the questions that carry most marks. Fill the spaces left for your answers, avoiding re-runs of the question. You have to quickly focus your thoughts and ideas, but don’t hurry your actual answers!

Perhaps small plans in the margin would help this process, certainly underline or highlight key parts of the question stem and command words.

Many SLSQs come with extra information, like maps, graphs and tables. These are included to help you, they are not just page decoration; detail from them is absolutely vital for your answers. Some of these ‘additions’ are covered in a little more detail below.

  • Photos - If these are offered, on the whole what tends to be set is a descriptive exercise; occasionally process-based questions are asked.
  • Diagrams - This is where a good understanding of the vocabulary of thesubject helps. Your labels, if more than a single word is required, must show understanding. The other way diagrams are used is of course for you to actually have to draw relevant and labelled offerings. You should have a reserve of simple AS standard diagrams stashed/stored away for use in both the structured and essay papers.
  • Graphs and tables - The data these offer is invariably going to have anomalies, differences, increases, decreases and periods of decline, trends and groupings. Questions that relate to such tables and graphs usually ask you to pick out and use relevant data in your responses.
  • Case studies - These are as important in structured papers as they are in essay papers. Clearly on this paper they need to be focused, short, relevant and to the point. Sources for your case studies vary, but obvious places to glean them from are newspapers (broad sheets are best!), the television and, if you are connected, the internet.

You should also be aware that SLSQs, if compared to essay writing, are completelydifferent in their demands and the technique required to successfully answer them. Practice is important, to both bring on your technique and to ensure that you have the time issue, outlined above, completely sorted out.

Ordnance Survey and SLSQs

Most boards use OS maps, though to a highly variable degree. Most seek to use them for analytical and interpretative purposes, usually as a ‘tail’ to SLSQs. In the past lots of map interpretation had been reduced to exercises in recognition and detection, a great shame as it is a core geographical skill. The AS utilises analysis and interpretation of the OS map to both extend and develop your geographical intellect.

Space prohibits the inclusion of OS extracts and exercises in this text, but what follows is an attempt to cover the approach and themes covered at AS Level. On the whole maps are not chosen to spotlight ‘classic’ cultural landscapes, or to focus on specific areas or landforms. They are usually chosen to represent problem areas for which an interpretation can be offered on the basis of printed evidence from both the physical landscape and/or the rural and urban landscape. An

exposure to foreign maps too, is just as important as OS work.

Typically questions ask for a description, analysis or synthesis of evidence presented by the OS map, or any combination of these three.

Descriptive accounts usually involve looking at physical or cultural elements on the map. The features are described in terms of their relief, vegetative cover, or settlement and communications might also be described.

Analysis in which map evidence is systematically analysed at an elementary level and in relation to other mapped distributions.

Synthesis in which analyses are collated to form a statement or interpretation of the physical and cultural features observed.

Written coursework investigation/examinations (WCI)

WCIs first appeared in the last revision of Advanced Level Geography. Its popularity with many centres has ensured a place for it with a number of the boards at AS (and A2).

Generally there is a selection of study area to be made (usually a human or physical choice). You will usually have access to pre-release material, which enables you to become familiar with the selected topic, the purpose of the study, the theory relevant to the study and some data related to the study and methods of data collection. It is also important to experience the topic firsthand through some fieldwork, and to apply this field information in the examination proper.

Question spotting should be avoided on this type of paper. It is only too easy to focus incorrectly on irrelevant sections; responses that are inappropriate to the set question gains few marks. It is also important to allocate time extremely carefully, writing to fulfil the requirements of the mark allocation, rather than concentrating on just one area. Incompleteness is to be avoided. The best responses are short and respond closely to the command words.

For many this type of approach works, but be warned it isn’t an easy option, it entails as much work as the individual fieldwork study and is marked to the same standard!

In many specifications it is possible to take this route in Year 12 and to opt for a repeat or individual study in Year 13, if your first result is poor.

The investigative study/individual enquiry

Used in some form by all the boards, this personal piece of work requiring primary data collection is based on an issue, problem or question. An external moderator usually approves titles, and the finished work is of some 2500 to 4000 words depending on the specification you are following.

These investigations are a challenging task for you to undertake, but one which if small-scale and focused, local and accessible, and topical can be extremely satisfying and enjoyable.

Perhaps the toughest part of the individual study is the selection of the topic/title. It is advisable to look first at the specification, at past successful titles and importantly talk to your teachers. Then check the viability, scale andappropriateness of your ideas.

The typical route through the enquiry process is shown below:

You should read your board’s specification for any special features that are required or needed by them in the individual study.

As the individual study is such an undertaking it is wise to plan and prepare a timetable over a longish period of time to ensure you bring the study to its proper conclusion. You’ll need to be highly self-motivated and determined or you will under-perform.

A suggested timetable for a study handed in, in Year 13, runs thus:

Year 12

  • September/November proposal submitted
  • January/February study title is finalised
  • March/April background reading and research
  • May/July thorough collection of data (two days minimum in the field)
  • August processing of the data over the summer vacation

Year 13

  • September produce the draft report (based on your boards specifications)
  • October add representative techniques and statistics (using a range of representative and manipulative techniques)
  • November checking of report (parents or teachers)
  • December/January final word processing and hand in (ensure you know how the board want it presented)

Do take advantage of the opportunity that the individual study offers: the chance to score highly in a part of the suite of assessments that you can control!

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