Use that figure!

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words and as geographers we are often presented with images which are incredibly helpful in our endeavour to understand and explain the (human and physical) world around us. In fact, lower down the school, we often relish the opportunity to use an image to make a concept more concrete, or link two topics together, or “hook” students in!

Yet for a GCSE or A-Level geographer in an exam setting, this meaning needs to read into, evaluated, assessed, analysed, linked to previous learning and written about in a very rushed manner in the form of exam responses. When I speak to my A-Level geographers about the demands of some of their 6 markers (either the data analysis ones or the ones in which they must use a figure AND their own knowledge to ‘assess the extent’), I often tell them how sorry I feel for them…

But we can’t just despair at the demands of the new specs and exams – we need to act and prepare our pupils well for them. Here is where this resource comes into it:

The Paper 1 version

The aim of this is resource is twofold:

  1. Prime students in the art of breaking down images and linking them skilfully to a question or their own knowledge (or both!).
  2. Revisit old material in an ‘interleaved’ manner.

I understand that for some of you this will seem like just teaching an exam skill for the sake of it and that I’m just a shameless cog in my academy’s exam factory machine: Firstly, if we’re really honest – exam results do matter, A LOT. Therefore, skills which make students successful in these exams are very important. Secondly, as with any resource, it is what you make it. Should you chose to simply print these slides out and give them to students over the holidays along with the other billion work-packs they will receive from every subject, then that’s one thing. Choose to use it in lesson, as a Do Now, a bit of guided practice, visualiser-led modelling of your thinking, paired work, etc… with a lot of good and precise feedback and even more links to their prior learning then you’re on to something! As I said earlier, this can also be such a great tool for revisiting past material; how else would I be able to properly cover the slide below? How could I do it without revisiting the development gap, its impact on QoL, its causes, other methods to reduce it and our tourism case study? And that could all be done in a 10 minute Do Now!

A Paper 2 example

As such, I use this resource whenever I can but especially prior to assessments or in Booster (intervention) sessions afterschool. The layout is simple as is as follows:

  • Underlined titles mean a question which requires an extended response has used “using Figure” in relation to this image/graph/text/etc.
  • “Paper 1/2″ in the bottom left means this figure is from an actual exam.
  • “APE” (my initials) means that this is not from an exam but rather an image I have taken from elsewhere but is similar to one which has appeared/could appear in an exam.
  • The four questions always stay the same.

The four questions:

  1. Can you link it to your understanding of this topic? And to a case study?
  2. Can you think of 1 or 2 sentences you’d use to explicitly refer to this figure in your answer?
  3. Can you guess/suggest the question that might be asked?
  4. What does this source tell you? What information are you able to get from it?

The first question serves the purpose of recall and whilst answering this, students are reminding themselves of previously covered topics, concepts or examples. “Memory is the residue of thought” and so getting students to do this in relation to a question and an image will hopefully help it “stick”. The second question is (unashamedly) all about the exam – can they explicitly use this figure in an exam setting? The third question can be a fun little guessing game but is also a great way of making students more familiar (and therefore comfortable, less anxious perhaps) with their ultimate rival – their final exam/s. Finally, the fourth question is all about getting information from the figure so that use it properly as a “springboard”.

The 2019 Paper 1 examiner’s report from AQA found that – yet again – a lot of students were simply lifting and copying figure material (this happens a lot in relation to the Paper 3 pre-release too) and not using it for its intended purpose as a “springboard” from which to ‘show off’ their own knowledge. That’s again where the approach this resource encourages comes in; I hope that by the time exam season rolls around, my students have internalised these questions and within the first 30-60 seconds of seeing an exam question which says “use Figure X and your own understanding”, they’ve answered them in their head and they’re ready to launch into a great answer!

The danger

I’ve been focusing on this (getting students to use figures in their exam answers) for a long time now and making the resource was simply another step in the journey. Having tried it with students for some time now, I’ve noticed one major issue. This may be due to my teaching style and how often I repeat things (and insist on them) but I’ve noticed many students referring to a figure where it was not necessary, or doing “too much” with it. At GCSE, this would be using the figure unnecessarily for a 1 or 2 marker (and wasting time saying “as can be seen in Figure 5”) and at A-Level this has manifested itself in over-the-top analysis of a figure when that was just one of the many demands of the question, leading to poor performance. After all, “Using Figure 2 and your own knowledge, assess the extent to which this pattern is similar to the global trade in a food commodity or manufactured product you have studied”, for example, required SO MUCH MORE than just figure analysis…

Having said this, this is something easily counteracted with carful intervention and should not put you off using this. What some student struggle with, mine now find (relatively) easy and I wouldn’t want to take that back for one second. What is also great is that even outside of the exam setting, my students are using images expertly – zooming in with real detail, linking it to their prior learning, making synoptic links, finding patterns with ease, etc… And that’s just images I use for Do Now activities or mid-lesson!

Where next?

Both at GCSE and A-Level, texts within exams are becoming more dense and are packed with Tier 2/3 vocabulary (without even mentioning the questions themselves and the difficulty of lower ability pupils have with even understanding/engaging with them). In this context, our attention should shift a little toward text-based stimulus, not least because of the findings of the 2019 Insights report for geography; whilst photos are now better dealt with (and no… that does not suddenly make this post obsolete…), it is the text candidates are clearly struggling with:

I have begun it at A-Level and students seems to be engaging with it really well

but the GCSE version is still in the works – I will update you when I’ve launched it!

As always, if you have any questions about this resource or would like to offer up tweaks/improvements then please feel free to contact me via Twitter!

Abdurrahman Pérez (@mr_perez5)
October 2019

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