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How to study for Geography?

Now that I have my Geography textbook in front of me, how should I approach it? Read it like a novel from page to page? Grab a highlighter and highlight 'important points' as I read through the text? Well, truth be told, I've tried this method numerous times when I was a student and realised that I almost always end up highlighting 80% of the page. What can I say? Everything in the textbook seems important...


So what now? How then should I be studying?


After years of experimenting different study methods and observing how students study for their tests and examinations, here are my two cents.


Step One:

Break down the inquiry and guiding questions of the chapter before you begin reading the content (i.e. the main inquiry question at the beginning of the chapter and the guiding question for each Key Question/ Gateway).

Interestingly, students often skip this important step and dive straight into the sea of content. More often than not, they will end up feeling puzzled about why the information is arranged in a particular sequence in the textbook, and struggle to link what they have studied previously with what they are reading now. If you are guilty of this, (un)fortunately you are not the only one.


So why are these inquiry and guiding questions important? Well, these questions will give you a glimpse of the focus of the chapter so that you can pay close attention to the geographical terminologies and highlight information that are actually important.


For example in the chapter of Plate Tectonics,

  • Main inquiry question: Living with Tectonic Hazards - risk or opportunity?

  • Gateway 1/ Key question 1: Why are some areas more prone to tectonic hazards?

  • Gateway 2/ Key question 2: What landforms and associated tectonic phenomena are found at plate boundaries?

  • Gateway 3/ Key question 3: How do people prepare for and respond to earthquakes?

By reading these questions, you should be able to recognise that each Gateway gradually guides you to the answering of the main inquiry question of the chapter: Is it a risk or an opportunity to live in areas experiencing tectonic hazards?


Step Two:

Now let's work backwards to understand why the content in the textbook is crafted in this sequence, and make sense of the different components within the chapter.


Remember that the end goal of the chapter of Plate Tectonics is to be able to understand and weigh the risks and opportunities of living in areas prone to tectonic hazards. In order to do so, you got to understand what tectonic hazards refer to in the first place. You will then ask important questions such as "Where are these tectonic landforms and hazards found?", "Are they evenly distributed (locality) around the world?" and "Why are they found there?". Up to this point, the answers to the questions above are found in Gateway 1 where you can get a better understanding of the fundamentals of the Theory of Plate Tectonics, and justify why some areas are more prone to tectonic hazards (due to their proximity to plate boundaries).


Subsequently, Gateway 2 allows you to dive deeper into the understanding of tectonic hazards by focusing on the characteristics of the tectonic landforms, as well as the impacts that tectonic hazards such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes can bring. At this point, some questions that can be answered in this Gateway include:

"How are the tectonic landforms created?"

"Do these tectonic hazards occur on regular intervals (frequency of occurrence)?"

"What are the risks involved during the occurrence of tectonic hazards?"

"What are the benefits of living in areas near tectonic landforms such as volcanoes?"


And finally, review the main inquiry question again. Now that you have an in-depth understanding of tectonic hazards and the resultant impacts, are you able to address the main inquiry question? Not quite? Up to this point, you can easily identify and explain the possible risks and benefits of living in areas prone to tectonic hazards. However, in order to justify why people choose to live in such areas despite the obvious risks, you need to consider the context. For instance, Japan is one of the world's most vulnerable country to tectonic hazards (ranging from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes and tsunamis) due to its geographical location and proximity to the plate boundaries of Eurasian Plate, Philippine Plate and Pacific Plate. So why then do the populations still choose to live in Japan despite the obvious risks? Gateway 3 wraps up the chapter by focusing on the responses of the people in the face of tectonic hazards, as well as the effectiveness of the strategies to mitigate and respond to the effects of such hazards.


By applying the knowledge gathered in Gateway 3 to the context of Japan, you can now answer the main inquiry question and explain that the citizens of Japan will still choose to live in Japan due to the presence of efficient monitoring and warning systems, effective building designs that can withstand violent ground vibrations, as well as annual emergency drills that equip the citizens with the practical knowledge of what to do during the occurrence of tectonic hazards. All of which were made possible due to the country's financial capacity, as well as the willingness of the citizens to cooperate with the government.


Step Three:

Recognise that not every word in the textbook is important!


Let's face it. If you are one of those who spends time highlighting practically everything in your textbook, yes I am referring to you...the one who just bought an entire set of highlighters of different colours in order to easily differentiate the paragraphs of information that you are going to highlight, it's time to review your studying method. You may think that it's a good idea to highlight full sentences and explanations that may be useful in helping you understand or explain your answer in written assessments. But what you've just done is to send a message to your brain that everything is important and you're better off memorising everything you have highlighted. Not only is this highlighting frenzy inefficient (and costly), doesn't it feel intimidating you when you flip through your textbook during revision? In fact, by highlighting information in this manner, you are doing yourself a disservice by masking the key geographical terminologies and ideas in the sea of highlighted text.


So instead of highlighting full sentences, choose instead to only highlight or underline keywords in the textbook that are geographical and essential in helping you develop your answer. This will allow you to focus your attention on keywords that deepens your geographical understanding and adds clarity in your answer for your written assessments.


Here is a sample paragraph of the explanation from the textbook about the formation of *southwest monsoon. Pay close attention to the key words that are bold and underlined.


The southwest monsoon takes place between June and September, when it is summer in the northern hemisphere. The air over Central Asia heats up, expands and rises, forming a region of low pressure over the area. During the same period, the southern hemisphere is experiencing winter. The low temperature causes the air to be cold and dense, exerting a greater force on the earth's surface. This results in an area of high pressure over Australia. Due to the difference in pressure between Central Asia and Australia, air from Australia moves to the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia (moves northwards) as the southeast monsoon winds. As the winds cross the Equator, the Coriolis effect deflects the winds to the right. These winds become the southwest monsoon winds and warm up as they head for Central Asia. The warm air picks up moisture as it travels over the Indian Ocean and brings heavy rain to the Indian sub-continent.


* It's the southwest monsoon in the middle of the year as this textbook that I am making reference to is published in Singapore, which is located within the northern hemisphere.


Step Four:

Learn by linking key ideas instead of memorising definitions and paragraphs of explanation.


"Studying for Geography exams isn't that tough! It's about memorising facts isn't it?" This is the same comment made by many parents whom I've met over the years. Well, I wouldn't disagree with them since most Geography exams in the past are heavily dependent on the students' ability to memorise definitions and explanations. However, students today are expected to develop higher-order thinking and apply their understanding of the geographical knowledge and concepts to address the various question demands. Memorising paragraphs of information is no longer useful as it will only limit the students' ability to tweak and adjust their explanation to accurately address the question demand.


As such, I sincerely implore you to stop mindlessly memorising chunks of textbook information in hopes of regurgitating them to address the questions in the examinations. Instead, try studying by identifying key geographical terminologies (Step Three) and linking the key ideas together to craft your answer.


For example in the context of explaining the formation of the southwest monsoon winds and rain, apply your understanding of how winds are generated in the first place (temperature difference that results in air pressure difference) and link the key ideas together in the following manner:


Note: The arrows (>) refers to 'leads to' or 'influence'.


Formation of the southwest monsoon winds and rain

Time of the year > difference in seasons in both hemispheres > temperature difference > air pressure difference > direction of winds > deflection of winds due to Coriolis effect > warming of air within the tropics > picks up moisture > deposit as monsoon rain


Coupled with the key geographical terminologies that you have highlighted from the textbook, you can now easily craft your explanation without having to mindlessly memorise the entire paragraph of textbook information. Not only is this a more efficient and effective way to study, you now have the ability to be more flexible in adjusting your answer to address the question demand.


I hope this post will be beneficial to you as you study or do your revision! All the best!


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© 2020 by Bernice Loon