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Exploring the Evolution of Geography Exams: Then and Now

Ms Neagle. Head of Geography and Year 5 Form Teacher at Devonshire House Preparatory School

As the Head of Geography at Devonshire House, I often find myself reflecting on the evolution of geographical education and assessment. Let us journey back in time to 1904, when the first-ever Common Entrance Examination in geography was introduced.

In 1904, the educational landscape was markedly different from what we know today. The inaugural Common Entrance Examination in geography marked a significant milestone in educational assessment. Designed by the Oxford and Cambridge Universities Examination Board, this examination aimed to gauge students’ understanding of geographical concepts and their ability to apply them.

The content of the 1904 exam primarily focused on traditional geographical knowledge, including physical geography such as landforms, climate, and natural resources, as well as human geography topics like population distribution, economic activities, and political boundaries. Students were expected to demonstrate their memorisation skills and ability to recall facts accurately.

The examination format likely consisted of written responses to essay questions, requiring students to articulate their understanding of geographical principles and theories in a coherent manner. Practical fieldwork or hands-on activities may have been minimal or non-existent, reflecting the prevailing pedagogical methods of the time.

Fast forward to the present day, and we find ourselves in an era characterised by rapid technological advancement and pedagogical innovation. Geography examinations have evolved to reflect these changes, embracing a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach to assessment.

Modern geography exams encompass a broader range of topics and skills, reflecting the interconnected nature of our world. While traditional concepts such as physical and human geography remain fundamental, contemporary exams also incorporate themes like environmental sustainability and globalisation. My Year 8 students will recall my advice that everything in Geography comes down to social, economic and environmental factors; People, Pocket, Planet; the holy trinity of the subject. Recognising this triad and interconnectedness is what gives you the advantage in assessments.

Moreover, assessment methods have diversified to accommodate different learning styles and abilities; for me, it means that geography really is for everyone. In addition to traditional written exams, students now engage in practical fieldwork, GIS (Geographic Information Systems) analysis, or multimedia presentations to demonstrate their geographical knowledge and skills.

In today’s geography exams, there is an increasing emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, and spatial literacy. Students are encouraged to analyse intricate geographical issues, assess various viewpoints, and devise inventive solutions to real-world problems. I firmly believe that fostering critical thinking skills is essential across all subjects, not just geography, in today’s world. We must empower children to think independently, to challenge established norms, and to question the world around them. This ethos sets us apart and prepares our students to navigate the complexities of the modern era.

Despite the differences between the first Common Entrance Examination in 1904 and today’s assessments, certain fundamental principles remain unchanged. Geography continues to serve as a vital tool for understanding the world around us, fostering curiosity, empathy, and global awareness among students.

As the Head of Geography, I am proud to witness the evolution of geographical education and assessment over the years. While we embrace change and innovation, we also honour the enduring legacy of past pioneers who laid the foundation for our discipline. By reflecting on the similarities and differences between past and present assessments, we gain valuable insights into the evolving role of geography in shaping our understanding of the world.

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