How to Study Geography
There are two types of geography: physical geography and human geography. Physical geography is the study of the earth's physical characteristics and processes, including climate and weather systems, rock formations, oceans and the shifting of tectonic plates. Human geography, on the other hand, studies human societies – how they're formed, how they operate, and the struggles they face to thrive and survive. The branch of geography that most students will study at some point in their high school or college career is physical geography.
The study of physical geography revolves around the questions "Where?" and "Why?". It usually begins by attempting to answer "Where?" Where are continents located? Where are the oceans? Where are the seas, major rivers, etc? As you progress in your study of geography, you'll extend this investigation to include topography, natural resources, and of course, human civilizations – countries, cities and towns.
Once you've gotten a hand on the WHERE, you'll begin to address the WHY. Why are continents located where they are? What forms the oceans? How does plate tectonics work? Why do people choose to live in certain areas? Is it due to the availability of natural resources, ease of transportation, climate, or other factors?
Geography often crosses over to the study of history and economics. Which of earth's geographical features (mountains, rivers, natural resources, etc.) influenced human settlement and migration? What historical events caused people to inhabit and settle certain regions? How do these people make a living? What crops grow in these regions? What are the major industries these regions support? As you study geography, you'll attempt to answer these questions and many more.
Below we'll explore tips, skills and strategies that will help you study and learn geography more effectively and efficiently.
Employ memory techniques.
Our world is home to 5 oceans, 7 seas, 7 continents, 179 major rivers, 196 countries, over 300 mountain ranges, 1,720 provinces and 4,416 recognized cities. From a geographical perspective, the world is just about as complex as the human body. Luckily, as a geography student you won't be required to memorize every aspect of the world you live in, but you are going to be required to learn a lot. The following are strategies that can help you memorize and recall hundreds of geographical facts and features.
- Mnemonic devices
Mnemonic devices are a form of association that enables the human mind to associate something new or unfamiliar with something familiar. Mnemonic devices are often used by students to remember specific facts and details. They're also very effective for memorizing large lists of facts and data.
Mnemonic devices work by relating information with short phrases, words that rhyme, or anything else you might be familiar with – a familiar song for example. In fact, music is one of the most powerful mnemonic devices for memorizing large lists of geographic information, including cities, states and even countries. Want to memorize all 196 countries in the world and never forget them? Impossible you say? Not only is it possible, it's actually quite easy through the use of music as a mnemonic device.
Watch and listen to the Youtube video Animaniacs Yakko's World (The countries song). Write a list of all the countries in the world in the order presented in the video. Now sing the list of countries to the tune of the song. Do this enough times and you'll learn all the countries in the world as easily as you can memorize the lyrics to your favorite song. It really works. And it's really easy.
- Organize the information
Organization is key to remembering information, especially geographical information. Organize the information you want to remember into logical categories. This will help increase your memory and recall. If for example you're trying to memorize the major river ways in the world, you may consider memorizing rivers organized by continent. It's easy to remember the continents. Once you memorize the rivers for each continent, you'll know all the major river ways in the entire world.
- Use "chunking"
Chunking is another effective way for memorizing geographical information. You probably already use chunking strategies and don't even know it. It's relatively easy for your brain to memorize a phone number (916-422-7667) or social security number (529-88-3324) using chunking. We "chunk" information when we break it down into small groups of three or four.
- Visualize information
For most of us, it's far easier to remember the details of a picture (what we see) than the details of a lecture (what we hear). Visualization is a memorization strategy that can be used when studying just about any subject, but it's particularly effective when studying geography. Visualization can be applied in two ways. First, it can be applied by creating images in your mind that relate to an abstract concept. Second, and more importantly, it is applied by associating geographical information with location, size and shape. For example, learning all 50 states in the United States of America is far easier when memorizing their location on a map, and associating them with their shape and size, than trying to memorize a written list.
We already introduced the concept of association when we discussed mnemonic devices. Association is the process of "connecting" a new, unfamiliar word, place, or object to something familiar. By connecting the unfamiliar with the familiar, the brain more easily remembers and recalls the unfamiliar. When you're tasked with learning a new geographical fact, write it down along with connecting information. For example, if the new geographical fact is the German city Munich, and you're a real car buff, then you may consider associating Munich with the headquarters of BMW. Where is Munich? Munich is in Germany. The headquarters of BMW.
- Frequent Reviewing
If you want to do well in your geography class, it's important that you frequently review your notes. One of the keys to memory retention and recall is to consistently review your notes and other study materials weeks before your exam(s). Geography is one of those classes where students like to cram. It is possible to memorize all the states in a country overnight, but the information won't stick with you very long after your test. To move information from your short-term to long-term memory, frequent reviewing is necessary.
Don't procrastinate. Don't cram.
If you're serious about learning geography, don't procrastinate and don't cram. It's very tempting for students to procrastinate their geography studies until the day before the exam. Geography is a subject where cramming the day before an exam may work – in the short term. If you're good at rote memorization, it is possible to memorize a lot of geographical information in a short period of time using memory techniques. The downside side to cramming is that the information acquired typically only remains for a few days, or weeks, at most. If you want to really learn geography, then attend class, take organized notes, review your notes frequently throughout the term, and don't leave your studies until the last minute. One of your goals as a geography student should be to move all geographical information you acquire from your short-term to your long-term memory, so you can remember and recall what you learn for years to come.
Other Study Skills Resources
All of the study skills introduced above are specifically for geography students. However, geography students will also benefit from reviewing the following study skills guides and resources.