Geographical Skills

The physical geography and human geography topics were pretty fun, right? Now it's time for something a little different. It's time for some graphs, maps, fieldwork, and maybe a little maths. But don't panic; we'll guide you through every step of the way. As you have been learning the full course of your GCSE geography, you will have been thinking like a geographer. This doesn't just mean learning the information that you've been taught, but, applying this knowledge. So, what are geographical skills and techniques? Let's find out! 

Geographical Skills Geographical Skills

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Table of contents

    Geographical thinking

    Geographical thinking is one of the first set of skills to learn as a geographer! Geographical Thinking is a process where one examines a location and how it relates to phenomena (a person, thing, or event that happens). Can you think critically about the world around you? Let's go.

    Now, this part of the course will be split into two parts: geographical applications and geographical skills. For your geographical applications section, you will need to undertake an Evaluation of Issues exam and carry out some fieldwork. For the geographical skills section, you'll need to know some cartographic skills, photo analysis, and Graphical, Numerical & Statistical Skills, that could come up in any of the three exams you're taking.

    There's a whole separate explanation on Graphical, Numerical & Statistical Skills. Sadly, as part of this section of the course, you're going to need to do some maths (unless you love maths, in which case, this part is for you!). You'll be required to learn some graphs, as well as some numerical and statistical skills.

    Geographical skills definition

    Geographical skills are defined by the way we examine our surrounding world, interpret data, and present data. These skills can be broken down into different categories, such as cartographic, graphical, numerical, and statistical.

    Application of geographical skills

    This part of the course is going to test your ability to use your knowledge from everything that you've learned in the human and physical sections. This is where you will have to apply your geographical skills and knowledge. This section is split into two; an exam for one part (Evaluation of Issues), and fieldwork experience for the other.

    Evaluation of issues

    Now, we won't go into so much detail here, as there is a whole separate explanation on this. Simply, 12 weeks before your exam, you will be given a 'pre-release' resource booklet on a particular geographical issue, that will be something you've learned about already in the course. You can study this booklet before, and when it comes to the exam, a blank resource booklet will be given to you, and you have to answer some questions!

    Go ahead and read the Evaluation of Issues explanation, so you know exactly how to prepare for and take this exam!


    As a part of your GCSE geography course, you will be required to undertake 2 pieces of fieldwork. This means you're going to have to go out and collect some primary data, but make sure it is linked to either the Living with the Physical Environment or Challenges in the Human Environment topics. But what exactly is fieldwork?

    Fieldwork is the process of collecting data. This data can be from the physical and the human environment.

    Primary data is the data that is collected directly by you, the researcher.

    Fieldwork is super important in geography, and learning these skills early on will help you in your geographical future. You'll be taught properly how to undertake fieldwork in your school or college. Don't forget to bring your wellies on your field trip day!

    Geographical Skills Wellies on person on grass StudySmarterFig. 1 - don't forget your wellies for your fieldwork day!

    Geographical skills and techniques

    This is the second part of this topic of skills and application. Geographical skills and techniques go hand in hand. They help us to interpret geographical data. You may be required to deal with geographical data in any of the three exams you will be taking.

    Cartographic skills

    Cartographic skills allow you to create, and also interpret, maps. There are several basic concepts that you need to understand when working with maps.

    You need to be able to interpret two different types of maps; atlas maps (bigger areas) and ordinance survey maps (more detailed, smaller areas). You may be asked to look at the physical and human patterns they may show. But how do you interpret these maps? Well, you need to understand a few key concepts that these maps may show:

    KeywordWhat does it mean?
    Orientation Refers to where the north is located in relation to the map layout. Most maps are oriented with north usually being at the top of the page.
    Key/LegendYou need to be able to differentiate between roads, streams, contour lines, and other line features on a map, as well as tell the difference between human-made and natural features on a map. These things are shown with different colours, shading, lines, and point symbols. These will all be listed in the legend, or key, on the map.
    ScaleA map scale is used to show what map measurements will equate to on the actual ground. For example, large-scale maps show more detail but a smaller area. Small-scale maps show less detail but a larger area.
    Contours/spot heights

    Contour lines are a series of lines that show where the elevation (height) is the same. Spot heights are points that display a known elevation at a particular point on the map. Both of these measurements are used to find the gradient (how steep a hill or valley is) of an area. The closer the lines are, the steeper the slope is. You can also identify rivers and streams based on contour lines. These are identified by "V" shapes in the contour lines. The point of the "V" points upstream. Hills and mountains are also easily identifiable using contours by enclosed rings at the highest elevations.

    Distance measurements

    The two main types of distance measurements are straight and curved lines. Both types use the map scale to figure out the real ground distances on a map. The easiest way to measure straight-line distances is to measure with a ruler and compare that measurement to the scale to get ground measurements. To measure a curved line, use a string to follow along with the curved feature and pinch it where the feature ends.

    The scale may show 2cm=2km.

    Table 1


    Coordinates are identifiers for a point on a map in an "XY" format. Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are often split up into numerous squares, like a grid. The OS grid (National Grid), is a reference grid that shows a location, based on which grid square a particular point falls. The grid is first divided into 100 km squares and assigned two letters to identify it. That lettered square is then broken down into 10 km squares.

    Geographical Skills National Grid Ordnance Survey map chart StudySmarterFig. 2 - the national grid for Ordnance Survey

    In the smaller 10km square, the horizontal lines are called eastings and are numbered from 0 to 9. The vertical lines are called northings and are also numbered from 0 to 9.

    Let's briefly look at an example, as it's often easier to understand something by visualising it.

    To identify where the star is in grid square SK, count the columns first. You would be in column 6. This is the easting. Now go up to the row where the star is. This would be the northing, which is 7. So, the label for the star would be SK67.

    You use the grid to identify the star based on the easting and northing (easting always comes first).

    We can break the SK67 square down into another 100 squares, which are 1km each. This will give us a more accurate location. Remember your last easting and northing, and put a space after each; so, 6_7_. In these spaces, you will identify the easting column first and then the northing row. The star in the figure below would be labelled as SK60 72.

    This is a four-figure reference.

    Now, we will break the SK6072 square down into another 100 squares, which are 100m each. Again, you will remember your eastings and northings from the four-figure reference, and put one more space after them like this, 60_ 72_. Now just add the easting and northing based on the location of the star below. You will get a reference of SK608 725. This is a six-figure Reference.


    You might also have to interpret photos, by looking at what the photo is showing, and what impacts the photo could have (based on the human and physical topics you've studied). Take a look at the photo below. What is it showing? How could the photo affect people or the environment? How could issues be solved?

    Geographical Skills Volcano erupting smoke StudySmarterFig. 6 - what could this volcanic eruption mean for the people living here?

    You may also need to know how to sketch areas/sketch maps, label photos, and even interpret GIS (geographic information system) data and satellite imagery.

    Geographical Skills - Key takeaways

    • Within the geographical skills section, you will need to practice how to apply your geographical knowledge.
    • You will have to complete an Evaluation of Issues exam, and also undertake some fieldwork.
    • You need to make sure you know all about cartographic skills. Cartographic skills include reading coordinates, orientation, key/legend, scale, contours, and distance measurements. You may also have to interpret photo or GIS data.
    • Geographical skills also include graphical, numerical, and statistical skills, which you may have to demonstrate throughout your three exams.


    1. Fig. 1: wellies (, by paularps (, Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    2. Fig. 2: the national grid ordnance survey (, by Nandhp (, Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (
    3. Fig. 3: volcano (, by Nurul Fadhilah Hakim, Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Geographical Skills

    What are examples of geographical skills?  

    Examples of geographical skills are cartographic skills, analysing photos, carrying out fieldwork and evaluating issues. Other skills include graphical, numerical, and statistical skills. 

    What are geographic tools and skills?  

    Geographic tools and skills are the methods geographers use to interpret different types of geographical data.

    How do geographical skills help in the real world?  

    Geographical skills help in the real world by allowing geographers to analyse the world around them, rather than just learning concepts on paper.

    Geographical skills help to produce and evaluate data.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Data collected directly by the researcher is known as ______.

    What do geographical skills allow you to do?

    What does orientation show? 

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