Surviving IB: HL Geography


What do you feel about Geography?

The subject I found easiest to study for in IB was Geography. Not because it isn’t content-heavy (because there really is a lot to study), but because it’s so relevant to everything happening around us in the real world. Geography really is a deeper study of the stories behind headlines splashed across newspapers every day, understanding how individuals, societies and physical environments interact. That’s why it’s so fun!!!!!!!! :^)

When it comes to this subject, some have a dreaded fear of the Human/Physical Geog dichotomy – some love one and hate the other. I’m personally biased towards Human Geography and for those who enjoy studying Human Geog, I am pleased to tell you that the IB syllabus is quite Human Geog-centric! You will spend Year 5 completing the 4 Core Themes which include Populations in Transition, Disparities in Wealth and Development, Patterns in Environmental Quality and Sustainability and Resources Consumption. All 4 themes deal with societal phenomena and you will learn about multiple theories conceived by renowned geographers on how societies thrive and decline. For those who may prefer the physical aspect of Geography, don’t fret! In Year 6, you will be introduced to the Optional Chapters, which include Freshwater and Hazards and Disasters, both of which deal with various natural and physical phenomena. However, the purpose of Geography is ultimately centred around understanding how humans interact with these physical processes, so be prepared to evaluate how different human stakeholders cause, are affected by, or manage them.


Most vital survival tips to studying Geography

Be independent. Studying this subject for IB requires a lot of independence – don’t expect to wholly rely on teachers’ notes or the textbook because they will be insufficient and may not be organised in the most ideal manner for studying. I recommend making your own notes – summarising whatever is essential from the notes you have from teachers and the textbook, and doing research independently. By relying on your own research, you can expand the scope of your answers in examinations and use more unique examples.

Case studies are really really really important. The most efficient way to remember points (like causes of population growth, consequences of volcanic eruptions, etc.) in Geography is to attach them to memorable cases. For example, I found it easiest to study the Millennium Development Goals when I found concrete examples of each one, such as the establishment of the Anganwadi scheme in India to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Sometimes, apt case studies are already provided in the textbook or school notes – in such instances, reorganise them such that you can better remember them. Pick out just 2 to 3 statistics which will you can memorise and summarise the case study into cause, effect and management strategies (wherever applicable!). If case studies aren’t readily available in the given material, research! National Geographic, the Economist and the Guardian have beautifully written articles on important issues like poverty and globalisation that you can use.

Don’t get hung up on the numbers. Statistics are important because they give your answer a little more (perceived) credibility… but you’re better off spending your brain power studying the tangible implications of that statistic now and giving an arbitrary estimate later.

Share your notes! Be collaborative! Sharing case studies with one another doesn’t disadvantage any of you in anyway – it only helps you. Given the enormous workload you have, sharing notes is one of the most efficient ways to study.


Most vital survival tips to taking the HL Geography exam

There are a few distinct types of questions you will encounter in the IB Geography exams. Here are some tips for each question type:

1. ‘Describe the trends shown’ – you are provided with an infographic/ graph, and expected to write down the patterns you see. This is usually accompanied by instructions to explain the pattern. Usually 3-4 marks.

Memorise the world map. No, really. It helps. In every exam you will be required to interpret a map and describe the trends shown – perhaps it will show different levels of poverty, temperatures, or rainfall. On the most basic level, you should be able to identify every continent and ocean. Then familiarise yourself with the different regions of each continent. For example, the African sub-continent covers a vast region – memorise where Chad, Libya and Namibia are, in terms of Central, North or West Africa. This way, your analysis will be more complete as you can pinpoint exact areas in your answers.

2. ‘Explain the causes/ consequences of …’ – you are expected to explain the cause or consequence of a social or physical phenomena. Usually 3-6 marks.

Use examples. It might be tempting to think that a 4 mark question on the causes of migration can be answered with 2 causes. However, examples are always important to substantiate your answer and guarantee full marks for the question. Most of the time, you’ll be able to pull an example out from your bank of case studies (which you would’ve diligently studied anyway!)

3. ‘Evaluate…’ – This is an essay question. You are expected to give a detailed analysis a cause, consequence or management strategy of a human or physical phenomena. Your answer must be balanced (show both pros and cons/ evaluate more than one case). Usually 8-10 marks.

Flesh out your case studies here. Cool story I talked about Keeping up with the Kardashians in the November IB paper. Because I can. Also because it was relevant to the spread of the American cultural hegemony, a consequence of globalisation which is the focus of the IB Geog Paper 3. Hehe.

A balanced and nuanced evaluation is mandatory (if you want to score well). You must give a good evaluation in the conclusion of your essay if you’d like to secure full marks for an essay, which is very much within reach if your case studies are detailed and relevant. Make sure you evaluate on an appropriate basis (long term vs short term, opportunity cost, environmental factors etc.). The case studies you use may have their own unique limitations as well, and it will be to your advantage to bring in these issues to show you are engaging with your own material.

Pace yourself. This applies to the entire exam, regardless of question type. Allocate enough time for each question, and make sure you stick to the time limit! You will get the hang of how to allocate enough time by sitting through several timed practices (or tests).


Most vital survival tips for the Geography IA

Be feasible and practical. Some ideas sound great in theory, but it may be difficult to carry out as an investigation. If you have a Geography IA idea, research online to see if it’s been done before, and perhaps consult your teacher on how feasible the idea is.

Prepare for the worst. It was the worst. I squatted in muddy soil for 3 hours under the canopy of a rainforest swatting mosquitoes, pouring water into home-made apparatus to measure the infiltration rate of soil. I wasn’t prepared. But you will be, after reading this!!! It’s highly likely that you will do a Physical Geography-related topic for your IA, so you can’t escape outdoor fieldwork. Be meticulous with your packing list – bring mosquito repellent! A change of clothes!

Even if your trends don’t look perfect, it’s okay! Examiners aren’t looking for data trends that abide exactly by theory. Also, if there are anomalies in your data set, simply give explanations for them and acknowledge the limitations of your investigation. If you account for them, you show awareness!


One thing to look out for

The news. So many things that happen in the real world are related to what we study in Geography, so reading the newspapers everyday can save you some time in researching case studies next time!


If I could turn back time…

I wouldn’t study in the last minute as much as I did. (Exam stress is real when you’ve to cram so much into your head the night before.)


Sarah Lu was from the graduating batch of 2016. A 45-pointer, she topped the cohort in Geography in 2015. She also served as President of the Environmental Focus Group… true to her down-to-earth nature (=   

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