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Geography skills and concepts

Geography skills

Geographic skills fall into several categories:

Geographic resource interpretation skills include:

  • using maps, photographs, diagrams, cartoons, images, statistics, keys, graphs, text, models, internet, speeches, surveys, films, TV, video clips and GIS to explain geographic information.

Geographic resource construction skills include:

  • presenting spatial data - may include, but is not limited to, drawing sketch and precise maps, using GIS layering and/or other multi-media to present specific geographic information
  • presenting statistical data - may include, but is not limited to, constructing graphs, tables, performing calculations based on data
  • presenting visual data - may include, but is not limited to, taking photographs or drawing pictures, cartoons, multi-media
  • complex presentation - may include multiple forms of data for example Visual, spatial and statistical combined.

Communication skills include:

  • being able to present geographic information in a variety of forms such as essays, paragraphs, poems, visuals, models, films, PowerPoint presentations, speeches, games, puzzles, blogs and graphic organisers.

Social skills include:

  • being able to work in groups and being empathetic, appreciating different values, perspectives and viewpoints on different aspects of geography, establishing and justifying personal value positions, contributing and participating in the community.

Fieldwork skills include:

  • being able to gather information from the field using a variety of techniques such as surveying, questionnaires, field sketching, measuring, photographing, interviewing and observing.

Geographic skills assessment

Students will be engaged in programmes of learning that develop geographic skills.

These skills are assessed in a specific external standard at each NCEA level and also in the research internal standard. Only a selection of skills will be assessed in the external examination, as this mode of assessment is not suitable for all geographic skills.

Guidance for externally assessed achievement standards


In the examination a resource booklet is provided which is used to assess the students’ understanding and application of geographic skills and concepts. This may include a variety of resources such as maps, tables, diagrams, photographs, opinions. These will generally be about a particular geographic issue in a setting which could be from New Zealand or overseas.

The resources provided at level 1 are more straight forward that those at levels 2 and 3. For example, a topographic map at level 1 will be relatively easy to interpret. At level 3 topographic maps will be in their original state and be more complex to interpret. Complex satellite imagery will only be used at higher levels.

The examination text is appropriate to the particular level with material being significantly abridged for level 1 and more complex at level 3.

The complexity of geography skills

Certain basic skills are essential requirements at all levels.

Basic skills applicable at all levels

Distance, use of six figure grid references, use of latitude and longitude, compass direction, bearings, scale, area calculation, location of natural and cultural features, determination of height, cross sections, use of a key, précis map construction, recognition of relationships, application of concepts, interpretation of other geographic maps like weather maps, cartograms, choropleth maps.

Interpretation of photographs, cartoons or diagrams including age-sex pyramids and models such as a wind rose; interpreting and completing a continuum to show value positions.

Interpretation and construction of bar graphs (single and multiple), line graphs (single and multiple), pie and percentage bar graphs, scattergraphs, dot distribution, pictograms, and climate graphs

Recognition of patterns, simple calculation such as mean, mode, and conversion to percentages.

At level 3 the intention is for students to select and apply skills. This means that while the same skills are assessed as at level 2, students need to be able to select appropriate skills to answer questions. For example, students may be asked to give the location of a feature which requires them to use a combination of skills such as grid references, latitude and longitude, or direction and distance from another feature. They may be asked to describe the physical geography of a region which would draw on skills such as interpreting contour lines, cross sections, climate graphs and wind roses.

Some skills become more complex at higher levels. Others are more appropriate at higher levels only. These skills are indicated below. Level 1 examines basic skills only, while at level 2 and 3, both basic and complex skills may be assessed.

Differentiation between basic and complex skills

Skills  Basic Complex
Latitude and longitude Degrees and minutes only.  Degrees, minutes and seconds
Direction To nearest inter-cardinal point (8 point compass). To the nearest 16 compass direction.

Simple linear scale measurement on a map.

Recognition of different scales.

Changed ratio scale with size.

Converting linear to ratio or vice versa.

Use of other scales apart from distance ie time.

Graphing Scattergraph (interpretation or completion only).

Triangular graphs

Cumulative graphs

Scattergraph construction


Statistical mapping

Proportional circle maps

Tables All statistics given are used.

Not all statistics given may be necessary for completion of tasks.

Percentage change calculations.

The complexity of the examination questions

Questions at level 1 are related to the use of a specific resource only. At level 2, one or two resources may have to be used to answer questions. At level 3 several resources from throughout the resource booklet may be used to apply a skill.

Instruction words will also differentiate the levels where longer written explanations are required. At level 1 most of the questions will be based around describe or describe and explain. At level 2 and 3 terms such as justify and evaluate may be used.

Guidance given to students in the examination

Candidates are given more direction at level 1 with less guidance at level 3.

For example, at level 1 a candidate will be told which type of graph to construct and be provided with axes or asked to complete a graph that has been partially done, for example, complete the rainfall for a climate graph where the temperature is given.

At level 2 candidates will be told the type of graph to construct within a given space, whilst at level 3 candidates will have to select which is the appropriate graph to construct using more complex resources.

At level 1 candidates will have to locate major features on a précis map; at level 2 to locate features where some outline is provided; and by level 3 only a minimal outline is provided for guidance.

Assessing geographic concepts

Conceptual understandings underpin the knowledge and skills assessed by the achievement standards (NCEA level 1 to 3) and scholarship performance standards. Students are required to understand how these concepts can be applied to new settings, as well as applying them to the contexts they have studied specifically.

Differentiation of concepts applies across the levels. A student’s understanding of a concept at level 1 will be at a more basic level than an understanding at levels 2 or 3.

As students build geographical knowledge and skills, they will approach these concepts in different ways. By revisiting them in different contexts, they will come to refine and embed understandings.

Learn more about key concepts in geography.

Last updated November 5, 2015