Case-study competence

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Why do students fall down on a crucial part of GCSE work? Mike Morrish offers some tips

Geography candidates have long been criticised for the inadequacies of their case studies. Examiners point to vague and generalised answers, lacking in specific facts, short, or simply irrelevant. Why do students find it so difficult to provide the required material?

The origins of the problem go back to the curriculum changes of the 1970s. Before the "quantitative revolution" geography was largely based on regional studies that drew together a wide variety of information about particular places. The examination boards decided which countries or continents were to be covered. Emphasis was placed on learning the features of these locations and candidates were expected to reproduce the facts in detail.

When the "new geography" found its way into schools and public exams, through a series of curriculum development projects, the approach shifted dramatically. Courses were based systematically, focusing on an understanding of patterns and processes in different branches of the subject.

The role of case studies was to supply examples of how models and theories could be applied to the real world. Unfortunately they were often taught in an isolated fashion, without being placed in any effective global or regional context. The shortcomings of this strategy were addressed to some extent by the concept of "a sense of place", adopted in the 1980s. This recognised the need to capture the unique flavour and excitement of individual locations and began to reassert the importance of place.

Subsequently the national curriculum acknowledged the value of a regional framework by specifying the study of named countries, chosen from a range of examples that encompassed both the more developed and less developed areas of the world. At present, GCSE syllabuses continue to require knowledge of case studies from within the UK and the European Union, as well as less and more economically developed countries.

What are the advantages of using case studies in geography teaching? First, they provide essential links to the real world, without which the subject becomes abstract and sterile. Second, they illuminate the theoretical basis of geography and help students to understand the processes at work. Third, they allow the synthesis of different branches of the subject and are particularly useful in illustrating "people-environment" relationships. They also reinforce the value of factual knowledge about places and the necessity of developing an accurate mental picture of the world.

However, from a practical point of view, teachers face several challenges in delivering effective case studies. Availability of suitable resources is crucial. Video programmes, or better still a dedicated series, will exert a strong influence on the choice of a country or location for study. But some resources can soon become outdated or may not match the material to be found in the course textbook. Teachers are notoriously reluctant to abandon favourite examples that have worked well in the past, especially when the development of new studies can be a time-consuming procedure.

One disturbing trend in recent years has been the movement of case studies down the age range when they would be more appropriately taught to older students. This is particularly true of environmental and development issue that demand a more mature response to be understood properly. In spite of the reintroduction of place-specific elements, many exam candidates still experience difficulties in writing about case studies.

There are several explanations for this shortcoming. One is that students have not learned any examples in sufficient detail; another is that they know some case studies but not the right ones for the requirements of the question. Or students may have the knowledge but fail to make the right connections to the case study being requested.

Consider how the specification of a case study can vary according to location, theme or topic, process, time and scale. For example, the question specifies changes in land use in a farming region in the developing world in recent years. It is hardly surprising that the range of case studies learned by candidates in a certain school may not match such precise requirements. They may be able to cover two or three aspects of the case study but if their example at that scale on that topic was drawn from the developed world they are stymied.

The new Edexcel Geography B specification attempts to tackle this problem by identifying "focus case studies" for each teaching unit. These are the only case studies that students may be specifically asked to recall in the exam. In this way, the case study requirement is made absolutely clear, and is kept to a manageable level.

How to teach successfulcase studies

* Carry out a case study audit on your current schemes of work. (This can be done using a simple matrix which is organised by year and content.) Do you have a balanced range of examples at a variety of scales and representing different levels of development? Are there gaps that you need to fill?l Share out responsibilities in the department for the monitoring of new resources to support future case studies: reviewing recently recorded video programmes, for instance. Give each colleague a clearly defined topic for which they should develop teaching materials to be used by the whole department.

* Make use of any personal experience or expertise in the department related to potential case studies. Colleagues may well have information or photographs from individual holiday or fieldwork trips.

* Try to identify case studies that will serve more than one purpose. For example, a study of the Aswan Dam on the River Nile can be used in the contexts of hydrology, water resources, agriculture, power generation, large scale development projects and the environmental effects of dam construction.

* Give exam classes standard template sheets for recording information about individual case studies, preferably printed on coloured paper. The format should include spaces where students can enter a title, location, key facts, a sketch map or diagram and details of the syllabus section(s) related to the study.

* Include short mini-tests about case studies as a regular part of your teaching. Set homeworks based on past exam questions that contain case-study requirements. Concentrate on the interpretation of case-study questions as one aspect of the final revision programme. Give students a clearly organised list of case studies covered during the course and discuss how they could be used to answer particular questions.

Mike Morrish is head of geog-raphy at The Haberdashers' Aske's School in Elstree, Herts

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