Junior Cycle Geography Exams

by Peter Lydon

In this article, Peter Lydon looks at the lessons from the SEC sample paper, setting examinations for 2021 and what to bear in mind for the exam in 2022.

Lessons from the sample paper

After looking at the SEC’s sample Junior Cycle Geography paper, most Geography teachers, like me, are probably wondering what the actual exam will be like. My sense is that the Junior Cycle Geography exam in 2022 is unlikely to differ greatly from the sample exam paper, at least with regard to the style of questions asked.


In terms of ‘coverage’, there are questions on 17 of the 28 learning outcomes (LOs) in the specification. This table shows the distribution of questions across the 28 LOs. Eleven LOs are not directly assessed, but the content of some of these would be relevant to some of the other LOs. 

In preparing students for an exam, and specifically the final Junior Cycle exam, it’s worth remembering that all the content in the specification is examinable. So the inclusion of questions on, for example, larger-scale maps (versus the 1:50 000 maps) should not be too much of a surprise.

Wording and question types

Generally, the wording of the questions in the paper is not very different to the old exam. As the new exam paper is at Common Level, the full range of student ability needs to be provided for in the one paper. So expect there always to be a differentiated mix of questions.

The sample paper contains a good mixture of questions, which can be divided into three broad types:

  1. Questions that require one-word/one-sentence answers (including multiple choice, fill in the missing words, matching exercises, etc).
  2. Skills-based questions such as maps, aerial photographs, graphs, etc.
  3. Paragraph-style questions

As with the old exam paper, each question is divided into parts that examine different but related sections of the course – for example, Question 1 draws on LO 1.3 (mass movement) and LO 2.8 (Responding to natural disasters).

There are some questions that focus on a single LO exclusively – for example, Question 9 examines globalisation only (LO 3.9). It is true that the question references transport (LO 2.9), but the focus is actually LO 3.9. It is worth noting also that LO 3.9 is a synthesising LO. There are three of these in the specification: LO 1.10, LO 2.9 and LO 3.9.

For paragraph-style questions, students need to demonstrate their knowledge of the language related to the question. A good student could write a beautiful answer explaining waterfalls, but without including the appropriate keywords, they are unlikely to provide as full an answer as possible. Keywords are important because they provide the literacy building-blocks that further student comprehension. Keywords signpost what students have to be able to explain when writing answers. They also act as a convenient cue for assessing student writing.

Analysis: Question 6 (c)

Dissecting the question

Question 6 (c) from the sample paper asks:

On a hike through the area shown on the map extract above your friend asks you how
(1) this landscape was formed. Write the answer you would give to (2) explain how
the processes
of (3) glacial erosion or the processes of (3) river erosion (4) shaped the landscape shown on the map extract. (5) Refer to the map extract in your answer.

I’ve added in bold (above) the key requirements of the question and numbered them (3 occurs twice because student must choose between glacial and river erosion). These numbers appear in the sample answer.

(1)    The answer is about ‘this landscape’, so the student should name the example they are looking at in the map. This ties in with (5), which requires a grid reference.

(2)    Students should explain the ‘processes’ involved. This is plural so ideally the student would mention two processes, for example, plucking and abrasion. However, I assume students who just refer to ‘erosion’ would get some marks, but the more detailed they can be in the time and space available, the better.

(3)    Students choose between glacial or river processes. If they choose glacial, they must ensure they are writing about a glacial landform and glacial processes. Similarly, if they choose rivers, they must write about a river landform and river processes. There should be no contradictions in their answer.

(4)    The explanation should explain how the landscape was affected by the processes.

(5)    Ties in with (1) – the student should give a six-figure grid reference, although it is possible a four-figure grid reference could be acceptable.

In the old Ordinary Level exam (e.g. 2018), a similar question would be marked as follows:

  • Feature names @ 2 marks
  • Diagram @ 2 marks
  • 4 elements of explanation @ 1 mark each

In the Higher Level marking scheme, named processes are suggested. Significant differences were expected between Higher and Ordinary Level answers:

  • Feature names @ 1 mark
  • Labelled diagram @ 2 mark
  • Explanation of formation @ 7 marks (St2 + D1 + D1 + D1 + D1 + D1)
  • One development mark must be for a process

Sample answer

It is difficult to anticipate the required level of detail and how marks will be allocated for the new Common Level exam. However, this is a possible answer to Question 6 (c) from the sample paper. Keywords have been highlighted in bold. You might have a different selection of keywords for your students and your own suggestions about which statements should attract marks. This is ok. As we do not yet have a marking scheme for this new Common Level paper, it is difficult to be precise about how questions will be marked. And even then, the marking scheme will be subject to change from one year to the next. Suggesting that marking will be somewhere between the old Ordinary Level and Higher Level exams is probably not much help. It is likely that examiners will have some latitude to assign marks, and if students use keywords correctly in their answer, they will pick up marks. I have put possible mark allocations in red type in the sample answer and have allocated 10 marks. A very rough suggestion is 1 mark per statement. This is more than in the old exams, but it means that less academic students have a better chance of picking up marks.

Summer exams in 2021

With the phased return to school, teachers will have been thinking about how to plan for summer examinations. For students in Third Year, there are a few options:

  1. Set the SEC sample paper.
  2. Set a different sample paper (e.g. from a published sample exam paper book).
  3. Use ordered-in mock exam papers.
  4. Draft your own exam paper.

However, with the learning time those students have lost in Second and Third Year, a shorter paper that is still meaningful could be produced, based on the style of questions in the sample paper. Allowing for a choice of questions will also give students a fair chance and make some allowance for topic preferences. It may be easier to use option 1 or 2 and just give students a choice of questions to answer – for example, there are 10 question, so attempt 6.

For First and Second Years I’ll be examining material from the scheme of work, with fewer, more topic-focused questions. Typically, with First and Second Years, it is more convenient to have individual topic questions and to leave questions that test across the strands until students have had a chance to practise them in a class test.

This is an exam question I set last year for my students, and this is how the same question might look this year bearing in mind the lessons of the SEC sample paper.  

Looking ahead to 2022

  • Keywords and definitions are essential.
  • Teach each learning objective and build the specification elements into your teaching. In particular, integrating skills in teaching is important and makes for a more interesting experience. For example, slopes on OS maps ties in well with mass movement.
  • Literacy, numeracy and graphicacy (specifically mentioned in the Elements) are important skills in teaching, learning and assessment in Geography.
  • Once students are confident with topics from across the strands, provide them with exam questions that test competency across the specification.


Peter Lydon is a geography teacher at Wesley College. He is president of the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland (AGTI), and a member of the development group for the new JC Geography specification.