Geography Investigation NEAs, two years on...

Updated: Jan 15, 2019

September 2016 was a busy time for the Geography Field Studies team at Skern Lodge, owing to significant changes and updates to the fieldwork component found across the main Awarding Bodies for A Level (AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas, OCR).

Fieldworkers on the path to success?

Changes ensure that a student studying A Level Geography today should expect to undertake four quality days of fieldwork away from school grounds, and suitable support to complete an extended written piece referred to as the Independent Investigation which accounts for 20% of their end grade.

The Investigation is a Non Examined Assessment (NEA), and its place in the new specifications prepares students more thoroughly for research-based learning at university as well as providing opportunities to develop key investigative skills highly sought after by future employers.

For many students, this will be their first encounter with any form of investigation enquiry process; deciding the focus of research, undertaking a literature review, planning and executing data collection, analysing and evaluating investigative technique and results, compelling presentation of data, and drawing conclusions and making decisions.

Since adapting our fieldwork provision to accommodate for the new Geography NEA at Skern, I’m really pleased to reflect back on the last two years as a success. The small tutor team at Skern Lodge has successfully facilitated hundreds of student-led investigations since 2016, whilst positively operating within the strict malpractice parameters as outlined by the Awarding Bodies.

Above all, we have been overwhelmingly impressed by the interesting titles that genuinely enthused students have explored for their Investigations. Candidly, I’m sure that we would have never thought of half of them ourselves!

Recently, in Autumn 2018, an update was prepared jointly by the four main Awarding Organisations to share some of the most valuable lessons learnt for the NEA. This update also served to reinforce some of the key messages concerning the teacher's role in supporting students throughout their NEA journey in line with regulatory guidelines published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, as well as what sort of provision a provider such as Skern Lodge should strive for.

Inspirational locations help those 4000 words along

Below are some of the headings and excerpts from the Autumn Update, accompanied by my own thoughts and reflections.


Securing an appropriate title

It hasn’t been unusual for an entire afternoon or evening session to be dedicated to just allowing a cohort enough uninhibited time to think and reflect on a title for their Investigation. It may seem like a waste of time with indistinct outcomes (especially when away on a residential…), but actually it is a sound investment that yields great returns over the weeks to come.

Visiting staff and Skern Tutors can ‘host’ this time, and students should have access to the specification and should be encouraged to develop a statement, question, or hypothesis that clearly links to it. Breaking their main title down into sub-enquiry questions or hypotheses may help them plan their route through the investigation more effectively. Prudent review of sampling techniques at the planning stage of the investigation could assist candidates to precisely focus their intentions, and defeat the mistake of embarking on broad or simply ‘impossible’ investigations (e.g ‘What is the main cause of unemployment in the UK?’ – there are governmental think tanks that are unable to answer this!).

Emphasis on ‘finding out something new’ also avoids the temptation to develop a title that tests something that the student already knows to be true of false (e.g ‘Pebble size should decrease along Pebble Ridge’ – the student is only displaying knowledge of longshore drift is occurring). Exploring a truism could lead to a very descriptive and uninspiring report for the student to slog through, and the most outstanding studies seen so far have often been from students pursuing themes that had genuinely ignited their interest about something new or fresh – student’s natural curiosity about an exciting topic of their choosing should promote far greater engagement with the enquiry process than perhaps checking textbook theories against fieldwork fact.

Securing independent titles

The idea of ‘independent working’ should not be a surprise expectation for someone interacting with something so appropriately named as the Independent Investigation, and yet defining (or interpreting the definition of) ‘independence’ has been a challenge for some.

During the planning phase, students can participate in discussions surrounding possible focus areas within the specification and possible fieldwork methodologies that could be used. Following the planning stage, the student must finalise the draft title of their investigation on their own, and must complete a detailed proposal form prior to commencing the data collection phase of the investigation. Guidance can be general and staff are permitted to provide broad parameters for the students (e.g themes from the specification taught so far, available kit and equipment, or fieldwork locations offered during a trip to Skern Lodge), but the final choice of aim or title must be the student's own.

Inevitably, if students all tutored in similar data collection techniques and ultimately visit the same locations for fieldwork there is a possibility of narrowing of titles. In visits last year, we had entire cohorts of fieldworkers base their investigation around coastal processes at Westward Ho! and Pebble Ridge(!). This is acceptable as long as students have made clear decisions about their investigation themes and derived their titles independently, and there is strong evidence in their write ups to support this. In our supporting role, we should try and avoid leading statements like “Wouldn’t more of you like to do a nice carbon study at Brownsham Woods?” as much as we can.

Completing the student proposal form

The Independent Investigation Proposal Form must be submitted with each sample investigation sent for moderation. Links to the specification must be made explicit and students should detail their proposed hypotheses/questions and sub-hypotheses/questions as well as their methodology. Additionally, the simple mechanical process of completing the form helps shape the investigation in the mind of the student and can oblige them to consider aspects potentially overlooked.

Despite this, it was clear that not all cohorts that visited me over the last two years were sufficiently convinced on how important or helpful the Proposal Form can be. Some students had unfortunately received the guidance to complete the form retrospectively, having haphazardly collected primary data as a first priority. I suspect that this could have only led to a confused student engaging in attempts to force a nonsensical data set to force-fit something that they don’t have any interest or passion for, and affecting a ‘pretend’ planning stage when writing the report.

Ideally, students should arrive at Skern Lodge having completed the proposal form and ready to collect primary data for a pilot study. Refinements can be made. The proposal form should not be a post-visit afterthought.

Collaboration and Data collection

Realistically, students will work together when out in the field. Data can be collected by students in groups if appropriate to their investigations, and to overcome health and safety challenges (e.g questionnaires with members of the public). Thereafter, students must work independently and should be able to draw on a range of data presentation and analysis techniques previously introduced by teachers and support staff or wider reading. As a result, even where overall titles are similar, candidates will have plenty of opportunity to display individuality in their approach. If students contributed towards a data-set shared amongst peers, students should be able to confidently identify and justify which elements of the group data are relevant to their own investigation.

We should be mindful of supporting ‘passenger’ students, who can all too easily become the quiet dogsbody in another student’s investigation.

Perhaps worst of all are students (and staff!) that expect to be provided with recipe-book methods and data collection sheets by Skern tutors. Students should create their own tables and forms just as they should write their own sampling strategy that directly explores their own title. I must admit that I have deployed students in the field that have then lingered closely to the minibus, waiting for that miracle data sheet to emerge with a puff from the exhaust pipe or squirt from the windscreen wash. Alas…

On the mention of minibuses, one of my main challenges over the last two years as a professional provider for fieldwork, has been refining my provision of transport logistics that best allow students to visit locations of their choosing using timescales that they have developed. In a cohort of 30, having 10 students wanting to visit Bideford for the morning, 5 students wanting to visit Pebble Ridge for lunch, and a final 15 students wanting to visit Braunton dunes all day is a tricky puzzle to overcome – but a puzzle that you should expect to pay a commercial provider, such as Skern, to accomplish.

Incidentally, last year I encountered students that insisted that their entire investigation would be based on mysterious reserves of secondary data or rely solely on a deep literature review. Besides from being perplexed to be in the company of a student prepared to spend five days of an expensive fieldwork trip making notes out of a book rather than exploring a new part of the United Kingdom, classroom based desk-studies that solely process existing secondary data are not permitted by the examination boards.

The investigation must be grounded in primary data collected in the field.

Word length

I’d like to think that I have the unique advantage of facilitating the ‘best part’ of a student’s investigation (primary data collection), and receive only updates from teachers via telephone or email on how students are progressing with the ‘worst part’ of the investigation (the write-up!). From what I have been told, there have been considerable variations in the word counts in students’ work – namely, there were a number of candidates who exceeded this considerably.

Awarding Bodies suggest that students should aim for a relatively concise 3000 to 4000 words when completing their Investigation. Some staff tell me of certain students submitting voluminous compendiums of 8000 words or more, and one student managing over 10,000 (dissertation expectation!).

If one were to wade through the multitude of forum threads on, the topic of word count is endemic across all subject areas and a source of much anxiety and misbelief for students. Students should be made aware that advantage will not be gained by ignoring recommendations on word length set by the Awarding Organisations and, indeed, investigations exceeding the word guidance have often resulted from titles that were far too broad in scope to begin with or overly long literature reviews.

Collaborative fieldwork


The Field Studies team and I look forward to reading the inspirational and amazing NEA Investigation titles that will be imagined and pursued by students visiting us in 2019. Hope to see you soon!


The ‘Autumn Update’ can be read in full here:

The ‘Guide to developing titles and completing the proposal form’ can be found here:

Finally, the seminal text by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), a ‘Student guide to the NEA’ can be found here:

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