Geography´s ability to enhance powerful thinking skills and knowledge

Thesis event information

Date and time of the thesis defence

Place of the thesis defence

University of Oulu, lecture hall L10, remote connection:

Topic of the dissertation

Geography´s ability to enhance powerful thinking skills and knowledge

Doctoral candidate

Master of Science Eerika Virranmäki

Faculty and unit

University of Oulu Graduate School, Faculty of Science, Geography Research Unit

Subject of study



Docent Petteri Muukkonen, University of Helsinki


Professor emeritus Jarmo Rusanen, University of Oulu

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Finnish upper secondary school curriculum reforms and the digitalization of the matriculation examination enable greater emphasis on powerful geographical thinking skills

Curricula introduced in Finnish upper secondary schools in 2016 and 2021 and the digitalization of the matriculation examination in 2016 slightly shifted the emphasis of the geography learning objectives and geography examination questions towards higher-order thinking, mainly because the increased requirement of analytical thinking skills. "However, the upper secondary school students had difficulties to demonstrate evaluative and creative thinking in their answers to the geography tests of the Finnish matriculation examination", states geographer Eerika Virranmäki, who will be soon defending her doctoral thesis at the University of Oulu.

In the 2016 and 2021 geography curricula, 39% of the learning objectives emphasize higher-order thinking skills, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, while in the previous 2003 curriculum, 31% of the learning objectives emphasize the same thinking skills. During the reforms, learning objectives requiring analytical thinking skills increased, while the requirement of remembering reduced. “Majority of the geography learning objectives emphasize lower order thinking skills, remembering, understanding, and applying. However, it is important to note that nowadays there are greater amount of learning objectives which emphasize the need for processing and organizing knowledge from several sources simultaneously rather than simply remembering knowledge”, says Virranmäki.

According to the doctoral thesis, the geography curriculum and the matriculation examination put a similar emphasis on thinking skills: 29% of the geography tests questions in the paper-based tests, and 30% of the questions in the digital tests emphasize higher-order thinking. “The digitalization of the matriculation examination in 2016 had quite minor effect on the thinking skills required by the examination. Therefore, digitalized geography tests present significant opportunities in the near future to develop geography education toward higher-order thinking, especially when the 2021 curriculum is fully implemented”, states Virranmäki. Digitalization changed the geography test structure and new types of tasks were included, such as tasks, which require using statistics and videos. At the same time, the digital technology also allowed to increase the number of attachment materials involved in the tasks.

Among higher-order thinking skills, the emphasis is on analyzing, and therefore there are regrettably few geography learning objectives and geography tests questions which emphasize evaluative or creative thinking skills. The results of the thesis indicate that students have difficulties to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills in both paper-based and digital geography tests. Particularly, students had difficulties to demonstrate critical and creative, holistic thinking in their answers, as well as to reflect on potential futures or draw logical conclusions about geographical phenomena.

“Overall, geography places quite diverse emphasis on different thinking skills, and thus, upper secondary geography allows powerful geographical thinking skills to develop. The various powerful geographical thinking skills are all present to some extent in Finnish geography’s learning objectives, test questions and in particular, teachers’ perceptions of geography”, Virranmäki says. The results of the thesis can be used to plan the aims of geography education and to choose teaching artifacts, teaching methods, and assessment tasks. When formulating the next geography curriculum’s content and learning objectives, it is important to pay attention to the development of the thinking skills from primary school to university level, so that we can ensure the development of the students’ powerful geographical thinking skills.

Virranmäki analyzed 331 geography test questions from the paper-based and digital forms of the Finnish matriculation examination between fall 2013 and spring 2019, 800 students’ answers to the paper-based and digital geography test questions between fall 2015 and spring 2017, 173 learning objectives in upper secondary geography curricula documents from the years 2003, 2016, and 2021, and 11 in-service upper secondary geography teachers’ conceptions of geography using revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy and powerful geographical knowledge as an analysis framework.

The dissertation has been published in the series of Nordia Geographical Publications.
Last updated: 23.1.2024