This is trivial
August 15, 2018 4:55 AM   Subscribe

I am part of a trivia team (nominally the captain) and I feel a sad lack in my knowledge of geography (among other things). Despite looking at maps and (children's) atlases and writing country names on preprinted maps, nothing is sticking. Online quizzes don't help because I don't know what country is in between Swaziland and Nigeria. How do I become a geographic hero?
posted by b33j to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Try this one? - helps to remember country names, and then you can place them as you see them light up on the map.

Also, there are smaller maps to work with. Repetition is key!
posted by freethefeet at 4:56 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anki is a great way to learn geography.
posted by zamboni at 5:02 AM on August 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have you tried the quizzes on Sporcle? They have a ton of geography quizzes and for me at least they were really good for helping me learn more geography.
posted by phunniemee at 5:03 AM on August 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

My suggestion is to find some way to associate each country with a vivid image, e.g. the most interesting Youtube video you can find for it by searching for country name + celebration, music, dance, holiday, city, and so on. Glance at the Wikipedia entry of each country a little while searching for videos to try and fix its position and geography in your mind so that thinking of the distinctive video(s) maybe helps a little with recall of encyclopedia facts.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:15 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anki is a great way to learn geography.

Check out this recent metafilter post for some mefi endorsements.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 5:24 AM on August 15, 2018

World map shower curtain.
posted by pompomtom at 5:48 AM on August 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Make jigsaws. Learn the history so it becomes clear how e.g. culture speads geographically.
posted by runincircles at 5:53 AM on August 15, 2018

Online quizzes don't help because I don't know what country is in between Swaziland and Nigeria.

I've found online quizzes to be really helpful, but as you say when you don't know some of the answers it's challenging. What I've done is just made my best guesses (or allowed myself to look at maps the first time or two) and then carefully looked at the ones I got wrong when the quiz was complete. (It's helpful if the quiz highlights these and tells you the correct name). Then I take the quiz again. Rinse and repeat. My error rate gradually reduces until I get them all right. I might take the same quiz several times.

Several years ago I printed off blank maps of each continent. For each continent I numbered all the countries and then made an answer key on a separate sheet. Then hide the answer key and test myself by writing down the number assigned to each country and my best guess at the name. Then check my work and revisit everything I got wrong and take the test again and again, focusing on one continent at a time. I had a VERY boring job and plenty of time to do this. It worked ... though it hasn't really stuck with me because I didn't do any refresher work once I had it down.
posted by bunderful at 5:56 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've done a couple of things that have helped me.

Memrise which has mnemonics for remembering a lot of the countries and capitals. You can sift through mnemonics to find ones you like.

Lizardpoint quizzes which give you training modules where you can try things a few times (and/or go through a training session) before you are quizzed. It's not just "What is this blob... WRONG"

I also found that reading international news (maybe BBC or something) helps a lot because if I can associate stuff with a country I have more "hooks" I can remember them by. So just reading about, for example, issues between Libya and Egypt and shipping would get you to "Oh, they share a boarder and are on the coast" Likewise, foreign films, though that is more of a lifestyle change.
posted by jessamyn at 6:22 AM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]


Physical puzzles, with country shaped pieces. I promise, this works. I've been making similar ones with my kids and it sticks like nothing else.
posted by lydhre at 6:22 AM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I used to be able to name the entire west coast of Africa in order because I made up a mnemonic sentence. I don't remember that one, but I do remember "My goodness but eating hot nachos causes pain," for Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, etc. through Panama. The great lakes spell out HOMES, but not in order. I'll bet you can search for more.
posted by soelo at 6:25 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I believe the foundation for my geography knowledge came largely from National Geographic and World magazine as a kid. Although I find many things about Nat Geo problematic, as a kid, it was the best source available to me of things that happened in faraway places...and so those places became real and then stayed in my memory. So maybe start reading blogs of travelers and have a map handy to see where they are and what's near them? I love the Everywhereist.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:33 AM on August 15, 2018

Play the long game, in addition to some of the recommendations above. I've always loved geography and what I found helps tremendously is to associate various countries and places with their heroes, culture, languages, politics, etc. I've never been to Venezuela but I know that Nicolas Maduro is bad news for the country and, since shelves are empty and their currency, the Bolivar, depreciates by the day, many Venezuelans cross the border into Colombia to buy basic goods. And a lot of people in that same region, in particular those from Suriname, Guyana, and northern Brazil, move to French Guiana where the standard of living is much higher. See, that's 6 countries (none of which I've been to) down just by being interested in the political landscape.

It is an ongoing process but the key is to be interested in the world rather than cramming names of places for competitions. Today, you can even virtually visit lots of places with tools such as Google Earth, Street, Youtube, and others. Aaah, to actually go to Lake Como...

I just took freethefeet's above referenced quiz and got 145 countries out of 196. Hmmm, I need to practice Oceania, Central America and the Balkans. Or better yet, travel to those places.
posted by Kwadeng at 6:55 AM on August 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

put a map of the world in your bathroom placed so that you can read the smallest print while you're on the toilet. You'll have that stuff memorized in no time.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:04 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Online quizzes don't help because I don't know what country is in between Swaziland and Nigeria

I don't really understand this statement. Are you saying that quizzes don't test for that? I agree that the key is repetition. You just keep testing yourself over and over. (I decided to be the flag expert for my trivia team. I have a set of flash cards that I go through repeatedly. If I skip a few weeks, I forget a lot of them. There seem to be a lot of geography flash cards on Amazon if you want to go low tech. I don't know how valid this is, but there is some research showing people don't retain information they learn online as well.)

I like this countries of Africa quiz. It seems like it could help with knowing where the countries are. But you'll probably need to take it a lot for that to kick in.
posted by FencingGal at 7:14 AM on August 15, 2018

Sheppard Software has good online map-based geography game/quizzes. I am in exactly your shoes -- fond of trivia, terrible at geography -- and while I'm still terrible at geography, I kind of know where most of the countries in Africa are now.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:16 AM on August 15, 2018

This is 'do as I say, not as I do' -- I've never tried it myself. But I bet drawing maps from memory would be a fantastic way to study. Start with vague blobs, look at a real map, see what you got wrong, try it again.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:19 AM on August 15, 2018

My goodness but eating hot nachos causes pain

Or if you want adjacency, not north to south, My Baby Godzilla Eats Ham, Not Cocoa Puffs.
posted by zamboni at 7:58 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s designed for kids, but I think the Stack the Countries app is really great for anyone to learn geography. If you play long enough to unlock the “Map It!” game (that won’t take long), Map It will really help with remembering where the various countries are.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:10 AM on August 15, 2018

I decided a few tears ago to increase my geography knowledge and have used the website Seterra. It is organized by continent. It will name the country and you have to select it in the map. After a few wrong guesses, it will highlight the country. When I first started a continent, I would do the quiz a few times in a row until I felt like I was making some progress. I did that daily until I consistently hit 100% or at least close to it, then I moved on to the next continent(I started with North and South America, then Europe, Asia,Africa, and Australasia). When I was working on a new continent, I still practiced the ones I'd mastered every few days. Once I felt pretty solid on all the continents (still rubbish at some of the island chains in the Caribbean and around Australia), I did some of the worldwide quizzes (30 largest countries or most populous countries).

I did this probably 2 or 3 years ago. It look me a few weeks, dedicating probably 20 minutes or so a day to it. I still come back every couple months and have to brush up a little, but at the very least, I know generally where all the countries are, which gives me a better understanding of the context of world events. (There are a lot of countries between Swaziland and Nigeria, by the way. Swaziland is inside South Africa and Nigeria is in the north west part of the continent.)

Whatever way you do it, chunking and sustained practice are going to be the most effective. It is a lot of information to learn. Good luck!
posted by Emmc325 at 8:14 AM on August 15, 2018

Enthusiastically seconding Kwadeng's recommendation, with an extender: The easiest way to care about the rest of the world is sports. You just missed a couple great opportunities with the World Cup and the World Cup, but there are still plenty of others. Even if you just follow the major American pro leagues, there are enough foreign-born players to get you started. Whenever you come across someone with a non-Anglo-Saxon name, look up where they're from and find it on a map (although you'll overlook Frenchman Tony Parker with this method). I was able to draw a fairly comprehensive map of northern and central Europe by the time I was in middle school just by reading about hockey.

If you don't like sports, you can get the same general effect by reading the international section of a newspaper. If you want to go deeper than a normal daily newspaper, check out the BBC or the AFP. And definitely check out the Economist. As you see places mentioned, look them up in an atlas.

As far as online quizzes go, my favorite are these kinds (two links there), where you have to ID countries without reference to borders. The trick is to use the skip button liberally. Start by skipping through until you find a country you know. In Europe, most people should be able to ID the UK, Russia, Italy, and maybe a couple of others at the bare minimum. In Africa, South Africa is easy, and maybe Egypt and Somalia. Once you know those, look up what borders them, and then find them.

In general, focus on large countries. Only a handful of people can distinguish Swaziland from Lesotho. But you should know Congo, and Sudan, and Nigeria. There are a lot more trivia questions about Brazil than there are about Paraguay, so even if you learn enough about Paraguay that you can draw a topological map of the country with shaded areas for major indigenous population centers, it won't actually benefit your trivia team much.

I got a 190 on freethefeet's quiz, btw. :)
posted by kevinbelt at 8:39 AM on August 15, 2018 [4 favorites]


I began working at an international development job and did not even recognize the place names as something other than fantasy and this, rightly, shamed me. I played this game A LOT and it helped me get familiar with where countries are and what cities are in them. You will suck at first. Keep playing.

oh this one is also good

posted by skrozidile at 10:25 AM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

seconding Lizardpoint, linked above. Clean, simple, helpful teaching tool.
posted by mmiddle at 11:51 AM on August 15, 2018

Have you tried the quizzes on Sporcle?

Another vote for Sporcle - most of the quizzes will show the answers you missed after you finished or even during the game depending on what the author has set up, so you can study that for a bit then retake the quiz, wash/rinse/repeat. Note that in the specific case of nations, Sporcle has made some site-wide standardized choices about what are and are not recognized as nations that might not precisely match the decisions made by your quiz-making organization.
posted by solotoro at 12:27 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yakko Warner sings The Nations of the World
Put it on repeat.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:49 PM on August 15, 2018

The thing with online quizzes is that there's no reason why you can't just look things up if you get to a question you can't answer. You can't cheat if you're only doing it to improve your knowledge; all you're doing is using the quiz to guide your learning and help identify weak spots. No-one is grading you.
posted by Jilder at 10:09 PM on August 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

The best resource I haven't seen mentioned are the geography quizzes on, specifically the ones by user David. There are continent-level quizzes for all the countries in the world along with US states, Canadian provinces, cities, rivers, deserts, etc. The best feature is that it color-codes your answers: right on first try = green, two tries = yellow, three = orange. After four tries it highlights the right answer in purple and then colors it red once you click. When you're done you have a nice heat map of your strong and weak spots.

The biggest downside is that the site uses an aggressive anti-adblocker. I run uBlock Origin on my browser and it still blocked me even after I toggled it off for the site. You can get around it by adding this to your adblocker's filter list:
posted by Rhaomi at 3:33 PM on August 31, 2018

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