How do I go about learning geography?
September 24, 2020 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I've begun doing online trivia with friends, and it has revealed that apparently I know nothing about where most things in the world are located. I tend to learn by reading and am good at retaining facts pretty casually, but when things get Atlas-y I am out of my depths. Wondering if anyone has suggestions around this? Are there...narrative geographies? Are there youtube channels that work like almanacs? Has anyone successfully righted this in adulthood. Thank you in advance!
posted by lieberschnitzel to Education (24 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I righted it by the app Seterra. A simple map labeling game, but with maps for everything? Rivers, capitals, high population cities, etc for all the continents. They also have flag quizzes, which I dont care about, but there it is.
It's not reading, but it's both fun and effective.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 9:46 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Put a map on your wall. I put mine near my bed so I actually look at it regularly. It’s honestly kind of meditative and a nice thing to do when trying to shut my brain down for the night.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:48 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

I use lizard point geography quizzes. They have multiple options on difficulty in scoring, but they don't have an option where you can look at a blank map and type in the answer, which I wish they did. (They do give you a country/city/river/etc., and you have to find it, but I like to see if I can come up with the name for a country/etc). To compensate for that, once I've studied an area, I print out a blank map and just fill it in by memory to challenge myself. Do one quiz every morning and you will be getting there in no time!

It's not reading, but as I better learn where things are located, it makes current events (and history) click into place more. Knowing or learning a little bit about the background of a region can also help you remember their locations, as a lot of history is very dependent on where things are located.

I also enjoyed Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. It only focuses on a few different areas, but it was an easy read that explains the interaction between geography and history - again, helps things click into place.
posted by sillysally at 10:01 AM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding hanging a map somewhere that you will see every day. When I had a cubicle walls, I always had a world map hanging up. If I am taking a trip somewhere, I like to have a local map up for a few months to get the general layout down.
Sporcle has lots of geography quizzes, but many are either "you know it or you don't" and not geared towards learning. You can usually see the answers you missed, though, and then retake the quizzes again later to improve your score.
posted by soelo at 10:16 AM on September 24, 2020

A friend of mine keeps an atlas next to the toilet. His geography knowledge astounds me.
posted by nathaole at 10:24 AM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think actually a lot of people in are in your boat. I like to think that I'm pretty geography-conversant, but if someone put a gun to my head and said "tell me the capital of Lichtenstein or I'll shoot!" I'd be dead.

So I have questions about your questions. With the information you're looking for, are you talking things like "X is the capital of Y" or things like "X mountain is in Y country" or "Country X borders Countries Y and Z"? Or is it more a sense of spatial awareness, like if someone was talking about The Alps, you'd just sort of have the awareness that "okay, somewhere in that spot in Central Europe with Switzerland and Austria" or if someone was talking about "the land of the midnight sun" you'd know "okay, that's probably somewhere in like Scandanavia"?

I feel like a map would work well for the latter kind of thing. For the former - where you're looking at more facts-and-figures - the quizzes would work better for that. Also reruns of the old "Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego" kids' game show.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:25 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've found the 'maps' feature provided by a Major Internet Search Engine to be very useful in exploring and understanding the geography of the world.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 10:27 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do you have any hobbies that can incorporate geography?

That is: "I do [thing]; I wonder how [thing] is done in [place]"? This way you're drafting off stuff you're already doing. For quick references/browsing, I've always liked the CIA World Factbook (arbitrarily opened to Botswana). I can also lose hours reading the wikitravel entries for places I'd someday like to visit.
posted by jquinby at 10:35 AM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

OK, so I love geography more than almost anything else, including sports or music or whatever. Like this, only with geography instead of the Red Sox. And without the sex, but whatever... My birthday party activity when I was a kid was having my friends draw maps. (Yeah, really.) Anyway, I'm all in on the stuff, so my recommendations may be a little too much for you. Or they may be just what you need.

My first suggestion is Jetpunk, which is like Sporcle but... better, somehow. They have a ton of geography quizzes, including some with fun twists that really help you learn. Some of my favorites:

Countries of the World with an Empty Map (They also have continent-specific ones.)
Biggest Cities in the United States, Europe, and the world, extreme.
Countries of the World, One Minute Sprint (Also has continent-specific ones.)
World Capitals, One Minute Sprint (Different time limits available, but I think the sprint format is helpful for learning.)
US States by Borders, 30 Second Sprint (Really forces you to learn what borders what.)
Countries by Borders, Bordering Sea, Capital Proximity, Official Language or Currency in 30 Seconds (Helpful for more than just countries and capitals.)
1,000 World Cities furthest from Larger City by Latitude Proximity (Hard to explain, but probably the most fun.)

GeoGuessr is a game that shows you a Street View image and you have to guess where you are.

World is the most basic, but also kind of hard.
Famous Places is a little easier, because you're not just in the middle of nowhere. (Although if you are, the answer is probably Macchu Picchu, FYI.)
I Saw the Sign is probably the easiest, relatively speaking, because you start by looking at a sign that says the name of the town you're in. Usually not in English, often not in the Latin alphabet, though.
There are a bunch of other, more specific ones, too. I play the Columbus, Ohio map a lot.

Countryballs Explained is kind of a silly animation about various geographical/historical topics.
Mr. Beat does a lot of comparison videos to help you understand the difference between, say, Kansas and Nebraska.
J.J. McCullough is a more wide-ranging channel but often focused on "social studies" matters.
GeoWizard is a guy who livestreams his GeoGuessr games because he's sickeningly good.
Geography Now is pretty basic but well-done and entertaining.

For me, sports were probably one of the big ways into geography, so with that in mind, there are things like GeoGuessr's European Stadiums or Jetpunk's 2018 Winter Olympics Medal Countries, with a map.

The board game Risk is helpful, as well. Well, for learning geography, at least. Not for making or keeping friends, but whatevs.

If you're interested in books or anything like that, let me know and I'll give you some recommendations there. Good luck!
posted by kevinbelt at 11:25 AM on September 24, 2020 [25 favorites]

One thing you could do is plan trips (that you might never take, but that's a different goal...)

So you could imagine a scenario where you have 7 days in Country X. What are some options for places to be based in? What would be interesting day trips from there? Guidebooks or travel writing about the area will have lots of geographical information, especially if they include historical information.

If you're of an RPG bent you could plan present-day or historical missions in some region. How would you smuggle spices overland from Syria to China? What rivers/mountains/plateaus would you have to cross, what cities would you go through, what supplies would you be able to replenish in different areas, what languages would you be communicating in, etc.?

Historical or political science/international relations reading in general should also have a lot of relevance: Why was that region conquered by that group? (Lots of useful metals mined in the local mountains, plus ports to ship it from.) Why was that area a hotbed of political unrest? (Poverty due to subsistence agriculture with no nearby cities or ports, regular flooding from the surrounding rivers.) And so on.

There's been a lot of excited talk about Microsoft's latest flight simulator, if that's to your taste. Exploring via Google Earth might also be a way to associate abstract geographical facts with actual images and impressions.

If you're reading (or even watching) something that involves geography even in a tangential way, you can make a habit of following along separately with a map so that you can get a better sense of the distances involved and the features of the area.

If you're interested in things that are often regional like music, fashion, food, and so on, it can be pretty fascinating to look at what's going on in a certain country, and then look at all its neighboring countries. In which neighbors is the music similar? How large is the bloc of countries that share a given style? If a neighboring country is dissimilar, why might that be and which of its neighbors does it share its musical tendencies with? Etc.
posted by trig at 11:33 AM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

#1, Incorporate your quest into things you already do (using a mapping app of your choice). If you are reading a book or article that is location oriented or mentions locations you don't know, look it up. Apply to everything you do.

#2, Crossword puzzles.
posted by Grok Lobster at 11:35 AM on September 24, 2020

Are there...narrative geographies?

Yes! The reason I know a lot of geography is that I have an interest in history and in geopolitics. That means thinking a lot about what physical terrain drives history and economics. Physical terrain maps showing elevation, climate zones, drainage basins etc. are not only much easier to learn (because they are logical) but also drive a lot of political borders anyway.

Structured information is much easier to learn.
posted by atrazine at 11:37 AM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Also, there are some nice-looking geography jigsaw puzzles (you can filter by number of pieces).
posted by trig at 12:52 PM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Youtube series best ever: Geography Now! My daughter won her school's GeoBee just based on that series.
posted by nkknkk at 1:29 PM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was gonna kick in GeoGuesser that kevinbelt mentioned. Some of my friends have being playing this a lot lately. The hard level is pretty hard. It gets you thinking about world geography a lot.
posted by ovvl at 1:35 PM on September 24, 2020

We have world map shower curtains hanging from both of our showers. You can hang it facing inward and learn while showering, or facing outward and learn while sitting on the toilet.

My husband has been doing Zoom trivia and recently annihilated the geography category based on his shower curtain studies!

(Sorry no link, I’m on mobile. Easy to find with a simple internet search!)
posted by sweetpotato at 1:48 PM on September 24, 2020

Map of the world on the wall in a spot you'll look at it a lot.

Consider hanging a map of a part of the world you're particularly interested in, next to the toilet.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:28 PM on September 24, 2020

My kid learned a whole lot of geography from playing Stack the States and Stack the Countries on an iPad.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:08 PM on September 24, 2020

Haskell County, Kansas is the most likely origin of the 1918 Great Influenza.

I read a lot of eclectic stuff, and way too many news snippets. But I like to see where things are, so I goog a lot.

Sometimes I get stuck for hours poking around some hyper-local regional geography. It's fun. Sometimes it sticks.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:31 PM on September 24, 2020

I played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego [the computer game, not the tv show/game] a lot as a kid and think it helped my geography and general knowledge about countries. As there was no real internet back then, it came with a world almanac book that you could look through if you didn't know the answers.

The good news is there is are three games of Carmen Sandiego available on Google Earth! I just had a quick play and while it mimics the chunky graphics of the time for the game controls, it is matched with beautiful Google Earth zoom overs etc that bring it to life.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:23 PM on September 24, 2020

Like atrazine ^ I find narrative geographies very useful. IDK where you live but it is likely novels have been written about your area, or ones similar to it. Formal landscape analysis taught me a lot of this but has also helped me read certain novels via this thought-framework. using the framework to validate an author as using spatial training.

So, for instance, Andy McNabb's novels often have the protagonist intelligently guess his way thru a completely unknown city using knowledge of e.g. street layouts of various eras, how a style was fitted to the terrain, where house entries are likely to be for an era/style, early indicators of culs-de-sac. A lot of geography can be learned from novels where the author is the real deal (police, army and esp. SF, investigative journalist, spies and diplomats...).

Scribbling scenes and questioning what you see is also hugely valuable.

Another framework is a short essay - The Stranger's Path by JB Jackson (can't link from phone), a very valuable way of seeing from the pov of Other.
posted by unearthed at 8:14 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

To repost an older comment:
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 8:16 PM on September 24, 2020

Hey kevinbelt - not my question, but I would be interested in books, so if you feel like adding to your fantastic answer, please share!
posted by kristi at 5:36 PM on September 25, 2020

I’ve been using the Anki Ultimate Geography deck to get a better grasp of major geography. (Anki is basically advanced flashcards, using spaced repetition for more effective memorization.)
posted by kejadlen at 5:17 PM on September 27, 2020

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