How to boost general knowledge

How to boost your general knowledge (and why)

How to boost general knowledge – on the sly!

Having a broad general knowledge is even more important than you may have realised when it comes to understanding the world. But it can be easy to overlook its role in academic performance – especially when you’re in the thick of revision. That’s why it makes more sense to capitalise on the long summer holidays to grow your general knowledge at leisure…

What is it?

The term ‘general knowledge’ is bandied about regularly, but would you be able to define it precisely?

Technically, it’s defined by the Oxford English dictionary as ‘knowledge of a broad range of facts about various subjects’. As the name suggests, it encompasses different subject areas, from arts and sciences to geography and sports.

General knowledge is strongly linked to general intelligence and openness to experience. It’s also associated with the ability to use knowledge, experience and skills, and is less about memory than the ability to access information from the long-term memory.

Research shows that people who are highly knowledgeable across one subject area tend to be similarly knowledgeable across many domains.

Why does it matter?

A broad general knowledge is about more than simply being able to win a quiz or game of Trivial Pursuit. It’s essential to English comprehension passages, and to becoming more literature-friendly.

Research has found a strong correlation between good general knowledge and GCSE English, maths and other exam results. One study even found a strong link between general knowledge and accurate proofreading in university students.

General knowledge boosts confidence and social skills. And while older students specialise intensively in their chosen subjects, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn outside them. Doing so creates a far more rounded individual.

How can general knowledge be absorbed?

The good news is that there is a lot you can do as a student or parent to enhance general knowledge, often surprisingly easily and while barely realising that ‘learning’ is even taking place.

Edinburgh Castle military tattoo

With the whole stretching summer ahead, there’s plenty of time to do just that. Here’s how:

  1. Visit a castle

Absorb history and jump-start the imagination by checking out one of Scotland’s many incredible castles. Dunrobin, for example, on the north coast near Dornoch, dates back to the fourteenth century.

Alternatively, Floors Castle in the Scottish borders is home to the holly tree where King James II was said to have perished in a fifteenth-century siege. Or how about a visit to Edinburgh Castle? It’s steeped in history and the scene of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo (which should also be on your ‘must-do experience’ list!).

Of course, there are many other castles and similar sites where history jolts to life, across Scotland and beyond.

  1. Go to a beach

Until 1847, more Scots emigrated to Canada than anywhere else – in the nineteenth century around 900,000 Scots crossed the Atlantic. Recently, there has been renewed interest in this aspect of Scottish history.

Stand on a Scottish beach and imagine what it would have felt like, 200 years ago, standing on that very same spot, about to embark a new life in an unknown land. Who knows, it could even inspire a creative essay – such as a dramatic monologue in the voice of Mary Queen of Scots or a short story with a historical theme – for the Nat 5 or Higher English folio.

  1. Read, read, read

General knowledge deepens the pleasure to be had from reading, while reading also increases general knowledge, so the two are complementary.

The Economist offers a good, global overview of economics and world affairs for older students, while a single issue of the London Review of Books might contain an essay on The Iliad and a US presidential campaign.

Meanwhile Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions and Penguin’s Little Black Classics introduce the reader to a particular topic or writer.

Studies have shown that if you read six books over the summer holidays, it helps to counter the infamous ‘summer learning loss‘. You’ll find book suggestions for various age groups in our archive blogs: 10 books teens should read before giving up English; suggested reading for age 10 to 14; recommended reading for age 9 and under.

  1. The media

News sites such as the BBC often feature good overviews of current affairs topics as well as health, social, political and scientific or technological issues. And while we’re not suggesting spending all day on social media, some Twitter accounts offer a daily interesting fact, plus Facebook posts often link to articles which are well worth reading.

Dive into a podcast, listen to a stimulating Radio 4 programme or watch an informative TV documentary. You never know when the information you pick up by doing so might provide insight for a closer reading or textual analysis passage.

  1. Go on a nature walk

Clearly the best way to learn about nature is to immerse yourself in it. Even if  you’re not a scientist, remember that literature is full of references to the natural world, so it’s always worth learning the names of trees, plants, flowers, insects and other wildlife. Better still, get out there this summer and see these things for real!

  1. Get quiz-ical

Quizzes can be a fun way of broadening general knowledge.

When our three children were young and we embarked on long journeys from rural Aberdeenshire in Lucy our ancient khaki Land Rover to visit grandparents in Perthshire, we often passed the time by having a family quiz (there are many good kids’ quiz books available – perhaps the subject of a future blog post!).

Introduce a five general knowledge questions challenge over the dinner table or in the car, or enter a local family quiz night.


One of my current pupils does this with her family, and has been amazed by how much new knowledge she’s gleaned.

After learning any new fact about the world, be sure to file away (in your personal on-board ‘GK’ file!) the answers to the questions you didn’t get right so you’ll know them for next time.

As is clear from all the above, boosting your general knowledge can actually be fun, and it’s far easier for anyone to absorb new information when their brain isn’t beleaguered by constant homework and coursework (as is the case during term-time). Make it your mission to boost the whole family’s general knowledge this summer!


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