Using Maps to Promote Meaningful Interactions in Geography Classroom Discussions

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


The discipline of geography is at the intersection between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Geography educators have often experienced students providing feedback indicating that asking a geographic question is a difficult concept for them to understand. Asking a geographic question requires an understanding and knowledge of geography perspectives and skills related to spatial thinking (AP Central, 2006). In order to teach students how to ask the geographic question, first they need to understand how to think spatially about key perspectives of geography. Maps are a key resource in training students to think geographically in terms of their location in space, to question why objects are located where they are, and to visualize relationships between and among these objects (AP Central, 2006).

Asking Geographic Questions—Spatial Thinking in Geography

Spatial thinking is generally described as the skills, knowledge, and mental habits to use concepts of space, tools of representation like maps and graphs, and methods of reasoning to organize and solve problems (National Research Council, 2006). Spatial thinking allows people to use space to model the world (real and theoretical), to structure problems, find answers, and express and communicate solutions. The inclusion of concepts of space makes spatial thinking different from other types of cognition (National Research Council, 2006). Spatial thinking has been actively discussed in geography education throughout the past decade (Gersmehl & Gersmehl, 2007; Ishikawa, 2013).

Using Visualizations of Information to Foster Online and In-Person Classroom Discussions

Recent investigation shows that spatial thinking can be learned, and that learning these skills results in improved performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines (Uttal, Miller, and Newcombe, 2013). Anthamatten et. al, (2018) find that using large map formats may offer promise as a method for teaching students important spatial thinking and map-reading skills. Additionally, these maps were well received by both teachers and students because they enabled them to experience a change from the traditional classroom setting, and engage in some physical activity during their normal classroom time. Hsiao-Ping et. al, (2018) argue that students learning with Google Earth improve topographic map skills significantly compared to the conventional instructional method.

Whether it be in person or online, it has been my experience that using maps to foster interactive discussion between the students in the classroom setting enhances their ability to learn to think spatially in order to ask geographic questions, organize and analyze geographic information, and answer geographic questions. I have implemented a number of different online mapping classroom exercises that the students complete and then discuss the results, either in person or via the discussion board for an online class. In the section to follow a few summative paragraphs are presented to highlight how I have applied online-map making assignments to promote spatial thinking and meaningful student interactions in the urban, physical, and in particular the world geography classroom setting.

In order to have students think spatially about environmental health risks within an urban setting, for the urban geography class, there are assignments that have the students use Google Earth to examine the relationships between child hospitalization rates for asthma and air pollution in Chicago’s community areas. Google Earth is also leveraged to demonstrate spatial reasoning concepts in physical geography, for example, by examining the processes of mechanical weathering in the half dome at Yosemite National Park. When teaching world geography, I require a companion book titled Navigating the World with GIS: A Companion for World Regional Geography. Each week a different map is built by the students, who are then asked a series of related geographic questions. The assignments provide the students with a variety of different topics depending on the region we are covering.

For visualizing the social and spatial context for the 2014 world cup (held in Brazil), students are provided relevant readings and given layered information about existing and future soccer stadiums. The students map the stadium data and read through the background information related to questions about where the stadiums are physically located. Then they read about the pros and cons of the economic versus the social geography surrounding the stadiums. Students are provided attribute information with the map, for example, fan cost, how much the fans are paying to attend the event and building cost which shows how much it is to actually build the stadium. Once furnished with this material the student then take steps to symbolize the pertinent attribution information in order to be able to answer the various geographic questions, for example, “which hosting state (a state with a new or renovated stadium) has the lowest per capita gross domestic product, which has the highest, highest human development index?” The discussion portion poses questions that prompt discussion among the students once they have created the online map, for example, “which stadium was the costliest to build/renovate for the World Cup?”

To reinforce geopolitical concepts like political and ethnic geography in the former Soviet Union, students create maps of the former Soviet Republics and map the Russian ports, being careful to note possible warm water ports. Then students discuss the possible answers to geographic questions like “which former Soviet Socialist Republic has the largest number of ethnic Russians living within its borders?”  Another online map exercise example used to foster spatial thinking and classroom discussion is related to representing the concept of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea. Students build online maps with given data layers and ask geographic questions like “what countries have maritime claims in the South China Sea?” They use the online map they created with buffer zones of the maritime claims to answer the geographic question. Subsequent discussion can be had about the maritime dispute between countries that have land touching the South China Sea. These are just a few examples of visualizations of information to foster spatial thinking and meaningful classroom discussions in the world geography classroom setting. Other topics include global populations change, population aging in Europe, segregation in North American cities, and combating malaria in Ghana.


Often students are left ill-equipped to a ask geographic question and visualize relationships between and within spatial objects. I have attempted to solve this problem by including mapping assignments that involve thinking spatially and foster meaningful classroom discussion to answer geographic questions. Whether the course is being taught in a face-to-face environment or online, the assignments and the discussion questions are the same. Having implemented these in both classroom environments, there are similar results in terms of initiating meaningful discussion and driving home ideas about asking geographic questions and analyzing geographic information.  Preliminary feedback from the students shows that the map visualization exercise and subsequent discussion approach is significantly better for understanding how to ask a geographic question compared with the traditional lecture, with the greatest benefits perceived in the areas of working with data, teamwork, student interaction, and spatial thinking.


Anthamatten, P., Bryant, L. M. P., Ferrucci, B. J., Jennings, S., & Theobald, R. (2018). Giant maps as pedagogical tools for teaching geography and mathematics. Journal of Geography, 117(5), 183–192.

AP Central – The college board (2006). Maps and spatial thinking skills in the classroom. AP Central.

Crotty, Sean and Walker, Kyle. 2015. Navigating the World with GIS: A Companion for World Regional Geography, Kendall Hunt ISBN 9781465284914.

Houser, C., Bishop, M. P., & Lemmons, K. (2017). Teaching complex concepts in the geosciences by integrating analytical reasoning with GIS. Journal of Geoscience Education, 65(3), 263-271. doi:10.5408/16-152.1

Hsiao-Ping Hsu, Bor-Wen Tsai & Che-Ming Chen (2018) Teaching Topographic Map Skills and Geomorphology Concepts with Google Earth in a One-Computer Classroom, Journal of Geography, 117:1, 29-39, doi: 10.1080/00221341.2017.1346138

Ishikawa, T. (2013). Geospatial thinking and spatial ability: An empirical examination of knowledge and reasoning in geographical science. The Professional Geographer, 65, 636–646.

National Research Council. 2006. Learning to Think Spatially. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Uttal, D. H., D. I. Miller, and N. S. Newcombe. (2013). Exploring and enhancing spatial thinking: Links to achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? Current Directions in Psychological Science 22 (5): 367–373. doi: 10.1177/0963721413484756

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Spring 2020: Critical Conversations and the Academy