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Showcase May 2015: Pattern Identification or 3D Visualization? Finding an Effective Way To Teach Topographic Map Use

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Pattern Identification or 3D Visualization? Finding an Effective Way To Teach Topographic Map Use

Kinnari Atit & Thomas F. Shipley

Temple University


Two-dimensional (2D) diagrams representing three-dimensional (3D) spatial information are pervasive in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines (e.g. Ishikawa & Kastens, 2005). For example, 2D line graphs are often used to represent the relationship between three independent variables (e.g., exercise, weight loss, and calorie consumption). Students’ comprehension of these diagrams has been the focus of much recent research (e.g., Hegarty, 2004). This work suggests that students find learning to understand diagrams difficult (e.g., Chang, Antes, & Lenzen, 1985). They have trouble finding the important information in the diagram (e.g., Chang, Antes, & Lenzen, 1985), and also have trouble visualizing the information represented (e.g., Alles & Riggs, 2011).

A particularly challenging type of diagram that represents 3D spatial information is a topographic map. A topographic map is a map that uses contour lines to represent the 3D shape of the surface of the earth (it provides elevation information in addition to the x and y location information that most maps depict). For students, topographic maps are often introduced in the context of science education as part of their earth science curriculums. For example, in New York State, topographic map comprehension is taught and tested as part of the Regents Examinations – statewide standardized exams taken by most college-bound high school students (Bishop, Moriarty, & Mane, 2000). Topographic maps figure centrally in the work of many experts (e.g. geoscientists, engineers, and military personnel) who use maps to make decisions that require an accurate understanding of the topography of a region (e.g. positioning a road), and for navigating and recording data in field research (Petcovic, Libarkin, & Baker, 2009).

Researchers and instructors report that topographic maps are notoriously difficult for students to learn to interpret correctly (e.g., Rapp, Culpepper, Kirkby, & Morin, 2007). Fully understanding the topography represented on a topographic map requires knowledge of how to interpret contour lines and also skill in visualizing the information represented in 3D. A survey of the relevant literature suggests that students have difficulty with both tasks (e.g., Clark et al., 2008).

Unlike students who struggle to make sense of contour lines (e.g., Clark et al, 2008), experienced topographic map-users find patterns of contour lines to identify topographical structures (e.g., Chang, Antes, & Lenzen, 1985). Furthermore, while visualizing the represented topography in 3D is difficult for students (e.g., Clark et al., 2008), experienced topographic map-users show strong skills in picturing the information in 3D.

Understanding topographic maps is difficult for most students, and especially difficult for novice women (Lanca, 1998). Weisberg, Newcombe, and Shipley (2013) found that women’s performance was lower than men’s performance on a measure of topographic map-use that required using topographic maps to define efficient walking routes, predict water movement, and identify topographic features. Although the origin of this gender difference is unclear, research based on a small sample found gender differences in topographic map comprehension in 11 to 14 year-old children (Boardman, 1989).

The Current Study

In this current study, we investigated the effects of two types of instruction based on two effective strategies used by experienced topographic map-users, identifying meaningful contour patterns and visualizing maps in 3D, on novice women’s topographic map comprehension.

To teach women to identify meaningful contour patterns in topographic maps, we focused instruction for the Pattern Identification group on finding groups of contour lines that represent specific topographical structures: a hill, steep and shallow slopes, and valleys and ridges. Studies show that in conversation, pointing and tracing gestures are used to focus the listener’s attention to spatial information (e.g., Atit, Shipley, & Tikoff, 2014). Furthermore, gestures can also help the speaker focus his or her own attention to critical information (Alibali & Kita, 2010). Thus here, we used pointing and tracing gestures to teach the Pattern Identification group to identify relevant patterns (Figure 1).

Figure 1a   Figure 1b

Figure 1. Images of experimenter using pointing and tracing gestures during instruction for the Pattern Identification group.

To teach women to think about topographic maps in 3D, we paired maps with their 3D structure in the form of 3D gestures and physical models for a separate group of women - the 3D Visualization group. They learned about the same topographical structures as the Pattern Identification group (a hill, steep and shallow slopes, and valleys and ridges). Three-dimensional gestures and models have been found to help students solve complex 3D spatial problems such as understanding block diagrams in the geosciences (Atit, Gagnier, & Shipley, 2015), and translating between different 2D diagrams of organic molecules in chemistry (Stull, Hegarty, Dixon, & Stieff, 2012). Here we used gestures and models to help align the topographic map to the structures in the real world (Figure 2).

Figure2Figure 2. Images of the hill gesture and a hill model that was used during instruction for the 3D Visualization group.

To measure the effect of the two interventions, we included two comparison groups. The Text-based Instruction group received basic text-based instruction on topographic maps. The No Instruction group received no instructions no topographic maps. Women in all four groups completed a measure of topographic map understanding at the end of the study.

Results & Conclusions

The Pattern Identification, the 3D Visualization, and the Text-based Instruction groups all performed better than the No Instruction group on the measure of topographic map use. The Pattern Identification group also performed better than the Text-based Instruction group, but there was no difference in performance between the 3D Visualization group and the Text-based Instruction or the Pattern Identification groups. Thus, instruction focused on identifying meaningful contour patterns provided the most effective training that led to a reliable boost in performance when learning to use topographic maps.

It is possible this strategy can be applied to teaching diagrams in other STEM disciplines. Many important but difficult diagrams convey 3D information in a 2D format. Our study suggests that to facilitate understanding, critical 2D patterns representing 3D information should be highlighted, effectively teaching students to recognize how the 3D information is encoded before trying to visualize what these diagrams represent. Future research should investigate whether learning to identify meaningful information is a strategy that can be applied when learning to interpret other complex spatial diagrams, such as line graphs representing 3D information, or other contour diagrams (e.g. isotherm maps). Learning to approach diagram interpretation by first looking for patterns could be an effective tool for students to carry through STEM education and beyond.


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