GIS Instruction: Learning From Student Perception of Concept Difficulty




Huynh, Niem Tu
Dean, Nathaniel

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The Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education


The focus of this study is on students' perceived difficulty of GIS concepts and this research is guided by three related research questions: 1) What are students' perception(s) of the difficulty level of geography and GIS concepts?, 2) What patterns of student perception, if any, exist?, and 3) How do the findings inform instructional strategies in a GIS class? The analytic process drew on two mathematical approaches, multidimensional scaling (MOS) and minimum spanning tree (MST). These analytic methods project and compare the data spatially which allows for a visual assessment of the emerged clusters. The preliminary findings identify groups of simple and complex concepts and suggest instructional strategies. Two trends are evident from the results. The first is that students generally agree on the difficulty level of concepts; those ranked more similarly are grouped within a cluster. For example, students found data manipulation (e.g., categorization of data, identification as spatial/non-spatial), geodesy, datum, coordinate systems, geocoding, and neighborhood functions especially difficult. The second trend is that concept clusters are loosely aligned with overall student performance. For example, students do better on concepts they rank as "easy" compared to those they perceive to be "difficult" although anomalies exist. The practical application of the results is to devise in-class exercises that add meaning to theoretical topics and to engage students with hands-on activities.



geography, GIS instruction, GIS learning, student perception, hands-on activities


Huynh, N.T. & Dean, N. (2011). GIS instruction: Learning from student perception of concept difficulty. Research in Geographic Education, 13(2), pp. 52-78.


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