GIS Lessons in Spatial Thinking

A case study on inquiry-based lessons on Plate Tectonics


Research has shown that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow students to analyse characteristics and form relationships between geographical concepts (McClurg & Buss, 2007). This study, adapted from Banchi and Bell (2008), was conducted on a group of 30 students, aged 14 to 15. The students underwent four inquiry-based lessons using GIS on the topic of Living with Tectonic Hazards.

The key challenge of the study lies in the difficulty in navigating around the complex interface of the GIS software. To overcome this, the teachers underwent software training and demonstrated the relevant tools to the students before they embarked on the activity. The Spatial Thinking Ability Tests (STAT) were used as pre- and post-tests to ascertain the students' level of spatial awareness. The results obtained from the evaluation questions during the students' End-of-Year examination were also used to determine the effectiveness of the intervention.

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In North Vista Secondary School, Geography lessons are mainly content-driven and this limits the students' ability to think critically. There are not many hands-on activities and students lack the exposure in dealing with real data. Hence, students have a lack of understanding of spatial concepts and tend to only use examples from the textbook.

As such, the main aim of the study is to improve students' spatial awareness and their engagement in Geography. It also hopes to improve the quality of their responses in evaluation questions.

Through GIS, students are able to better visualise the relationships between spaces on Earth. Students are provided with a real-life situation on where to site a hot spring resort. They are thus encouraged to draw their own conclusions and substantiate them with their observations and geographical knowledge.

The hypothesis of this study is that through inquiry-based lessons, students will develop their spatial thinking ability and sharpen their responses in the 8-mark LORMs question.

Literature Review

Based on Banchi and Bell (2008), there are four levels in the inquiry continuum: confirmation, structured, guided, and open inquiry. As our students are not exposed to inquiry-based lessons, the study will focus on confirmation and structured inquiry, which are the fundamentals of the inquiry continuum. These two levels of inquiry are more guided, whereby "students investigate a teacher-presented question through a prescribed procedure".

The inquiry lessons were modelled after Toulmin's Argumentation Model. Students first create their own hypothesis and then made use of map layers in GIS to provide grounds to support or reject their hypothesis. Based on their prior knowledge, students are to reason why their hypothesis holds or not.

Research Question

Based on our discussion with other COP schools, our team came up with the following research question:

To what extent do students, who use ArcGIS taught via inquiry-based approach, develop geo-spatial awareness and show higher quality responses to evaluation questions?


Two groups of Secondary 3 Geography elective students were selected for this study. The experimental group consisted of 30 students from Class 1 (Group 1) while the control group were made up of 30 students from Class 2 (Group 0).

Before the intervention, the students in both groups took the STAT pre-test in a classroom setting. In the following 8 weeks, the experimental group were exposed to a total of 4 hours of GIS in 4 classroom lessons.

Within a span of 10 weeks, all students were taught content in Living with Tectonic Hazards, namely on Gateways 1 (Why are some areas more prone to tectonic hazards?) & 2 (What landforms and associated tectonic phenomena are found at plate boundaries).

The control group attended traditional didactic lessons that used printed maps. On the other hand, the experimental group had their lessons carried out using ArcGIS on mobile labs. In the first 3 lessons, guided worksheets were given to the students to study the relationships between plate boundaries and the associated tectonic phenomena. Throughout the lesson, the teacher demonstrated the use of the ArcGIS tools before the students embarked on the activity themselves.

In the last GIS lesson, students looked at the elevation profile of selected volcanoes and responded to a series of questions posed on Google Form. This platform allowed teachers to gather immediate feedback, which could then be addressed in the subsequent lesson to help in content construction.

In Term 4 Week 2, both groups completed the post STAT test.

There was no pre-test in content but the students' End-of-Year examination results were collected to analyse their academic capabilities and the impact of GIS lessons on it.

A simple analysis of difference in mean was carried out for the two groups to determine the change in spatial awareness. A perception survey was also conducted with students from the experimental group to obtain feedback on their level of engagement in Geography lessons after the intervention.

Results (Findings)

To ascertain students' improvements in spatial awareness skills, a pre- and post-test using the Spatial Thinking Ability Test was conducted.

To assess the students' level of understanding of the content and their quality of responses, their End-of-Year examination scores and the relevant components (Section C & the 8-mark question in the same section) were studied.

Spatial Awareness Pre Test
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Students in the experimental class have higher pre-test scores (M=7.93, SD=2.00) than those in the non ArcGIS Class (M=6.93, SD=1.86).

Independent Samples Test
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An independent sample t-test was conducted to determine if students in the experimental group scored significantly higher in the pre-test spatial awareness test than students in the control group. The t-test indicated that the difference was not significant; t=1.967, p>0.05 (p=0.054).

Comparing the Pre-test and Post-test results of the Experimental Group

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It can be seen from above that students performed better in the pre-test than the post test.

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However, the paired sample t-test also indicates that there is no statistically significance in the pre-test and post test scores (t=-1.865, p>0.05).

Comparing the Pre-test and Post-test results of the Control Group

This is not the case for the Control group, where not only did students do better in the pre-test, there was a statistically significant difference in their scores. This can be seen in the paired sample test statistics that reflected t= -2.887, p<0.05 (p=0.007), suggesting that there is a significant difference between the pre-test and post-test scores.

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Comparing EOY Results

The t-test analysis of the End-of-Year, Section C, and 8-mark LORMS questions showed no statistically significant difference between the experimental and control groups, even though the experimental group did obtain higher mean scores for the End-of-Year examination, Section C, and 8-mark LORMS questions in the paper.

End-of-Year Examination Scores
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Section C of EOY
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8 marks LORMS question of EOY
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Discussions (Data Analysis)

There is no significant difference between the pre- and post-test results. This lack of significance could be due to the time allocated for the intervention. Research has shown that a minimum of 10-hour exposure to GIS is required in order to have an impact on students. However due to curriculum constraints, this was not possible. Nonetheless based on students' responses during lessons, there has been an improvement in the proper use of spatial terminologies (e.g. along coastline, in a middle of Atlantic ocean, along the east coast).

On the other hand, there was a more significant decrease in the results of the control group when comparing the pre- and post- test results of both the experimental group and the control group. This may suggest that being in the ArcGIS class may have helped the experimental group maintain their Spatial Awareness test scores.

As part of the discourse on students' academic outcomes with the intervention of GIS, a perception survey was also conducted after the End-of-Year examinations.

The perception survey surfaced varied responses from the students. Most students felt that the use of ArcGIS was interesting and it sparked greater interest in Geography. The authentic data also allowed them to make meaning of their learning. However, some did not see the value of ArcGIS as they prefer the diadetic approach of learning Geography. Their resistance to inquiry lessons could be due to their lack of exposure to it.

Learning and Insights

1. GIS Software

There were some difficulties in obtaining certain map layers. As such, some lessons needed to be tweaked to omit these layers.

Generally, the ArcGIS software was easy for students to navigate. Nonetheless, the onus falls on the teachers to select tools that are manageable for the students in order to scope the content and counter limited curriculum time.

The software uses large Internet bandwidth. When lessons were conducted with a class of 30 students, students had difficulties and took a long time in loading the maps. To counter this, pair work could be carried out in future lessons. A recap on concepts or hook activities to spark curiosity could be used to fill in the pockets of time used to set up the computers.

2. Teachers' Professional Development

Teachers, who conducted the lessons, worked with ETD to develop the lesson package and familiarised themselves with the tools to ensure a smooth lesson delivery. As such, the teachers are able to tailor the lesson according to the affordances of the tool.

Moving forward, the lesson package can be tweaked for lessons conducted in the following year in order to allow greater use of ArcGIS. These teachers can ensure that support and guidance are given to the new teachers.

3. Curriculum

Some of the tasks assigned to the students were too complicated. Students faced difficulties in drawing relationship(s) between some map layers (e.g. age of sea floor and depth of focus). As such, teachers need to provide more guidance for such concept-building.

Tool-specific and content-specific resources could be used to help students draw conclusions from what they observed in the maps. This is especially necessary for activities that require more map tools. This can help boost students' confidence in navigating around the map layers to answer the worksheet.

4. Catering to different learning styles

The previous lecture style used in Geography lessons was more of a 'one size fits all' approach. In contrast, ArcGIS has helped to create a platform to cater to a variety of learning styles through the use of oral discussion and creation of map layers. This is especially in line with our school's vision of implementing differentiated instruction. Students are able to leverage their learning styles and the affordances of ArcGIS for more meaningful content learning.


Banchi, H. & Bell, R. (2008). The many levels of inquiry. Science and Children, 26-27.

Karbach, J. (1987). Using Toulmin's model of argumentation. Journal of Teaching Writing, 6(1), 81-91. Retrieved from

McClurg, P. A. & Buss, A.(2007). Professional development: teachers use of GIS to enhance student learning. Journal of Geography, 106, 79–87. Retrieved from

Roberts, M. (2003). Learning through enquiry. Sheffield: The Geographical Association.