Can Geospatial Smartness Be Learned, Taught, and Measured?


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What does it mean to be geospatially smart? Series Overview: In our field, being “geospatially smart” sounds like it would be a highly desirable trait that allows you to execute your job tasks effectively and efficiently. But what do those two terms mean together? Are there any objective measures of what “geospatially smart” equals, and how one achieves that status? In this short series, Directions Magazine will examine the notion of “geospatial smartness,” including how the ideas are defined; how they are measured, taught, and learned; and how they intersect with geospatial technologies.

Last month I suggested that a geospatially smart person would be attuned to geographical phenomena, patterns, and principles, and would apply that knowledge to his or her practices, decisions, and activities. We described distinctions between spatial thinking, geographical thinking, and geospatial thinking. How does one become proficient in these areas of thinking? Does formal coursework exist, and if so, how do we know when someone has satisfactorily learned the content? Is geospatial smartness the type of knowledge that a test could evaluate? Let’s start at the end and work backwards as we answer these questions. Many tests and other instruments have been used to measure how well a person performs on spatial cognition tasks, such as mental rotation, finding shapes embedded in figures, and paper folding, among others. Speed and accuracy are typically what is recorded during the tests themselves.

This area of research is largely the domain of cognitive psychologists, and their work in psychometrics (i.e. measuring mental skills and abilities) has long been applied to career aptitudes. You may remember taking tests like those in high school as part of the Differential Aptitude Test (DAT), and if you scored particularly high in the spatial and mechanical reasoning portions, your guidance counselor might have suggested you consider being an engineer, a dentist, or an architect. Success in those jobs has a strong correlation with being both fast and accurate at spatial tasks.  

In fact, spatial cognition prowess is linked with success in the STEM fields in general, not to mention art, quilting, and chess playing. Since standard scholastic tests focus primarily on verbal and math skills, they may fail to capture the brilliance that spatial thinkers can exhibit, and leave creative spatial thinkers to fall through the cracks in many traditional school systems.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness about the role of spatial thinking in learning. Also fortunately, our spatial skills can be improved with targeted practice and training. Spatially-focused educational materials have been created to support engineers, and both women and men can benefit from the instruction. And what about those gender differences? It’s unhelpful to generalize, and some of the differences can be mitigated by changing superficial aspects of the tests, or considering what type of culture you were raised in, or removing the anxiety of the test being timed.   

How do we improve our speed and accuracy on tests like these? Practice. Playing several hours each day of Tetris is known to help, but more realistic opportunities present themselves all the time. I recently discovered Ikea’s Home Planner tool and was glad that my design production wasn’t being timed! 


Areas of overlap exist between spatial thinking, as we’ve described above, and geographical thinking. For example, the acts of drawing and interpreting maps have much in common with drawing and interpreting diagrams, such as the Ikea kitchen example. Creating opportunities for children to practice these skills is optimal for their learning.   

But, how do we measure “geographical” and “geospatial” thinking? Is it about being able to draw a map that is effective at communicating, and to scale? Is it about knowing that Australia is both a country and a continent, or not confusing Granada with Grenada, or pinpointing North Korea on a map?  

Readers of this magazine know that geography is so much more than simplistic factual knowledge, even though those are the easiest forms of tests and assessments to create. Alternatively, we could think about how a geographically-smart person thinks, acts, and behaves. For example, together with the National Geography Standards, written for 4th, 8th, and 12th grade, there are five geographic skills that have been identified: 

  • Asking Geographic Questions
  • Acquiring Geographic Information
  • Organizing Geographic Information
  • Analyzing Geographic Information
  • Answering Geographic Questions

And as the publication says, “geographic skills provide the necessary tools and techniques for us to think geographically.”

About 20% of US institutions offer an undergraduate degree in Geography, and at those, a few offer whole courses in the power of geographical thinking. One component of a course I like is the “Structured Geospatial Analytic Method” (SGAM) within Penn State University’s Learner’s Guide to Spatial Analysis. Collectively, its combination of critical thinking, spatial thinking, understanding spatial fallacies, geospatial reasoning, analytic methods, and geospatial analytic methods seems to align well with our understanding of geospatial smartness.

Designing assessment questions that expect geographical thinking is one way to encourage the practice. For example, in a stream ecology course, a traditional final exam question could be:

You have sampled water from Pine Hill Creek and monitored several indicators of water quality (pH, fecal coliform, and biological oxygen demand) over the last year. Discuss how the variables have changed over time and provide a rationale for why you believe this has occurred.

If the instructor has been using maps throughout the class, and the students have appreciated the geographic and spatial factors that affect the scenario, an alternative final exam question could be:

You have sampled water from Pine Hill Creek and monitored several indicators of water quality (pH, fecal coliform, and biological oxygen demand) over the last year. Draw a sketch of the Pine Hill watershed, including the locations of major land uses plus the flow pattern of ground and surface water. Mark your sampling locations and indicate where, how, and why the water quality indicators varied over the year.

When someone has expert knowledge in a field, their habits of mind are expressed automatically in their actions and behaviors. Geographically and geospatially smart people observe and make note of patterns in everyday life; know and use geographic and spatial vocabulary; rely on diagrams, maps, and sketches (whether they make them themselves or turn to an existing one) to communicate ideas; and naturally execute those geography skills listed earlier. For geologists and others in the geosciences, spatial thinking is one of several habits of mind that professionals exhibit. These are the practices of experts and those seeking expertise; they are observable, but realistically are they measurable as part of formal assessment, other than informally self-reporting?

A big piece of the teaching and learning in formal situations is deciding how to measure and assess the learning. Psychometric tests are one conventional way with some types of spatial cognition, and we can be timed to evaluate how quickly and accurately we can mentally rotate abstract 3-dimensional objects we are presented with on a computer screen. Measuring how well people ask and answer geographic questions is much more interesting, and much more difficult. For instance, reading maps of unfamiliar places while in those unfamiliar places can challenge our brains in numerous ways.

We’re getting better at defining spatial, geographical, and geospatial thinking and explaining why these are important. But systematic and consistent education and training in these areas do not exist and there are few easy channels to reach broadly diverse audiences. Can we challenge ourselves to design innovate approaches to measure learning in these areas, especially since these skills are desirable ones for geospatial professionals? Join us next month for the last in this series as we explore the role of digital technologies in this complex arena.  

Additional readings and videos related to this article:


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