Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography & Environmental Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Bob Sharpe

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


Effective use of a Geographic Information System (GIS) is hampered by the limited geospatial reasoning abilities of students. The ability to reason with spatial relations, more specifically apply geospatial concepts, including the identification of spatial patterns and spatial associations, is important to geographic problem solving in a GIS context. This dissertation examines the broad influence of three factors on GIS problem solving: 1) affection towards computers, geography, and mathematics, 2) geospatial thinking, as well as 3) geographic skills.

The research was conducted with 104 students in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Students were drawn from four educational levels: grade 9 students, 13 to 14 years of age; 1st year undergraduate university students, 3rd and 4th year undergraduate geography majors; and geography students at the graduate level ranging from 22 to 32 years of age. The level of affection is measured with modified scales borrowed from psychology. Results show that students in general exhibit positive sentiments toward computers and geography but less so towards mathematics. Spatial thinking and knowledge of geospatial concepts are measured by a 30-item scale differentiating among spatial thinkers along a novice-expert continuum. Scores on the scale showed an increase in spatial reasoning ability with age, grade, and level of education, such that grade 9 students averaged 7.5 out of 30 while the mean score of graduate students was 20.6.

The final exercise assessed pertinent skills to geography namely inquiry, data collection, and analysis. In general, there was a positive correlation in the scores such that the skill proficiency increased with grade. Related analysis found three factors that affect problem-solving performance with a GIS. These include age, geographic skills (inquiry and analysis), and geospatial thinking (subscales analysis, representation, comprehension, and application). As well, the relationship(s) between performance on the geospatial scale and the observed problem-solving sequences and strategies applied on a GIS was examined. In general, students with lower scores were more apt to use basic visualization (zoom/measure tools) or buffer operations, while those with higher scores used a combination of buffers, intersection, and spatial queries. There were, however, exceptions as some advanced students used strategies that overly complicated the problem while others used visualization tools alone.

The study concludes with a discussion on future research directions, followed by a series of pencil and paper games aimed to develop spatial thinking within a geographic setting.

Convocation Year