Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Geography & Environmental Studies


Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

C. Grant Head

Advisor Role

Thesis Supervisor


This thesis was conceived from an interdisciplinary perspective towards the advancement of cartographic research and geographic education. The primary focus is to understand the cognitive process of cartographic communication as an approach both to improvements in design and to teaching and learning of the cartographic language. Specifically, it attempts to understand more about how the map functions. It accepts that the map is a functional graphic display, whose main purpose is to represent, communicate, and store geographical information, which allows a focus on what that geographical information is conceptually. The essential goal of map use is geographic comprehension, and if we can discover how geographical information is categorized in human memory, we may better understand the map reading process. Experimental research approaches from psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, and human information processing have all contributed towards this discovery. Maps serve to communicate geographical information, and this communication system has been compared to both sign systems (carto-semiotics) and language systems (carto-linguistics) by several different authors. A discussion of this comparison revealed that there are significant parallels between cartography and natural language, while adopting semiotic terminology and research in support of this claim. Together, cartography can be shown to have a well established sign system and a grammar system acting for the map. The interaction of the signs and grammar result in the ‘meaning of the geographical information’ being represented, communicated, and stored on the map. As such, the cartographic language can be defined as a systematic means of communicating meaning or ideas through the use of the set of cartographic symbols, which have understood meaning. An exploration into understanding how this meaning is represented and stored in human cognition was undertaken to isolate a methodology to discover and characterize units of geographical information (potential lexical items) from map readers. Experimental cognitive psychology and psycholinguistic research, in connection with cartographic research, supported the adoption of chess experiments to discover this potential of geographical lexical items. A pilot study revealed that the methodology adopted from the chess experiments was successful at isolating and characterizing units of geographical information. As a result, a research study was conducted to discover this broad range of lexical items. The research study included a small group of participants who potentially had a large amount of geographical information stored in long-term memory. This potential was based on the educational background of the participants. with the idea that higher educated geographers would have more geographical concepts stored in memory. Both a 'Masters' group and a 'novice' group underwent a series of five tasks to isolate and characterize these units of geographical information and to explore how their knowledge affects map reading abilities. Specifically, it examined the differences between the two groups in the size of the units being conceptualized and in the amount of units stored in memory. Similarities in the structure of the geographical information being stored was also analyzed. The results of the study demonstrated that the 'Master's' had conceptualized larger units which brought about a larger amount of geographical information stored in memory by 'chunking' several smaller units into larger units. These larger units allow the ‘Master's’ to gain the meaning of the geographical information being represented, communicated, and stored on the map more efficiently (speed and accuracy) than ‘novices‘ whose number and size of units being conceptualized was clearly less. The 'novices' conceptualize smaller units of geographical information which, in tum, reduces the speed and accuracy of obtaining the meaning of the map due to limitations in short-term memory. Another result demonstrated that, regardless of the size of the conceptual units being stored in memory, both the ‘Master's’ and 'novices' store these units in a hierarchical structure. The ‘Master’s’, however, tend to have more complex hierarchies. It is this structure that allows the ‘chunking' of smaller units into larger units and results in more efficient map reading. Further experimentation would potentially be able to isolate and characterize a larger amount of these units of geographical information. Through the understanding of these units and structure of geographical information a potential lexicon of the basic concepts and categories could be produced. This lexicon could then serve to aid in the 'chunking' of smaller units into larger units which would then improve map literacy. Improvements to map literacy could be obtained through the teaching and learning of the lexicon which uses techniques similar to those in ESL instruction. This lexicon would also improve the communication of geographical information between the map maker and the map reader through a better understanding of how meaning is obtained from a map.

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