How Do People Use and
Interpret Topographic Maps?
On a topographic map, features
of the landscape are depicted by contour lines
that connect points of
equal elevation. From such a symbolic two-dimensional representation,
people need to envision in three dimensions what the real world looks
like. Conversely, from the real terrain, they need to envision appropriate
topographic contours. Instructors have observed that a significant portion
of students have trouble understanding topographic maps.
In this unit we first describe how cognitive scientists examine people's
skill at topographic map use. Then we summarize the findings of studies
which examine the mental process of skilled topographic map users and
offer practical suggestions for teaching.