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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.