Date of Award

Summer 2021

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Jerry T. Mitchell


As colleges and universities expand their geographic information systems (GIS) course offerings, the pedagogies involved in teaching such courses ought to be critically evaluated. Existing research concerning the teaching of geospatial technologies has been characterized as “sparse, inconsistent, and overly anecdotal” (Baker et al., 2015, p. 118). Answering the call for “more systematic and replicable” (p. 118) GIS education research, this study adopted a suite of mixed methods used within other discipline-based education research (DBER) and deployed them in introductory GIS courses. These methods included classroom observation protocols, interview protocols, focus group protocols, and student questionnaires.

This research had three aims: evaluate the utility of existing classroom observation protocols to characterize the teaching practices of introductory GIS courses, contextualize the relationship between instructors’ teaching beliefs and teaching practice, and describe the interests, motivations, learning strategies, and course experiences of introductory GIS students.

Over the course of two semesters, 33 GIS class and lab sessions were observed using the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS; Smith, Jones, Gilbert, & Wieman, 2013) and the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP; Sawada et al., 2002). Both were found to provide an adequate mechanism to characterize the teaching within GIS classrooms. Most of the observed class sessions were found to be teacher rather than student-centered and teaching practices were found to vary between lecture- and lab-oriented class sessions. Multiple facets of instructors’ teaching beliefs were identified and classified by interviewing the six participating instructors with the Teacher Beliefs Interview protocol (Luft & Roehrig, 2007). Instructors’ teaching beliefs were compared to observed teaching practices. Overall, the instructors’ teaching practices were found to be quite consistent with their teaching beliefs. Students’ responses to a series of quantitative surveys were integrated with qualitative data gathered in interviews and focus groups. This mixed-methods integration provided detailed insight in the students’ interests, motivations, learning strategies, and course experiences. These students were found to be motivated by disciplinary relevance and task value, engaged in a variety of learning strategies, and, despite high satisfaction with the courses overall, rated the appropriateness of assessment and workload low. These findings taken together suggest that the tools of discipline-based education research demonstrate the potential of systematic and replicable process to study GIS pedagogy. Further adoption of these tools could provide a comprehensive pulse of GIS education laying the groundwork for establishing research-backed best practices.

Included in

Geography Commons