Making Maps Easy to Read

Research note

Unpublished research note, October 1986


Richard J. Phillips

Shell Centre for Mathematical Education, The University, Nottingham NG7 2RD

This research note reports two correlational studies which relate ability at some map reading skills to other spatial tasks. Some caution is needed in interpreting these data. The studies were exploratory and, in any case, a priori interpretations of correlational data are always risky. Nevertheless the results may still be of some interest, particularly on the importance of mental rotation tasks in map reading.

In the first study 103 boys and 98 girls aged about 14 years carried out some tasks with layer tint maps and other tests. For more details see experiment 1 in a report by Phillips (1982).

Product moment correlations were calculated using SPSS:-

HTS, INT, SHO, PRO are questions 6 (strict), 7, 2 and 3 respectively with the layer tint maps. HTS tested absolute judgement of heights, INT required judgements of intervisibility, SHO tested relative height and PRO was profile matching. As four types of map were used, to avoid bias, average scores for each map were subtracted from subjects' scores before calculating correlations.

SEX of subject. A positive correlation indicates better performance by boys than girls.

S&M is the S&M test based on the Shepard and Metzler (1971) mental rotation task. See Rawles and Phillips (1979) for test details.

ROU is an experimental route following test. Subjects were asked to memorise a very simple map showing just some roads. This had no names but the letters A, B, C and D marked four locations. After one minute the map was removed and subjects were asked to imagine the route between two locations e.g. How would you get from D to A? They wrote down their route by indicating L (left), R (right) or A (ahead) for each road junction. The task, which was scored for accuracy, was repeated four times with different maps. There were five junctions on each route except for the last which had six.

C&E = Cuttings and embankments. A kind of intervisibility task where a specially adapted monochrome OS 1 inch map had pairs of crosses representing railwaymen superimposed close to a number of railway cuttings and embankments. Pairs were either on opposite sides, or one stood on the railway line with the other to one side. Subjects judged whether or not the pairs could see each other.

Significant positive correlations exist between most of the tests (individual coefficients of .23 or greater would be significant p<.05, two tail).

A factor analysis of this matrix suggests two factors: one loading most heavily on SEX and the other loading most heavily on SHO. Here is a possible interpretaion. The second factor represents taught map reading skills: the two sexes perform similarly and the strongest loadings are on tasks using realistic maps. The first factor represents some other aspect of spatial ability on which boys tend to be superior to girls, and which loads heavily on the S&M and ROU tasks.

This spatial ability could be specifically that of mental rotation, or it could be a more general spatial ability. The route following task clearly involves rotation as junctions must be visualised from all directions.

A smaller second study brought in one new item which clearly involved mental rotation in map reading. 17 male and 41 female psychology undergraduates were tested.

ROU, ROU, S&M, SEX as before.

ROT was subjects' reply to a single question: If you were a passenger in a car and map reading, would you turn the map to follow the direction in which you are going, or would you leave the map in its normal orientation with north at the top? The direction of the correlations indicates that those who said they would rotate the map tended to score less well on the S&M and ROU tests and were more likely to be female.


Mental rotation is likely to play a role in a number of map reading tasks. The Shepard and Metzler mental rotation task correlates with several map reading tasks. Subjects who reported that they physically rotated maps in navigation, performed less well at the mental rotation test. They may have used physical rotation to compensate for their difficulties in mental rotation.

As frequently reported (e.g. Bock 1973) men often tend to be superior to women on spatial ability tests. This was also found here. But those tests in the first study which used realistic maps showed little difference between the sexes. In these tasks, taught skills in map reading may have eliminated any sex difference.

Mental imagery is almost certainly a complex mixture of skills (e.g. Richardson, 1977) and no firm conclusions can be drawn from these two studies.

Bock, R.D. (1973). Word and image: sources of verbal and spatial factors in mental test scores. Psychometrika 38, 437-457.

Phillips, R. J. (1982). An experimental investigation of layer tints for relief maps in school atlases. Ergonomics 25, 1143-1154.

Rawles, R. E. and Phillips, R. J. (1979). S & M Test Information. Unpublished report.

Richardson, A. (1977). The meaning and measurement of memory imagery. British Journal of Psychology 68, 29-43.

Shepard, R.N. & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science 171, 701-703.

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Updated 28 January 2006