Because I will (in the near future) be a teacher of GIS. I need some advice form people who have previously done this. Any clues - what to do and what not to do ? I think it will be very helpful for my preparation.

  • <to moderator/administrator> i don't know which answer should i check as the proper answer. each of it gives me a good overview of a good teaching style...
    – com
    Nov 26, 2010 at 18:46
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    This question should be CW.
    – whuber
    Nov 26, 2010 at 19:09
  • it's okay not to have single right answer, so don't accept anything. It's also okay to pick the one that is most correct and let the voting system take care of the rest. It's quite common to see non-accepted answers rated much higher than the "right" answer, and that's as it should be. Jan 12, 2011 at 23:40

6 Answers 6


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I agree some of the thoughts already suggested. However to be very clear: do NOT teach the tool, teach the concepts. Yes, it's great that folks know how to use ESRI products (if that is what you are teaching) but give those same people another GIS, and they will struggle--they only know how to use the tool, not think through the process and understand what is happening. If possible, show multiple ways of doing each task, using multiple different tools and methodologies. Have students identify alternate ways of doing tasks... basically get them to think process not tool.

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    Or, simplified: teach why, not how.
    – mwalker
    Nov 26, 2010 at 1:12
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    +1 This is a really important point if you're paid to do a GIS course and not a "name a poplar commercial software" course.
    – underdark
    Nov 26, 2010 at 7:52
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    Agreed. My GIS prof in undergrad used to say that when you go to Driver's Ed. they teach you "How to drive" not "How to Ford Taurus". So when you come out of there it shouldn't matter if the gear shift is on the floor or on the steering wheel, you should know how to use it once you find it. Same goes for GIS, it's better to teach "how to use map algebra" than "how to use raster calculator", for example.
    – James M
    Nov 26, 2010 at 14:58

Do NOT show someone something by taking the mouse away and saying, "Just like that". I often teach with projectors and have students follow and then practice on their own.

Allow lots of practice time (if you can...), a rushed course is a crashed course. Teach slowly so that they can take the skills with them when they leave. Not just leaving thinking, "oh, that was interesting, but I still like google earth".

Provide documentation on everything you are doing, especially step-by-step for some of the processes you run through from Data Collection -> Management -> Query -> Analyze -> Visualization.

GIS is a tool, you don't use it, you lose it. So practice makes perfect. The more literal/relevant examples you can teach by, the stronger the concept will be understood, of course.

When I taught basic GIS to an Archaeology group, we did an Arch Site Potential mapping project as example. Or with First Nations, we do land use and occupancy digitizing and some overlay analysis.

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    I'm not sure I agree that it is necessary to provide step-by-step descriptions of everything. Make your students discover things by themselves and they will be able to remember them much better than if the just follow "click here, now click there" instructions.
    – underdark
    Aug 30, 2013 at 18:08

I would also add to that comment, but suggest that keywords and concepts will have a longer lifetime than keystrokes and menu selections (ie buffer, clip, intersect, symmetrical difference and their synonyms). If using a GIS with a good help file, get students to focus on how to find the documentation within the software or online. The keywords/concepts will have a longer shelf life...anyone that had to redo their ArcGIS manuals over the summer due to the 9.3.x to 10 translation will appreciate what I mean. Do go slow, videos and screengrabs help (Camtasia/Snagit www.techsmith.com), or network systems that allow you to demonstrate and broadcast to a class (ie LanSchool) also help, but there will be times that picking up the mouse and showing is the only way to do it. There is no one learning style and no single learning speed. Best of luck


Whenever I teach a GIS application I find the class is nearly always very computer literate, and could probably work the software by trial and error with enough incentive. Particularly since most GUIs are designed to a very similar layout.

So try not to go through each piece of functionality saying "this is the file menu, this is where you find the open tool". We all know where to find the 'open' tool by now, even on a package we've never used before.

And - to be honest - sometimes even the concepts are fairly obvious. What I'm often asked for is "why?" Why would I snap endpoints together? Why would I use an alpha band on a raster? What use is a nearest neighbour? I think a practical example unlocks the meaning behind the concept.


It's also important that you know the level of knowledge about GIS in the group you are going to teach.

We did a seminar for a group of students a few years back under the assumption that it was a group that had no knowledge about GIS, but after short while into the presentation one of the students spoke up "We have been studying GIS for a full year, we already know all that basic stuff". Luckily we had a lot more material so we could skip the basic stuff and go on with the advanced, so it's important to double check the knowledge level in the group.


On the teaching side, I always try to remember that the students are there to learn and not to admire how talented the teacher is! So under-emphasize your qualifications, don't show off, and try to engage the students and draw out their existing knowledge. Find out what they would like to learn, and don't force topics on them just because you like them.

If you have materials to hand out, then don't do it until you need to. Otherwise the class will sit reading them when they should be focusing on what you are telling them. The same will happen if you put too much text/complexity on a powerpoint slide.

Also, engage the class from the moment you walk in the door (if not before). Don't arrive 1/2 hour early just to stand at the front of the class, staring into space until you spring into action when the clock says it's time to start. Be personable, say hi, and start a conversation.

If you are meeting the class for the first time, smile at people on your way to class: driving in, in the elevator, and walking down the corridor. You never know if they will be one of your students. A student in one of my classes was literally dragged from his seat and thrown out of our office by my irate boss. Turns out the car he'd cut up on his way was being driven by the boss's daughter! You never know until it's too late.

So smile and be nice to everyone, no matter how much of an irritation they are.

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