The National Science Foundation, through its Education and Human Resources Core Research program (Award DRL-1347859), has awarded a $292,491 grant to the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and Texas State University for a project designed to build capacity for conducting research on learning progressions in geography. Dr. Michael Solem (AAG) will direct the project with co-investigators Dr. Niem Tu Huynh (AAG) and Dr. Richard Boehm (Texas State University).

Learning progressions offer a means for educators to determine how students learn geographic facts, concepts, and skills, and whether they are on track toward attainment of a particular curriculum standard or set of standards. As noted in a report recently issued by National Geographic’s Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project, research on learning progressions is an area of critical need for improving the quality of geography teaching and learning (Bednarz, Heffron and Huynh 2013). The available research base in geography education is primarily focused on students’ understanding (or learning) of individual ideas or skills, but not on the relationships between different areas of content or types of skills learned progressively across grade levels.

Through this project, geographers and education researchers will receive training on how to conduct, develop, and validate learning progressions and assessments based on Essential Element 1: The World in Spatial Terms from Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (2nd Edition). Geography for Life’s Essential Element 1 consists of three standards:

1. How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information.

2. How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context.

3. How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface.

The capacity building began with a symposium (February 6-9, 2014) that brought together geographers and learning progressions experts to formulate an initial research agenda on geography learning progressions. Participants in the symposium discussed current debates about the potential of learning progressions for improving the quality of geography education. In the months following the symposium, the group developed a research handbook for training graduate students and scholars interested in this area of research.

The GeoProgressions handbook was used to train 28 graduate students and faculty who attended a workshop, held from October 9-12, 2014 at the National Geographic Society. The participants met for panels and smaller breakout sessions for discussion and training activities on the following topics:

  • Definitions of learning progressions with examples from geography, math and science education.
  • Discussion of relevant research on spatial cognition, map learning and GIS education.
  • Materials and procedures that can be used to develop a hypothesized learning progression, for example:
    • Approaches to constructing samples and assessment items for quantitative studies.
    • Demonstration of how to perform validity tests of research instruments.
    • Demonstration and practice of qualitative methods, including clinical interviews.
    • How to interpret quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Common errors, issues and obstacles in learning progressions research.
  • Strategies for working with teachers and students in K-12 classrooms.

Videos from the GeoProgressions workshop can be viewed here.

Moving forward, NCRGE will seek funding to support the research projects developed by the GeoProgressions participants. The aim is to scale-up and coordinate future research activity in multiple locations and to work with individual researchers to compile and synthesize the results of their data collection.

NCRGE is also conducting a broader inventory and prospect study to determine the range of scholars doing research in geography education. The study will provide data to assess to what extent the system of researchers in geography education will be able to carry out future research on priority topics and where potential collaborators might be found in other fields.


Bednarz, S.W., Heffron, S., & Huynh, N.T. (Eds.). (2013). A road map for 21st century geography education: Geography education research (A report from the Geography Education Research Committee of the Road Map for 21st Century Geography Education Project). Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers.