LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Textbooks frequently use maps as learning aids, but research has found that the way maps are most often used does not support students’ learning. It turns out that both the order and the context in which materials are presented are crucial.

Combining maps with text

In several studies, students were shown a map and a text. Some received the map first; others read the text first. In every study, students learned more features from the map and more facts from the text when they had a chance to study the map first! The theory is that students create compact mental images of the map that they can use as they read the text. If they read the text first, however, they process it piece by piece, and then have no working memory left over to absorb the map.1

Situated cognition

Researchers have also found that classroom activities should use maps in ways that reflect their use in the real world. This approach is called situated cognition; it’s simply a kind of authentic instruction. For example, participants in a study at Florida State University more effectively learned locations on a campus map when they were allowed to study the map while walking around the campus. Middle school students understood glaciers better when their teacher combined maps of glaciers with an activity in which students modeled them using sand and clay.2

These results aren’t surprising, but they’re a reminder that students really do learn more and remember more when what they’re learning is tied to something they’ve experienced.


Teachers most often integrate maps into social studies, but they can also be used in studying science, literature, and the arts. Later we’ll look at some examples of scientific maps. The examples below, all from LEARN NC, use various kinds of maps to help students analyze historical primary sources. In each activity, we’ve presented the maps up front, and we’ve either tapped into students’ own experience or given them a vicarious experience by exploring primary sources.

Combining historical and present-day maps

Mapping the Great Wagon Road
The Great Wagon Road took eighteenth-century colonists from Philadelphia west into the Appalachian mountains and south into the North Carolina Piedmont. This page describes the route and its history and combines two maps: a hand-drawn map from 1751, and a Google map showing present-day cities and highways. Students see that the Great Wagon Road has essentially become I-81. Teachers can follow this with an excerpt from a 1753 diary of Moravians journeying from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Salem, North Carolina.

Maps for transportation

A railroad timetable
To explore transportation in antebellum North Carolina, students explore an 1859 railroad timetable for the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. The stops along the route are mapped for them in Google Maps, so that they can see where the stations are and use Google’s tools to calculate driving and walking distance today. Finally, students compare the 1859 timetable with a present-day Amtrak timetable.

Mapping the flow of information

Mapping rumors of Nat Turner’s Rebellion

In August 1831, a man named Nat Turner led an uprising of slaves in Southampton, Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of fifty-five whites and hundreds of blacks. In the weeks that followed, the fear of further slave insurrections spread across eastern North Carolina. Newspapers reported rumors as fact. White militias and mobs hunted down African Americans believed to be involved in insurrection plots and arrested or murdered them.

In this activity, students read a background essay about Nat Turner, then explore primary sources — newspapers, letters, and diaries — that show white reactions to the event in North Carolina. They begin with a map (drawn in Google Maps) that plots the location of each event and primary source. As they read the sources, they can see how rumors spread.