BSc Geography with International Study / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Spatial Thinking with GIS: Constructing and exploring virtual worlds

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG20502
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The GIS industry is large and growing. In 2010 it was valued at US$4.4 billion and has been estimated to have grown by 8.3% during 2011 alone. At the heart of the success of GIS is its capacity to assist with ‘spatial thinking’. Although once the sole remit of geographers, the spatial concepts, representations and problem-solving skills associated with spatial thinking are now highly valued and are recognised well beyond the confines of our discipline. 

This course is divided into two Blocks. Block 1 will begin by introducing you to the theoretical principles which underpin Geographical Information Systems and the wider field of Geographical Information Science (to which remote sensing also belongs). We will cover core concepts such as the vector and raster data models and their significance for handling spatial data. There will be an overview of spatial data sources with a focus on accessing UK data resources, such as the Ordnance Survey Digimap service which provides free access for all University of Manchester students. Data resources are ever growing, including historical data, 3D data and now global data resources too. Your learning will be underpinned by practical work and Assignment 1 where you will work with both primary and secondary data. Block 1 will also cover data input, management and map output in ArcGIS. 

Block 2 will move on to look at analysis techniques in more detail. We will cover distance functions; overlay functions and handling and analysing 3D data. Lectures will cover theory supported by hands-on practicals, both assessed and non-assessed. The Block includes an introduction to project planning in GIS. You will design a GIS analysis to solve a set geographical problem and then apply the knowledge to a new problem of your own choice. It will not be expected for you to implement your design but you will be expected to suggest data sources and analysis techniques in order to meet your project goal. 


The overall aim of this unit is to equip you with the perspective and skills you need to think spatially with GIS. You will be encouraged to explore ways in which these ideas might be applied to your personal interests, and possible dissertation topics. Lecture examples and practical work encompasses both human and physical geography. The unit can be taken alone but physical geographers may want to consider taking the unit in combination with the unit on Remote Sensing (Semester 1). 


Unit aims are:

  • To explain the value of GIS and how it can be used for geographical problem solving;
  • To outline the basic theoretical principles behind GIS and spatial thinking;
  • To explore key GIS analysis techniques and how they can be used;
  • To introduce ArcGIS & provide practical experience of a range of GIS functions; and
  • To help you to develop a critical approach to the application of GIS.
  • To make you more aware of the wealth of applications of GIS in human and physical geography

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course unit, you should be able to:

  • Define GIS and have a knowledge of the basic principles of spatial thinking with GIS;
  • Identify and characterise different ways of representing the world and evaluate their relative advantages and disadvantages;
  • Outline, explain and evaluate a variety of spatial data analysis techniques with reference to a number of geographical examples;
  • Collect, input, interrogate and map data using ArcGIS
  • Perform basic spatial analysis functions in ArcGIS; and.
  • Design a GIS project


Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered though a mix of teaching methods. Interactive learning (online and software based) is a major part of this unit and therefore the course will be entirely delivered within a suitable computer laboratory. Lectures are used to provide the theoretical underpinning of GIS and the analysis techniques covered in the unit. Lecture slots provide an opportunity for questions and discussion. The remainder of the timetabled sessions will be devoted to practical exercises. Block 2 assessed practicals are all two hour duration with a follow-up practical surgery the same week to allow you to complete the work in good time.


All practical work will be completed in ArcGIS version 10 (using 10.4.1 during the 2017-18 academic year). Instructions on obtaining your own copy of the software will be provided. Please note that the software is not available as standard for Macs. Information will also be provided about how to access follow-up non-assessed ‘training’ practicals produced by the software vendors, e.g. for self-study for the dissertation. Software and additional practicals are available free of charge to University of Manchester students. The practical sessions will be a mixture of staff and demonstrator led sessions (depending on student numbers). 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Although an academic grounding in GIS, this course unit is also important for giving you some of the key skills that help you to become a well-rounded geographer. These skills are readily transferable both during your time at University and beyond. They can be applied in other parts of the geography curriculum, such as field classes and your dissertation and have strong relevance for the job market. Past students on this unit have gone on to take up various roles, for example in environmental consultancies, the public sector and GIS companies like ESRI UK

 In addition you will gain experience of:

·         Obtaining and manipulating spatial data

·         Project design

·         Map-making

·         Report writing

·         Critical reflection

·         Information collation, evaluation and analysis, including the use of Internet based resources

·         Communicating technical materials

·         Team-working and independent work 

    Assessment methods

    The course is 100% coursework with 2 individual assignments.

    • Assignment 1 (40%) will be introduced in week 2. It will be in the form of a 2000 word report documenting the Space-Time Exercise activity. Although the submission is an individual write-up it will build on a group activity. 
    • Assignment 2 (60%) is in the form of an individual Coursework Portfolio (2500 words). The marks for the portfolio will comprise:
      • Part 1 - 70% for ONE assessed practical. Select from the THREE completed in Weeks 5, 8 and 11[1]
      • Part 2 - 30% for designing a GIS analysis for a topic of your choice.

    Assignment 2 is set in Week 5. Specimen questions of the type included in the Assessed practicals will be provided in Week 1 in relation to the non-assessed practical, with feedback in class in Week 2/3. Personalised learning is supported through the self-selection of the practical to submit for assessment.

    [1] You need to complete all practicals although you will only submit one for formal assessment


    Feedback methods

    Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

    • Verbal feedback through Q&A and interactive activities within timetabled sessions;
    • Verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours;
    • Verbal feedback on the specimen questions for the non-assessed practical in Block 1 (Week 2/3);
    • Detailed written feedback on the coursework assignments (in week 8 for Assignment 1 (Block 1) and by three weeks after the submission date for Assignment 2 (Block 2)).

    Recommended reading

    Biljecki, F., Stoter, J., Ledoux, H., Zlatanova, S. and Coltekin, A. (2015) Applications of 3D City Models: State of the Art Review. ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 2015, 4(4), 2842-2889

    Longley, P. A. Goodchild, M. F. Maguire, D. J. and Rhind, D. W. (2015) Chapter 1 in Geographic Information Science and Systems, John Wiley and Sons: Chichester Fourth Edition

    ESRI (2018) What is GIS? Online at Date last accessed 10th Aug 2018


    Useful textbooks   

    The following textbooks are helpful general references for the ideas covered in the unit.

    Heywood, I., Cornelius, S. & Carver, S. (2011) An Introduction to Geographical Information Systems, Fourth Edition, Prentice Hall : Harlow

    Lloyd, C. (2010) Spatial Data Analysis An Introduction for GIS Users, Oxford University Press

    Longley, P. A. Goodchild, M. F. Maguire, D. J. and Rhind, D. W. (2015) Geographic Information Science and Systems, John Wiley and Sons: Chichester Fourth Edition

    Study hours

    Scheduled activity hours
    Lectures 20
    Practical classes & workshops 9
    Seminars 1
    Independent study hours
    Independent study 170

    Teaching staff

    Staff member Role
    Sarah Lindley Unit coordinator

    Additional notes

    Views from past students

    ‘The 100% coursework assessed factor has meant we have spent a lot of time learning how to use the GIS software - a skill I can now use forever’

    ‘I'm happy that we covered different aspects of GIS and all of them were helpful even outside the course’

    ‘Had direct links with the real world, allowed students to engage with the module through using their own data’

    ‘I think the discussions worked well in helping understand more about what GIS is and how it is used in real world situations, rather than just working through the practicals for our course’

    ‘I valued learning to use GIS. I feel it will be a very useful skill in the future and it has made me want to use it in my dissertation’


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