How to Learn GIS

Caitlin Dempsey


With its multi-faceted approach, learning geographic information systems can seem daunting. Fortunately there are a wealth of approaches you can take to get started.

Discover more about learning GIS, from structured curriculums to online tutorials and distance learning options.

How to Learn GIS

There are many different ways to learn GIS.  

The most structured is through an educational institute such as a local college or university or online via distance learning.  Those institutions provide a specific set of classes to teach students about the principles of GIS, cartography, database management, and spatial analysis.  

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After students have successfully completed the coursework, either a certificate or a degree is awarded.  

These types of programs are most beneficial to students first learning about GIS or are lacking a higher education degree.  

For those students who already have a good baseline knowledge of GIS and are looking to supplement their background, individual courses are a more appropriate avenue.  

So, where to learn GIS?

Where to Learn GIS

There are different forums for learning GIS, depending on your educational objectives.  Traditional academic programs provide a GIS education that results in either a degree (bachelors or masters) or a certificate.  

Here are some tips to help you find the right GIS program:

Research colleges and universities

Look for colleges and universities that offer GIS programs. Start with colleges and universities that are well known for their geography, environmental science, or engineering programs, as they are more likely to have robust GIS programs.

Check the program details

Once you have identified a few potential GIS programs, review the program details carefully. Look for details such as the course offerings, faculty expertise, and research opportunities. Also, check if the program has any specific focus areas, such as GIS for urban planning, natural resource management, or environmental studies.

Look for degree status

Make sure you understand what the end result of the program you are taking is. Some college GIS course only give you a certificate while others provide a degree such as a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.

Talk to current students or alumni

Reach out to current students or alumni of the program to get their perspective on the program. Ask them about their experiences with the program, the faculty, and the job prospects after graduation.

Consider location and cost

Think about the location of the college or university and the cost of attendance. Look for programs that are in areas with a strong GIS industry presence, as this can provide more job opportunities after graduation.

Additionally, consider the cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses to make sure the program is within your budget.

If you want to enroll in a structured program but can’t attend in person, online learning is becoming a popular way to learn GIS.  Many brick and mortar colleges offer an online version of their programs.

Both the classroom based and online learning tend to offer a more structured program for learning GIS.  Many of these structured programs results in either a degree or a certificate in GIS (not to be confused with certification in GIS.  Learn about the difference in this article: GIS Certification versus Certificate Programs.)

Learn GIS for Free

If you’re looking to pick up specific GIS skills, or would rather engage in a self-guided course of GIS study, there are independent learning opportunities out there.  

For a focus on learning GIS with open source GIS software, Sid Feygin reviews some GIS learning options in his article, “How to Go from GIS Novice to Pro without Spending a Dime“.  

For commercial GIS learning opportunities, you can take advantage of GIS webinars hosted by GIS vendors.  

For self-guided GIS courses that don’t cost anything, check out the Learn GIS for Free page and the Free GIS Books section.

GIS Tutorials

If you have a specific GIS task that you want to learn more about, GIS tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions are a helpful resource.

Teaching GIS to Kids

For teaching at the elementary and secondary school levels, the K-12 Education page has a collection of references and tutorials on how to teach GIS to K-12 level students.

Find lesson plans, user groups and more in the category.

Learn GIS Strategy

If you are new to GIS (Geographic Information Systems), here are some tips to get started:

  1. Understand the basics: Before you dive into the software, it’s important to understand the basic concepts and terminology used in GIS. This includes topics such as spatial data, coordinate systems, and projections.
  2. Choose your software: There are many GIS software options available, such as ArcGIS Pro, QGIS, and MapInfo. Choose one that is appropriate for your needs and budget, and invest time in learning its features and capabilities.
  3. Practice with real data: To gain proficiency in GIS, it’s essential to work with real-world data. Many governments and organizations provide free data that can be used for learning and practice purposes.
  4. Join a community: Join a GIS community, either online or in-person, to connect with other professionals, ask questions, and share your work. This can be a valuable source of learning and inspiration.
  5. Take advantage of tutorials and courses: There are many free and paid tutorials and courses available online that can help you learn GIS, including those provided by software vendors, universities, and professional organizations.
  6. Keep learning: GIS is a dynamic and rapidly evolving field, so it’s important to stay current with new software releases, technologies, and best practices. Attend conferences, read articles and books, and participate in training opportunities to continue your education and professional development.

Remember, learning GIS takes time and practice, but with persistence and dedication, you can develop the skills needed to use this powerful tool to analyze, visualize, and communicate spatial data.

This article was originally written on February 2, 2017 and has since been updated.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.