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This page first made public: Aug 2, 2010

Exercise 6: Choropleth Map of the Happiest States and Effective Map Communication

Barbara and David Tewksbury, Hamilton College


Students create choropleth maps by creating data tables in Excel and merging them with existing shapefiles for US states; they also evaluate the effectiveness of their final map layouts and examine several exemplary maps for both cartographic and design elements. You might also be interested in our Full GIS course with links to all assignments.


Type and level of course
Entry level GIS course for geoscience students.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment
Working with shapefiles; joining data tables; working with projections; symbolizing maps.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
ArcGIS 10.4 or higher

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
One class and one homework assignment.


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment
Creating a data table in Excel and adding it to ArcMap; creating a choropleth map; evaluating the successful and unsuccessful aspects of maps and the messages they convey.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
Creating map layouts that are clear, accurate, and convey an unambiguous message.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Applying what students have learned in previous exercises to new problems.

Description of the activity/assignment

In December 2009, a Hamilton College professor and a British colleague published an article in Science magazine that compared the self-reported happiness levels of about 1.3 million Americans with objectively determined indicators that could influence satisfaction with life (such as precipitation, violent crime, property taxes, etc.). But their paper had no map! Although this assignment is not geological, the Hamilton connection makes it a fun exercise for our students to learn how to construct choropleth maps.

Students create a data table in Excel based on the data in the Science magazine article, join it with the attribute table from an existing map of US states that has many other fields in the attribute table, and create a meaningful choropleth map. Each student makes a choropleth map layout for state happiness and a second choropleth map using one of the other fields in the US states attribute table. In class, we critique each of the maps for design, message, and cartographic elements.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are assessed on the accuracy of their preparation of the choropleth map and on the clarity and accuracy of the message conveyed by their map layouts.
More information about assessment tools and techniques.

URLs and References

All data sources are listed in the assignment.

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Exercise 4: Choropleth Map of the Happiest States, plus Effective Map Design --Discussion  

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