The ability to know where you are in an environment and the ability to find, learn, and retrace a route are crucial aspects of human development.

According to Siegel and White (1975), environmental learning involves three successive stages of knowledge. This begins with knowledge of landmarks, followed by knowledge of the sequential order of the turns and landmarks along a route, and finally the development of a cognitive map, by which the configural structure of an area is understood. This theory is the most influential in the field, despite the fact that the stages of the model are yet to be validated experimentally (Ishikawa & Montebello, 2006).

The first stage, knowledge of landmarks, involves being able to locate relevant objects in the environment that can be used to guide navigation around the environment (e.g. a church, a shop, a park). In the second stage, this knowledge is organised into a sequence of landmarks. This is known as route knowledge, and enables us to navigate from one landmark to another (e.g., travel from the church to the shop, then from the shop to the park). Finally, we represent the environment using configural knowledge, also known as a cognitive map. This is an allocentric representation in which we represent both the positions of objects and the spatial relationships and distances between then, independently of our own viewpoint.

Our research studies are grouped with reference to the above stages of route learning:

Landmark knowledge and Route knowledge

We have conducted a series of studies to explore the use of landmarks when navigating around a new environment.

Study 1 focused on the development of the use of landmarks and of the comprehension of landmark usefulness in three populations (typically developing children, Down syndrome and Williams syndrome). We differentiated between two types of proximal landmarks , those situated at junctions (junction landmarks) and those situated along path segments (path landmarks), as well as landmarks that were situated on the periphery of the environment (distant landmarks). All landmarks were unique, with the exception of one object that appeared numerous times within the environment (non-unique landmarks).
Experimental design: Participants were asked to learn a route through a maze, with 32 landmarks (8 junction, 8 path, 3 distant and 13 non-unique). Participants completed learning trials to a criterion of two consecutive learning trials without error, or until they had reached a maximum of ten learning trials. At the end of the learning phase, participants were presented with images of a subset of 12 of the landmarks (4 junction, 4 path , 3 distant and the non-unique landmark) and asked to say whether each landmark was useful or not when walking the route.
The results demonstrated that from seven years, typically developing children recognise that landmarks that are at junctions are more useful than those that are along path sections. This was not found for either the DS or WS groups. All three groups judged distant landmarks as less useful than proximal (junction or path) landmarks.

In the second study, we investigated the effect of different landmark types on the ability to learn a novel route. We used the same landmark types as in study 1 (junction landmarks, path landmarks and distant landmarks).
Experimental design: Each participant took part in three different maze conditions (counterbalanced) where they were shown a route and asked to learn it (as in study 1). In this study, each of the three mazes contained one landmark type only: junction, path or distant landmarks.
Results showed that individuals with DS showed the same pattern of performance as TD children. That is, they made the most errors on mazes that contained just distant landmarks, and no difference was observed between the mazes with just junction or just path landmarks. Individuals with WS showed a unique pattern of performance: they learnt the routes to a similar level across all three mazes, independent of landmark type.

Configural knowledge

In this study we focussed on the final stage of environmental learning, configural knowledge (or the acquisition of a cognitive map) . Configural knowledge enables one to find an alternative route when the usual route is blocked, or to find short-cuts.

Experimental design: Participants were asked to learn two routes within the same virtual environment (A to B and A to C). Once both routes had been learnt, participants were asked to find the short cut from B to C. We based our methodology on Mengue-Topio et al. (2011).

The route from A to B The route from A to B
The route from A to C The route from A to C
The short-cut: B to C The short-cut: B to C

In our previous study (Mengue-Topio et al., 2011) , we showed that individuals with learning difficulties were able to find a short-cut from B to C, but that they rarely found the shortest route from B to C.

In this study, we also want to determine the impact of the type of environment on each participant’s ability to find a short-cut. Participants took part in two conditions: one environment, the sparse environment, contained few landmarks and the paths were bordered by brick walls ; the other environment, the rich environment, contained lots of landmarks and the path sections were bordered by a range of different buildings. Images of the environments are shown below.

Sparse Environment Sparse Environment
Rich Environment Rich Environment

Have a go at learning your way through a maze

Your task is to learn the route through a maze from the start to the finish. Once you have chosen your maze, there will be two options: ‘Route demonstration’ and ‘Learn the route’.

‘Route demonstration’ will show you the correct route from the start of the maze to the finish using the large yellow and green arrows to guide you, which are shown on the floor of the maze. Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to follow the guidance arrows in the maze.

‘Learn the route’ opens a maze with no yellow guiding arrows. This time, again using the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate, you need to make your own way to the finish making as few errors as possible. Each time you make an error, just retrace your steps back and continue towards the end. When you get to the end, the maze disappears. You can then press ‘Learn the route’ again to have another go. It might take you a few goes to walk the route from start to finish without making any errors, but that’s ok. You can have as many goes as you like.

Use the arrow keys on the keyboard to navigate.
To return to the main menu press escape.

Elstrad Maze Player. Click on the Unity logo below to load the maze player.