Cognitive mapping and collaborating

Its been a bit quiet here of late but this excellent new post from Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech, more than makes up for the gap. Here in Cambridge we’re particularly fascinated to read it as we’ve just embarked on the Protolib project which is set to explore very similar territory: student use of library and non-library spaces.

Over to Bryony…

Having read about cognitive mapping being used by Andrew Asher and by Donna Lanclos some of us at Huddersfield decided to use the method ourselves. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll already know about the method and will have seen quite a few projects utilising it (like Meg Westbury for example). Ours is probably slightly different to what you’ve read here though as we carried out a cross departmental collaboration of people interested in trying out the method. It involved myself, a librarian and PhD student using ethnographic methods in my own research (and trying to encourage my colleagues to use them where I work!), Kathrine Jensen, a research assistant for the Teaching and Learning Institute at Huddersfield who is an anthropology graduate, and Megan Beech, a marketing officer in Huddersfield’s Research and Enterprise department who is currently busy in her ‘free’ time with both her doctorate and with her new-born baby! Kathrine and I both wanted to pilot the method for use at Huddersfield as part of developing our research knowledge and for use generally in our roles, and Megan first heard about it when seeing Donna present at Huddersfield and wanted to learn more and try it out first hand.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the method as others have written about them much better than I ever could (see the Asher and Lanclos links above), but we approached it with the idea that we’d learn as much from trying out the method as we would from data collected so considered it our own pilot project. We approached the method with the intention to learn about:

• What spaces students use for academic work (in the broadest sense)?

• What is their perception and use of library spaces (and other campus spaces)?

• What are the reasons students use or do not use these spaces for working in?

• Whether students use spaces in expected or unexpected ways?

Donna’s question was reused on the mapping sheet (thanks Donna!) and I wrote up a few prompts for the interview in case the map didn’t lead to the kind of discussion we were aiming for. The exercise/interview was carried out in rooms used by Student Services away from the library. We decided to reimburse students for their time with £10 of Amazon vouchers as well as the ubiquitous refreshment provisions, and Megan used her contacts to advertise the research via the University’s student portal. We received quite a few responses but inevitably some dropped out, didn’t respond when asked for confirmation of availability, or just didn’t turn up. But the 8 who did turn up provided some really illuminating information. But more on that later…

Coding was an interesting experience. As a PhD student I’m used to working on my own, on my own terms, but I’d read a fair bit about studies using multiple researchers to code data and was intrigued to see how we’d do with it. We started by coding the same interview, picking out themes without any prior discussion of the content. Then we got together, discussed what kind of things we’d picked up on, and created a list of themes to use for coding. Important note for anyone doing this is to remember to add a description of the theme, so that afterwards you are not in doubt as to what the theme covers. Otherwise you may find yourself questioning what exactly a coding theme means. This is especially important when collaborating on analysis to ensure consistency in coding. We decided to allocate a set of themes to each person and then go out and code the entire set of data from the interviews on our own using those themes only (although we could add to those themes if they were too broad or not broad enough as long as it stayed within our own area of remit). Once we had coded everything, we got together and had a chat about what we’d found and concluded it best to write up the results individually with the aim of combining our reports into one at the end.

Open questioning techniques are something that not all of us had used before and we found after transcribing that some interviews left unanswered questions or could have produced more discussion/information with a little prodding. This may have been due to a combination of inexperience and eagerness to learn about the very high quality maps the participants were producing!

Given our combined varied knowledge, the coding process needed to be well organised, and we met up regularly during the analysis phase to share how we were doing and how we were carrying out the coding. We learnt a lot from each other about the process and took tips from each other about formatting and logging the results as we progressed. Even so, writing up still produced three very different styles of report, which could have meant combining them leading to difficulties in creating a continuous ‘story’. However, we combined the best features from each report to use in the final version, and put together a presentation for staff at an internal conference on the method and key discoveries.

We were impressed with the amount of detail the maps provided and especially how helpful they were in the following interviews. It was easy to ask about the map and for clarification on aspects of it, which in turn led the participants to add even more detail. In one interview, a student mentioned in explaining the map that his current habits were different from when he was a first year student which led to us considering using self-development/student journey as a key theme. And we were impressed with the nature of the information students gave us: they clearly cared about the University environments a great deal and were primarily concerned with speaking to us about provisions over the Amazon voucher (although the voucher obviously helped!).

The data analysis identified three main themes around study environment, proximity and convenience, with study resources and a separate ‘library as study space’ theme featuring prominently. The themes overlap each other, so for instance choosing a location can be dependent on how convenient it is in relation to the access to resources that the location offers or convenient in relation to where a student might be going next to meet friends for example.

The need to consider the complex and often individualised context of studying is a clear outcome of the data analysis. It is perhaps an obvious finding that the where, when and how of studying is dependent on the prior activities, priorities, social networks as well as the material needs, like hunger and thirst, of individual students. It is the rich detail in relation to these practices that the mapping approach offers us and thus the method is an important reminder of the embodied and embedded nature of any activity.

Our analysis of the key considerations that students brought up in relation to their study practices correlate very well with what Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver (2015) describe in their paper on study practices:

“The maps also show the fragmented and unpredictable nature of these networks of practice. Participants’ needs were seen to constantly shift depending on the work they are trying to do, the resources they have available, the time available, and the human networks they need to participate in.” (Gourlay, Lanclos and Oliver, 2015, 275).

The interviewees were passionate about what they raised with us, which led us to hope that we’d be able to bring their stories to the fore, conduct further research in the same way, and continue to pass on these stories to try and encourage developments across campus.

Bryony Ramsden, with Kathrine Jensen and Megan Beech








Reference: Sociomaterial Texts, Spaces and Devices: Questioning ‘Digital Dualism’ in Library and Study Practices (pages 263–278) Lesley Gourlay, Donna M. Lanclos and Martin Oliver Article first published online: 10 JUN 2015 | DOI: 10.1111/hequ.12075

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