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

‘Tell us what you think’: engaging with students in library space planning


Library Services at Liverpool John Moores University is split across three separate sites. The two largest libraries, the Aldham Robarts and Avril Robarts libraries are based in the city centre with a third smaller library located at the remote I.M Marsh campus. The three libraries currently have subject specific focuses, based upon their physical location and the faculties that they support. Students are currently able to use whichever library they choose, although most students show a preference for using their ‘subject base’ library. Use of the physical library spaces is only part of the service offer with electronic library resources and services being offered by our virtual and electronic library services via the Library Services website and Blackboard.


Students these days, part II

student working 4093135203_5908c952b2_oThis post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I described how, with no money and very little time, I successfully used a small survey and some ethnographic techniques to sharpen the discussion about students’ technology and study-space needs at my college. It was remarkable how in very little time, such techniques illuminated a host of previously unconsidered issues and heightened awareness of things that could be changed. In this post, I discuss specifically the ethnographic techniques that I used.

Cognitive Maps

At the end of the computer-room survey (discussed in last week’s post), I asked if the students would be interested in doing a quick 10-minute follow-up interview with me, and about a third said yes. I felt strongly that there was likely more to be said about their use of the computer room than my simple survey could get at. I’ve been inspired lately by the idea of cognitive mapping, discussed by anthropologists Donna Lanclos here and here and Andrew Asher here and here as a quick, efficient way of describing students’ ‘learning landscapes,’ i.e., all the places where they do their academic work and why. What combination of factors contribute to making a decision about where and how to do work? My recent reading about digital literacies, and everything that I have ever studied about anthropology, led me to think that the answers were going to be interestingly, deliciously complicated and all different.

I was not disappointed. I used a structured 6-minute exercise in which I asked students to draw a map of all the places where they do their academic work, switching pen colour every 2 minutes, starting with the red pen, so as easily to be able to see the most important places first (the assumption being the first thing students draw would be the most important to them). I also followed up the exercise by doing a short interview where the student labeled the map and discussed the various points on it. The maps were beautiful and illuminating and clearly showed that even if students are using the same space, their reasons for doing so, how they feel about the space and how they make it uniquely their place is based on a combination of many factors: Discipline, degree, nature of work undertaking, maturity, age, preferences, availability of electrical outlets, proximity to amenities such as water and loos, proximity to friends and/or other people, availability of comfortable seating and/or natural light, noise level and very intriguingly to me, memories and/or associations with a space.

For example, we have a popular common room in the college where I work which looks like a nice, simple living room:

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Who wouldn’t want to work there? But students tend to feel passionately one way or another about this place. It is far more politically fraught than you might think. Here are two maps, both of which have indicated that this room is a place where they often do work (the room is KSJ or Karen Spärk Jones room on the maps):




The first student loves this room because she can sit comfortably with her laptop near a window all day, have coffee, and be around other people. The second student finds the room quite stressful: There are tensions for him about whether he can talk in the room or not (technically, you can talk there, but in practice it’s usually so silent that one generally feels uncomfortable doing so). He also feels a bit stressed out by the coffee machine, because it’s not clear how to work it and you have to purchase coffee for it upstairs at the canteen (when it’s open). Another student I spoke with just will not work in there at all because she associates the space with her interview day at the college (where it acted as a waiting room), and yet another student loves the place because a few years ago, he used to socialize often there with friends. Two other students I interviewed both find the furniture in the room incredibly uncomfortable: tables too low, backs of sofas too hard, etc.

Without taking the time to talk to students and really probe why and for what reasons they made a choice about work spaces, none of the problems, tensions and politics of this room would have been shown up. Indeed, until now, I had always showcased this room as an example of the sort of spaces that we need more of around college.

In just 10 of these mapping surveys, the amount of data that I got was so rich, it was stunning. These were interviews with students who were all relatively heavy users of the library’s computer room, and yet what they were doing in there and what they subsequently did afterwards, where and why were very different and complicated.

Closing Thoughts

As I do my daily rounds in my library and observe students working, it’s easy to fall back on assumptions about how they work and what their needs are. It’s exam time at Cambridge this term, and here are three usages of space in my library right now:

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2014-05-13 16.05.54

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Students have colonised these spaces, making them mini-offices and storage places, and it’s quite easy to label the usage with any number of simplistic stereotypes (like colonisation, for example). But it is important for me to realise that this usage is actually quite complicated and hardly neutral: it’s a combination of needs-meeting, performance for self and other students, and negotiation with limitations (perceived or real) of the space. Each student makes the space his or her place in different ways, for highly personal reasons. As I interact with students and design library services, I must keep this complexity in mind, for otherwise I will end up creating policies that are not flexible enough to meet a wide variety of their needs.

The small-scale study I did illuminated a complicated set of behaviors and will forever change how I think about the students who use my library. My hope is to build on the data this summer, perhaps concentrating on PhD students and/or investigating more closely students’ work flows for completing assignments.

Megcrop2011Meg Westbury
Librarian and Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge
mw528 at cam dot ac dot uk

Image credit: UBC Library Communications via Flickr

Dear diary…

LearnServ105Learning Services (at Edge Hill University) have been interested in using ethnographic techniques for some time now to gather more meaningful information about how students are interacting with our learning spaces (and don’t worry…we still keep stats on how many people are coming in and out of the building as well!)

We were originally inspired by research undertaken by Bryony Ramsden for her PhD and she kindly signposted us to the extensive research on this topic in the States.

Our Learning Spaces team regularly use activity counts, non-participant observations, scribble sheets (and more!) to give us a better insight into how students are using our learning spaces and this type of activity is now embedded in our practice.

After reading up on the ERIAL project and The Library Study at Fresno State we decided to try using student diary mapping to give us an additional viewpoint – direct from the students themselves.  We did try this technique with a small group of students last academic year and what did we learn…?  Well – mainly that students need more incentive than ‘your views will help us shape the future of your learning spaces’ and so this year we tried a different approach…

In a nutshell we recruited 10 students and paid them for their time.  Students were asked to undertake three complementary activities:

  1. To write down all activities (related to learning!) undertaken in two days from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed.  We wanted details of the activity, but also any thoughts/feelings and any barriers they experienced
  2. To map out (to literally draw on maps of the building) their journeys within the University library learning spaces
  3. To take photographs of things that were important to them and vice versa i.e. photographs of anything that got on their nerves!

Students were also asked to take part in a semi-structured interview; our plan was to discuss their diaries in more detail, get them to reflect on their activities, probe them for more information.  Basically to open up a dialogue.

It seems that we got the incentive right this time!  Ten sets of diaries, maps and photographs have been submitted and we are half way through the conducting the interviews.

So what next…?  Well, as well as working through all of the data we have gathered (there is a lot) the plan is to invite all the students who took part in the diary mapping to take part in ‘design work shop’.  No idea what that will involve at this stage – but I picked up the idea from Paul-Jervis Heath following a really useful session at the i2c2 conference in March – so we’ll see how we get on…

I would love hear from fellow novices like me (or experts!) about your diary mapping, or other ethnographic techniques.  Get in touch, or even better –  write a blog post….

DSC_2853cropHelen Jamieson
Customer Services Manager
Learning Services
Edge Hill University

Photo credit: Learning Services, Edge Hill University

Ethnographic methods: a student perspective

origin_345712329So obviously I’m biased.  I’m writing on here because I’m a firm believer in using in-depth qualitative data collection to learn about what people are doing in libraries.  When I presented in London at the end of March as part of the ‘Spaces, places and practices’ seminar, organised by UCL and IoE, I can’t tell you how excited I was to see so many people there interested in the same thing, in trying out the same methods, and most importantly a desire to learn about their patrons, their community of visitors, to try and provide the best user experience they can.  The following is roughly the same stuff I said at the seminar, but I’ve got more room here to add some qualifying information and some useful links/info!


A summary of ‘Spaces, places and practices’

large_5896530863On 31 March 2014, I was fortunate to be invited to a seminar on anthropology in libraries called ‘Spaces, places and practices’. This seminar was a joint venture by UCL and IOE, with generous support from the UCL/IOE Ideas Incubator Fund.

In the morning, we heard from several speakers who discussed the work that they were doing in different libraries and using different methods. I took limited notes because I was listening so intently to what everyone was saying so I hope my write-up is at least a fairly accurate representation of what was discussed.  We hope to be able to present a more detailed picture of some of the content summarised below on this blog in due course, thereby covering anything that I’ve missed.

Lots of tweets came out of the seminar and I have collated them all as a Storify.