Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Playing with Cognitive Mapping

I am messing around with cognitive mapping instruments, stolen with Andrew Asher's blessing from the ERIAL toolkit (I know, I know, I don't need anyone's blessing because hey, that's what toolkits are for!  Especially those posted on the web).  I am doing this in part because photo diaries, while useful and capable of yielding rich information, are really really time consuming and difficult to get students to do.    I am still very much hoping to get back to University College, London, to continue the work I started there in 2011, and when I am there I'd like to use cognitive maps as well as structured interviews and immersive observations to get a sense of how and why various learning spaces are being used by UCL students and faculty.

So, I'm doing some here at UNC Charlotte.  At the very least, such an exploratory exercise can give us a sense of what our undergraduate and graduate students' spatial networks look like when they are written down.  The data I'm collecting can also begin to serve as a comparative set for the data that I hope to be able to collect in the UK.

I just want to put some of the maps here because I think they are really interesting.  I am of course far from the only one doing this--Lesley Gourlay at the IOE and her colleagues have done some mapping exercises, and of course there is the aformentioned ERIAL work, among other ethnographic projects in the US.  The students were given 6 minutes to complete each map, and were asked to map all of the places that they go to/inhabit in some way for their academic work.   I was specific in saying that the spaces could be on- or off-campus.    The maps posted here are undergraduate maps--I have maps from graduate students that we are still processing.  In general, undergraduate space maps indicate the need for them to be in places that make it easy for them to get to the other places they need to go to.  If they have class in a particular building, they are more likely to study in the Student Union than the library, because the former is closer.  If they live away from campus, they might be likely to have off-campus cafes, etc. on their maps as work spaces.  The choices they make about where to settle in to study are not made in a vacuum.  There is a similar diversity to the spaces they find themselves in, however, in part because undergraduate classes occur in a variety of buildings in different parts of campus, and are not necessarily taught in the building that house their major programs.  Graduate student maps (in process) have less diversity of spaces, because they are much more tied to the departmental labs and spaces of their degree programs.

The students worked for 2 minutes in each pen color, beginning with blue, moving to red, and then ending with black.  Some students finished before the 6 minute mark, resulting in some maps in just 2 colors (such as #7 shown here).

This undergraduate lives on campus, and has drawn straight lines connecting all of the places he needs to go.  The library is one place in a larger network, of course.  Several of these building are classroom spaces.  This senior lives in an on-campus dorm.  There are no off-campus spaces shown here.

This sophomore lives in an off-campus apartment relatively far from campus, but her boyfriend's apartment (the building in the upper left corner) is closer in.  She has mapped campus buildings such as the Student Union and various classroom buildings, but also included important spaces such as where her youth group meets, and the 24-hour cafe Amelie's.  The library does not figure in her mental map of learning spaces.

This student lives close to the South Carolina border, nearly a half an hour from campus.  She has included several cafe or bookstore spaces, all of which have free wi-fi, but not all of which are open 24 hours.  "School" is the university campus, and she has not differentiated places within the campus, because she has so many other places she inhabits.  The library on this map is the public library closest to the university.

This junior has sketched only the places within the library he inhabits on the left hand side of the drawing.  He has put in study rooms, and indicated where the study rooms are in the building by their proximity to round tables with computers on them (these are on the 1st floor).  His other learning spaces are in his close-to-campus apartment, on the right hand side.  He has sketched his living room furniture (comfortable chairs as well as desks), and his bedroom.


  1. When you do this kind of work, how do you know that you've got generalizable findings? How do address the questions over how representative your participants are? I realize these are thorny questions, but as someone just mulling over how I can do research like this in my library (and as someone who hasn't yet done the necessary work of background reading on ethnographic methodology), I am asking out of genuine ignorance and curiousity.

  2. Well I am looking less for generalizability and more for insights. That said, I am not the only one doing this kind of work--The ERIAL project engaged in cognitive mapping exercises, for example, and Lesley Gourlay at the University of London's IOE has had post-graduates doing them as well. The similarities in the maps are striking, and lead me to believe that interpreting the maps with the assumption that they are representative of larger patterns is legitimate.

    So far I've done 10 mapping exercises from undergraduates, and about 7 from graduate students. The saturation level in terms of themes is also fairly striking. Patterns show up early and often, even with small sample sizes. It feels a lot like usability testing in this respect--the important patterns that you want to pay attention to show up fairly quickly, and don't require huge sample sizes. If you are thinking about doing these sorts of exercises, Stephen, I would say just go for it, and see what happens. I'd love to hear about the results.

  3. Donna, thanks for your response. I guess the main reason why I am asking is that I wish I could feel more confident in my usability work where I think I've identified patterns but am not quite sure how actionable they are (i.e., will each one help me make any design decisions). I think that adding more research informed by ethnographic methods will round out the insights I think I've been amassing over the past few years. I should mention that I kind of asked Nancy Fried Foster from Ithaka S+K the same question at a presentation she gave recently here at CUNY. Her response was somewhat along the same lines as yours. I guess it's just time for me to buckle down and do some reading that's long been on my to-read list: the ERIAL project report and Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons book. I hadn't heard about the work at the University of London but will look into it. And one of these days, I really need to sit down with my colleagues in CUNY that I think you know, Mariana Regalado and Maura Smale, and learn a thing or two.

  4. Maura and Mariana are fantastic colleagues and resources to have, that would be the first thing I would do, is sit down with them!
    And yes, dive in. I think that library-land folks are skittish about qual methods and results because the numbers seem so low, and you are socialized to think that quant methods with huge sample sizes are the only legit ways to know things. But, interpretation of data (qual and quant) is always risky. It's a good thing to try solutions based on the research you've done, and also leave yourself room to fail. And try again.

  5. Aww, Donna, we're blushing! I've been saving this in my feedreader until I had time to really look at it thoroughly -- how did I miss these in the ERIAL toolkit? These are great, I totally need to find the time to do them at City Tech, esp. as we are planning some small renovations over the next couple of years.

    Stephen, Mariana and I are happy to talk (at probably too great length) about our project at any time! We're talking about technology specifically at the IT Conference this Thursday, and hoping to have more results published in some way soon. But happy for coffee and conversation too! And at some point we need to share our giant references list, there might be some stuff in there that you'd find useful (maybe I can make that a winter break project).

  6. Maura, I'll be at the conference both days. If you and Marianna have some time to meet up for coffee then, that would be great!

  7. Brilliant. I think this is the first time this blog has been used for professional networking by people who work in the same system. ;) Please report back, Stephen and Maura.


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