The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Kinchin

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Comparisons between excellent concept mapping and excellent teaching

By Prof Ian Kinchin

There are some serious misconceptions in the literature on concept mapping that threaten to undermine the authenticity and potential of the tool.

When reading research papers on concept mapping, alarm bells are immediately triggered when the authors introduce their work with statements about “concept maps as a classroom strategy“. A concept map is not a teaching strategy any more than a blackboard or a textbook are teaching strategies. They are teaching tools that need to be embedded into a teaching strategy. So with the textbook, you could tell the class to go away and read the book, and come back in two weeks with any questions. Or you could sit and read through the book with the class. Or you could teach the class using all sorts of innovative classroom interventions and simply use the book for background reading. Three very different strategies using the same tool. It is the same with concept mapping. The teacher has to be clear how the tool is going to be used and how that will complement other learning activities.

Other generic and unqualified statements that can often be found include: “concept maps promote higher order thinking skills“. This statement is like saying that classes promoted higher order thinking skills. Excellent classes can promote higher order thinking skills, but poorly constructed and badly delivered classes will not. In the same way, poor use of concept maps will not promote higher order thinking skills. Some researchers seem to make the assumption that you can drop a quick concept mapping activity into any poorly constructed lesson and it will be miraculously converted into a high quality teaching episode. This is clearly nonsense. If the concept mapping activity does not complement the teaching environment and if the students have little idea why they are making a map, then the outcome is unlikely to be positive. The application if concept mapping needs to be planned and purposeful if it is to have a meaningful outcome.

So research papers need to be explicit about the nature of the concept mapping activity that has been undertaken with a class and the quality of the maps that have been used. We also need to know the details of how the maps were used. Some research papers simply state that students made maps and related to subsequent test scores. But making the map is not he end point. How were the maps used? What feedback was given and how was the map edited and refined so that the student engaged with the ideas represented? It is not always clear within the research literature what the students did after they were engaged in the concept mapping activity. How did they reflect upon their maps and how did they move forward to their next learning episode? Many papers refer to ‘an intervention’ and how the students did as a result of that intervention. But what were the wider gains? A group of students who may have ‘enhanced their learning in Biology’ might also be expected to take their new-found learning skills into their Chemistry lessons and their History lessons. But this is never reported as it is always outside of the scope of the intervention being tested. The focus is rarely the students, but usually the subject.

So how do we benefit from concept mapping activity and how do we record that benefit? What are the benefits to the teachers who are involved in these interventions? Do they reflect on their teaching practice as a result of the research and modify the ways they interact with the students?

Studies that aim to ‘isolate’ the effect of the concept mapping from any other factors, in a rigorous, controlled environment seem particularly poorly suited to enhancing classroom practice as they lack ecological authenticity. Concept mapping is part of the armoury of the teacher. It needs to be used alongside testing, feedback and collaborative reflection in order for it to be most effective. So we need more ‘messy research’ that recognises the complexity of the classroom. We need innovative qualitative methodologies and fewer randomised control trials. We need creative and imaginative research, and not formulaic experiments that will show that the ‘experimental group saw a slight advantage over a control group’. We need the research community to move forward and take some risks. Then we might see some progress. Just as the teaching risk-takers are the ones who will have the inspiring lessons.

It is time to be imaginative!

Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs?

By Dai O’Brien


This year, there have been several media reports on Kate Sang’s work on the effects of disability on academic careers, with many picking up on the idea that being a disabled academic is akin to working two jobs at once – the academic job you are paid for, and the extra time and effort of fighting for the support and access provisions you need to actually perform that job (see, for example, Pain 2017).

Sang points out that there has been very little work on the experiences of disabled academics working in the UK, but there has been even less focusing specifically on the experiences of signing deaf academics. One of the earliest was published by Jones and Pullen in 1992. Others include Trowler and Turner (2002), O’Brien and Emery (2014), De Meulder (2017), and Gulliver (2017). There are others which look at the experiences of non-signing deaf academics, or at deaf students, but these are not related to the main focus of this research. The project I am currently running, thanks to the award of the SRHE Newer Researchers prize this year, attempts to explore the experiences of signing deaf academics in the UK through gathering data on both how they navigate the physical space of their institution, and also how they navigate the social relations and networks which exist both within and between different HEIs in the UK and overseas.

The research is using a combination of two methods. Firstly, walk-through interviews in deaf academics’ places of work, to see how they navigate and relate to the physical spaces and places in which they work on a day-to-day basis. Secondly, participatory mapping interviews will be used to create maps which show the social networks and spaces of collaboration/communication they have both within and outside their own HEI. So far, a number of walk-through interviews have been conducted around the UK, with the mapping interviews to take place in the New Year. A number of interesting themes have already arisen from the data gathered so far.

Signing deaf academics face a number of additional challenges in their professional lives in HEIs. One of the most obvious is that of communication. They use a language which is not only a minority language, but one which has been actively oppressed for the last 130 years. Communication with other staff and students who cannot sign relies on the work of BSL/English interpreters, the booking of whom often becomes part of the ‘second job’ mentioned by Sang, above. Use of sign language brings with it a host of additional differences compared to the experience of academics using a spoken language. As a visual language, it can be very difficult to hold a private conversation anywhere you could be overlooked. On the other hand, as a minority language, it is also perfectly possible to hold a private conversation in clear sight, if no-one else around understands the language. Use of sign language can also mean physically navigating the space of the HEI in a different way to that of hearing people, for example, if a corridor is too narrow to pass along two abreast, signing people cannot easily hold a conversation when walking together. On the other hand, sign language is more easily transmitted across large distances than speech, so it becomes possible to hold conversations on very different spatial scales.

Differences in communication can also lead to different feelings of belonging, or not belonging, to a team, department, or HEI as a whole. Without regular, unproblematic communication with their hearing, non-signing peers in their home HEI, it is possible that signing deaf academics form much stronger bonds, both personal and professional, with their signing deaf peers who work at other HEIs, either elsewhere in the UK, or internationally. If this is the case, then the concept of what is academic space, and what sort of area it covers, can be very different for a signing deaf academic compared to their hearing peers, or to their managers’ expectations. Navigating these academic spaces can become very complex. Navigating the space of their home HEI can become almost entirely virtual, in which most communication is done via email or over the phone using interpreters (in contrast to hearing academics, whose everyday interactions in their home HEI are more dependent on physical co-presence and face to face interaction), whereas national and international meetings with signing deaf peers and mentors are much more likely to be in shared physical space, due to the importance of face-to-face interaction when using a visual-spatial mode of language.

These are just some of the themes which have come from my research so far. The ultimate aim of the project is to be able to publish some guidelines for HEIs which will offer some advice on how to ensure that signing deaf academics are valued (and are made to feel valued) and are included at both personal and institutional level within their home HEI.

Dr Dai O’Brien is a Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. 


De Meulder, M. (2017) The emergence of a Deaf academic professional class during the British Deaf resurgence. In Kusters, A., De Mulder, M., and O’Brien, D. (Eds) Innovations in Deaf Studies: the role of deaf scholars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gulliver, M. (2017) Seeking Lefebvre’s vécu in a ‘Deaf Space’ classroom. In Ares, N., Buendía, E., and Helfenbein, R. (Eds) Deterritorializing/reterritorializing: critical geography of educational reforms. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Jones, L., & Pullen, G. (1992). Cultural differences: Deaf and hearing researchers working together. Disability, Handicap & Society, 7, 189-196.

O’Brien, D., and Emery, S.D. (2014) The role of the intellectual in minority group studies: reflections on Deaf Studies in social and political contexts. Qualitative Inquiry 20(1) 27-36.

Pain, E. (2017) Survey highlights the challenges disabled academics face—and what can be done to address them. Science May 15 2017 downloaded from Last accessed 21.11.17

Trowler, P. R., & Turner, G. H. (2002). Exploring the hermeneutic foundation of university life: Deaf academics in a hybrid “community of practice.” Higher Education, 43, 227-256.

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Whatever happened to Second Life?

By Paul Temple

You must remember Second Life. Oh, come on, of course you remember it! In the mid-late 2000s it was everywhere, not just in universities but in business, government, all over the place. It was going to be the new way of doing, well, everything – working, learning, entertainment, you name it. What was it? A virtual reality set-up, where you could create an alternative world, and adopt a different persona online, your avatar. Why? Because in your avatar guise, in your virtual world, you could do things you couldn’t otherwise do. What things? Just things, OK? Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay

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Ian McNay writes …

By Ian McNay

The news from Ukraine is that, at least in Odesa (one ‘s’ in Ukrainian) market, my country is known as ‘Bye, Bye, Britain’. I was there as part of a project on developing leadership training. At the rectors’ round table, we were thanked by the British Council rep. for being honest. We were discussing HE governance, and lessons from the UK, without doing the usual thing of pretending our approach is wonderful and everybody should imitate it. We learn from mistakes more than from things that went well, perhaps because they imply that there is a need to learn.

One challenge in Ukraine is the nostalgia for the old days. When I first went there 20 years ago, I asked an undergraduate class for their models of good leaders. My first three answers were Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher, which led to a discussion of the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. That preference for strength over everything else is still there. In a survey of the ex-Soviet republics, the question was asked: ‘would you rather have democracy or a dictator who solves problems?’ Ukraine topped the table of those opting for the second, with over 50% choosing efficient despotism. The Czech Republic scored only 13%.

This is relevant to us because Theresa May has been claiming to be strong and has resisted the operations of democracy. At organisational level, since power tends to corrupt, the signs are not good: a recent survey of UK managers for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that only 8 per cent claimed to have a strong personal moral compass, and so are susceptible to corruption. Even UK university managers would score better than that, despite the disappearance of collegial democracy.

Wouldn’t they?

Did you notice…? The Universities UK blog reported a survey of the teams who prepared the institutional submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and found that even they were dismissive of its validity and reliability – basic requirements for us as researchers. 72 per cent of those most closely involved in the exercise did not believe that it ‘accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence’. Only 2 per cent, 2 per cent, thought it did. Even they might change their view, since the views of students – those ‘at the heart of the system’ and the alleged beneficiaries of the exercise – are to be given a lower weighting, since their voice, through NSS, gave the ‘wrong’ message. More weight will now be given to post-graduation data on jobs and earnings, which are more heavily conditioned by accidents of birth, and employer prejudice, than the quality of teaching and learning. So much for promoting social mobility, another claimed objective. Russell Group universities will benefit, since they scored poorly on NSS, and recruit more of those privileged by birth. That couldn’t be a reason for the change, surely? That would suggest that corruptive pressure had been applied to the reward process, as in the awarding of Olympic Games to cities or the football world cup to countries. Or in awarding Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – in boxing. Or bonuses to bankers. Still, footballers and bankers are now our benchmarks, according to the head of the world’s leading university, so we still have some way to fall.

Don’t we?

‘That way madness lies’ (I have just played Lear in a local ‘Best of the Bard’ concoction).

Recent reports from some universities suggest grade inflation is just as much an issue as the cost of living index. UK wide figures are not yet available for the latest batch of graduates, but in 2016, 73 per cent of first degree graduates got a first (24%) or upper second (49%), with the gender split favouring women by 75/71. Four years previously, the figure had been ‘only’ 66 per cent. So, despite expansion lowering entry tariffs, more ‘value’ is added to compensate. If 50 per cent of an age cohort now study for a degree, that means that 12 percent of an age group got a first class degree. A few years ago, when I passed the 11+, only 11 percent of the age group in my home town did so.

Did you notice the figures for ‘alternative providers’ from HESA, interesting in the light of the recent report from the HE Commission? Of the 6,200 graduates they produced (2,000 more than the previous year), 58 per cent got ‘good’ degrees. No Inflation – it was 61 per cent in 2015. 14 per cent got firsts, and women again outperformed men, by nine percentage points – 63/54.

The Commission’s report goes well beyond simply comparing the provision of full-time first degrees, emphasising the potential role of apprenticeships in adding to diversity of routes; urging flexibility of funding to allow flexibility of study patterns across the sector and outlining the greater part employers should play in developing work-related and work-relevant provision. I was interested that, of over 120 names on the attendance list, only 6 were from mainstream universities, and three of those had given evidence to the enquiry. Does the sector not think there is a challenge from the alternatives? Will they just wait for the demographic upturn early in the next decade, and then supply the same-old to a similar sub-set of the market? Are they aware that some of that demographic upturn is of children of EU immigrants who may well choose to return to their parents’ home country to study where fees are much lower, if they exist at all? And that nearly all recent growth in demand has been from BAME applicants, who suffer from admissions decisions which imply unconscious (I hope) decisions, particularly in elitist universities, as work by Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood and statistics from UCAS show?

Finally, and still on my campaign for equity…I have a plea. At a recent symposium, participants commented on the inequity, at a global level, of the monopoly role of the English language, which has an exclusionary impact on those outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. Some national governments are bothered about its impact on knowledge transfer within the country that sponsored the work that produces journal articles. My suggestion is that any journal with ‘international’ in its title or its statement of aims should publish abstracts in, preferably, three languages, but at least two: the second being the author’s first language or that of the host institution of the research reported; the third another global language, probably Spanish. So, if you are on the editorial board of journals, or review articles submitted, can I urge you to make representation about this. It would enhance awareness across a broader landscape of HE, and allow those beyond the current privileged language enclave initial access to relevant work and to follow up with some contact with authors, since email addresses are now commonly given. It would also support the Society’s role in encouraging newer researchers. Simples!

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich



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Comprehensive universities

By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists.  Continue reading

Image of Rob Cuthbert

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HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

So there is to be a review of higher education finance. Probably. But it is still unclear whether it will be a ‘major’ review, whatever that means. It might only mean ‘major enough to see off the threat from Jeremy Corbyn’, but we await most of the detail.

After the June general election the apparent appeal to young people of the Labour Party pledge to abolish fees, and perhaps even write off student debt, sent the Conservative Party into panic mode. Of course it might not have been a pledge, nor even a promise, more an aspiration or a direction of travel. Students have heard that kind of thing before.

Storms were brewing, but no-one expected Hurricane Adonis. Continue reading