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