Cognitive Mapping the Library Tour

ACRL IS Newsletter article, extended content, by Marissa Mourer, Librarian for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Humboldt State University (Email:; Twitter: @marissamourer)

As part of your one-shot instruction, a library tour has been requested. Are you measuring its value to the session? I’ve incorporated a five-minute qualitative assessment – cognitive mapping – that provides a small  glimpse into students’ recollections and prioritization of library collections, resources, and spaces.

Although cognitive mapping takes several forms, I am referring to students rendering a physical map of the library – from memory –  in order to capture their own reflections on what the library has to offer (Duke & Asher, 2013; Cubukcu, 2003; Kitchin, 1994)

Cognitive mapping is not new to libraries, but has typically been used for space planning  (May, 2011; Given & Leckie, 2003; James, 1983; Ridgeway, 1983).

I use cognitive maps to quickly capture 1.) patterns of highest attention and interest; 2.) how students’ maps might match my own expectations; and 3.) how future tours might be adjusted to deepen students’ connections to the library that are most relevant to the instructional session or research assignment at hand.

Following a 10-15 minute tour within a 90-minute instructional session, class sizes of ~25 students return to the instructional space where they’re given an outlined floor map of our university library. Students tend to map structural features first so these are provided (Horan, 1999). The maps identify the instructional space and staircases/elevators for orientation purposes. I first give all students red ink pens with simple instructions: “Note anything you recall from the tour on this map for the next minute. Please write notes on all three floors of the library.” At the end of one minute I collect their pens and they continue the exercise for another minute using their own pen. At the end of two minutes I collect the maps.

Maps typically contain 10-20 notes/drawings recording what students know, remember, or prioritize about the library, whether it’s collections, resources, or spaces. By comparing the notes in red to their subsequent notes, I see a snapshot of students’ cognitive order of importance of library resources.

There are notable shortcomings. Maps are cultural probes of attention, memory, interest, and past experience; strong conclusions cannot be drawn from this method alone (Heft, 2013; Khoo, et al, 2012; Horan, 1999; Sandstrom & Sandstrom, 1995). I can only wonder about the significance of students’ notes. Mapping can exclude some students with disabilities so accommodations should be planned.

So far, students’ maps overwhelmingly note collections and art over signage, collaborative spaces, technology, or furniture. I’ve received a mix of written notes and hand-drawn images. Anecdotally, mapping has been received favorably. Maps across disciplines feature roughly the same number of notes, which indicates some level of engagement with both the tour and mapping exercise within a workable timeframe.

I have adjusted tours to incorporate a story or provide answers to items unexpectedly featured repeatedly; introduced attention getters at key collections that weren’t noted prominently; and reexamined my own perceptions about students.

Ultimately, cognitive maps are engaging student learning activities that are shaping my own instructional practices and perceptions about student use of the library.

Bibliography for more information about cognitive mapping:

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