Personal cartography: An induction activity to support new student engagement

An induction project for first year students in September 2019 was to create a personal cartography of the University’s campus. This helped students to explore and record the campus in a visual way that was meaningful for them. Students identified landmarks and topological features that held personal significance to help with orientation and settling into the university environment.

The activity

An induction project for first year students in September 2019 was to create a personal cartography of the University’s campus. This helped students to explore and record the campus in a visual way that was meaningful for them. Students identified landmarks and topological features that held personal significance to help with orientation and settling into the university environment.

Students were introduced to various methods for recording and presenting spatial data and invited to venture into the unknown and explore the terrain of the campus in small groups. The groups explored the site together, getting lost and finding their way alongside each other, their shared uncertainties and discoveries stimulating memorable experiences and generating useful insights. Traversing in a group meant that student confidence was buttressed, ensuring a level of psychological safety in this new environment.

Students interpreted their surroundings subjectively, with a focus only on information that was relevant to them and their needs. What was left out of their maps was as important as what was included. Students were encouraged to find the locations of significant topographical features including good toilets, bicycle racks, laptop lockers and chocolate dispensers. They were reminded that there is no ‘correct’ way to create a map—what is important is what it enables us to find, or how it helps us to navigate terrain in the real world. Sometimes we find things by being lost.

Students were encouraged to make notes, create drawings, take photos, make sound recordings and collect objects. Each student was provided with cartridge paper and encouraged to find other relevant materials. They then produced a personal cartographic response to be used in the future as a wayfinding device. How students created their maps was as personal as the information contained within them. A few examples have been included at the end of this article (all images are used with permission).

A pop-up exhibition was then held on campus. The temporary display enabled students to see how others had experienced the university and gave them space to identify examples of success and creativity in the outcomes produced. Student responses included a wearable landscape, an amulet, and a pair of gloves to feel your way around.

Impact on students

One of the barriers to engagement can be a lack of spatial confidence in a new place. We often underestimate how important a physical induction is to people when they arrive in an unfamiliar environment. By explicitly giving students time and resources to explore their surroundings with others, they are given permission to get lost and discover without feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious. Students can wander at their own pace and determine their own direction, responding to their new environment without the possibility of being wrong. They are asked to record their environment in a subjective, personal way rather than through using prescribed, conventional structures of cartographic selection or visualisation. They are able to develop an affinity with the University through collective and individual discovery and documentation.

Final notes and advice for readers

Give the students some prompts or a list of suggested areas to discover as well as self-directed discovery. These could include a suggestion to find a nice quiet place to study or help them to locate student support or other vital services. Students could repeat the exercise at the end of their first year to see how their awareness and knowledge of the University has developed.

Further reading

Harmon, K. (2004). You are here: Personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Examples of students’ maps

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About the author

  • Sarah has taught HE art and design in the UK and USA since 2005. She is a Royal College of Art PhD candidate in inclusive operational design. Sarah gained her 2007 MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics and is a member of Open Hand Open Space studios.

How to cite

Britten-Jones, S. (2021) Personal cartography: An induction activity to support new student engagement. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/personal-cartography-an-induction-activity-to-support-new-student-engagement/. (Accessed: 27 September 2022)

Post Information

Posted in Edition 1, October 2021, Recipes for Success