Counseling Center

University of Maryland

College Park, MD


Mapping the University Learning Environment


Alice A. Mitchell

Marie T. Sergent

William E. Sedlacek


Research Report #14-94


Computer  time was provided by the Computer Science Center,

University of Maryland at College Park.





Mapping the University Learning Environment


Alice A. Mitchell, Marie T. Sergent, and William E. Sedlacek

Research Report x#14-94


Mitchell, A. A., Sergent, M. T., & Sedlacek, W. E.(1997).

Mapping the university learning environment.

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal, 35, 20-28





Environmental assessment has long been a topic of professional interest. Perceptual mapping is an evolutionary step in campus ecology. The perceptual mapping technique provides respondents with a map of an indoor or outdoor location and their feelings or perceptions about areas on the map are solicited. This report explores the use of the perceptual mapping technique, demonstrating its use in examining campus perceptions of African American and White students.


Chi-square analyses showed a significant difference in number of visits to campus by White and African American students, with White students having visited more often. More African American than White students named a recreational area as a familiar location while more White students than African American students named the student union; the differences were not statistically significant.


Data display techniques, using graphics software, are illustrated for use in presentations.




Environmental assessment has long been a topic of professional interest. Banning (1978) termed this an "ecologic" trend and suggested the phrase "campus ecology" to denote interest in college students and their interactions with the campus environment. In campus ecology one seeks to design the campus to meet the needs of its constituents, rather than to create structures through which students and others might better fit the environment (Huebner, 1989).


This interest in campus environments led to the development of several measurement instruments, among them the College and University Environment Scales (CUES; Pace, 1969), and the University Residence Environment Scales (URES; Moos & Gerst, 1974). In many instances, the environment (e.g. residence hall) of interest was identified for the student respondent and reactions to the location solicited.


While these assessments have been helpful, perceptual mapping (Sergent & Sedlacek, 1989) is an evolutionary step in campus ecology. The perceptual mapping technique, further detailed below, provides respondents with a map of an indoor or outdoor location and their feelings or perceptions about areas on the map are solicited.


Correlates of Environmental Perception


Student perceptions of their environment have been linked to a host of attributes, including satisfaction with college (Witt & Handal, 1984), student performance (Bauer, 1975), and stress




(Cohen & Wills, 1985).


Of more recent interest have been studies which focus on student race and ethnicity in an examination of campus environments. Numerous investigations have shown that majority White institutions are perceived differently by students of color (de Armas & McDavis, 1981), and sometimes as unwelcoming and hostile (Sedlacek, 1987; Fleming, 1988). As our colleges and universities become increasingly diverse, it is wise to better understand the environmental perceptions of our changed student body. The purpose of this article is to explore the use of the perceptual mapping technique, demonstrating its use in examining campus perceptions of African American and White students.


Perceptual Mapping Technique


As mentioned above, the perceptual mapping approach allows respondents to indicate locations of interest to them and their perceptions of those areas. The unique aspect of perceptual mapping is that respondents use actual maps of interior or exterior spaces and project feelings and perceptions on the maps. While there are many environments in which the technique might be used, the present study reports on its use at a university campus.


In the first phase of the technique reported here, students were asked to indicate the areas with which they were most familiar, the areas they intended to use, and where they were most comfortable. General campus perceptions were also obtained. In the second phase, students described how they felt about the




identified location by using 20 semantic differential paired adjectives (Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957). These adjectives included such pairs as "friendly-hostile", "warm-cold", and "pleasant-unpleasant".




During the regular freshman orientation program, students were given the Campus Mapping Questionnaire (CMQ) on randomly selected days. More than 90% of all new freshmen attend orientation and 100% participation was achieved on the days selected. The CMQ consisted of a map of the campus and an attached survey which sought demographic information and student identified locations. These locations included the (1) building or area [location] with which the student most wanted to become familiar, (2) the location the student believed he or she would use most, (3) the location with which the student was most comfortable at the present, and (4) the student's current perception of the entire campus.


Students first indicated which location corresponded to each of the four descriptions by marking that location on the map. For each of the four locations, students were presented with twenty paired adjectives with which to describe the location. The adjectives were the same for all four locations. On a five point Likert scale for each adjective pair, students indicated the degree to which each location could be described on a bipolar continuum. Adjective pairs included friendly-hostile, ugly-beautiful, and meaningless-meaningful. After the surveys were




completed, location responses were coded by the researchers as (1) library, (2) student union, (3) recreation and leisure, (4) administrative, (5) classroom, (6) counseling center, (7) chapel, (8) living areas, (9) open areas, or (0) other.




Of the 411 respondents, 73% were White, 10% were African American, 14% were Asian American, 1.2% were Hispanic, and 1.7% were members of other racial and ethnic groups. The responses of African American and White students were the focus of further analysis.


Previous visits


Chi-square analyses showed that White students had made significantly (.05 level) higher visits to campus than had African American students (x2 = 9.95, df = 4, p = .04) when evaluated at the .05 level. Most African American respondents (73%) had visited the campus from one to five times, including the present visit. Only three African American students (8%) had visited the campus more than 20 times. Sixty-three percent of White respondents had visited from one to five times, with another 17% having visited from between 6 to ten times. Twelve percent of the White respondents had visited more than 20 times.


While White students had a chance to clarify their perception of the campus through multiple visits, African American students were less likely to have had this opportunity. Thus, for African American students especially those matriculating from a predominantly African American environment,




this predominantly White institution might still have had an aura of unfamiliarity. White students might easily have felt more comfortable with the university environment than African American students; it was predominantly White and they had been there many times.


Familiar locations


When asked with which building or area they would most like to become familiar, the greatest percentage, 40%, of the African American students named a recreational area while 38% of the White students named the student union. Chi square analysis of these two location choices by race (African American and White) showed non-significant differences in the degree to which African American and White students chose one location over the other (x2 = 1.75, df = 1, p = .18).


Most used locations


The largest percentage (26%) of White students named the student union as the location they would use the most. African Americans named both the student union (23%) and classrooms (23%). Chi square analysis showed no significant differences in the degree to which African American and White students chose the student union or classroom as the place they anticipated using most (x2 = .007, df = 1, p = .93). In research conducted by Webster and Sedlacek (1982), 14% of their respondents spent most of their time between classes in the student union. Of these, a greater proportion of African American undergraduates (21%) spent time between classes in the union than did White undergraduates.




Comfortable locations


African American students named the library as the area that was the most comfortable for them (48%), with the classroom the next most comfortable (20%). For White students, the student union was their most comfortable location (30%) with the classroom as the next most comfortable location (21%). Chi square analysis showed no significant differences in these choices (x Z = 2.38, df = 2, p = .30).


Data display techniques


Since perceptual mapping as a technique relies on a visual presentation of the environment under study, it is appropriate that display of the resultant data also use a more visual presentation medium.


The advent of graphics software packages, particularly for microcomputer usage, offers a rich array of possibilities. Such displays can assist researchers in making their findings more immediately palatable to an audience with an applied orientation. Figures 1 and 2 were created using the Microsoft EXCEL "radar" figure, produced on transparencies for presentation. The figures show student answers to the question asking them to name their most comfortable place.


The response of African American and White students who named classroom areas as their most comfortable are compared. Each of the three axes represents a semantic-differential item, (1) friendly-hostile, (2) warm-cold, and (3) pleasant-unpleasant.


In this particular example, no significant differences were




found in African American and White responses (t-test on friendly-hostile yielded t = -1.11, df = 68, p = .27; t-test on warm-cold: t = -.30, df = 68, p = .76; t-test on pleasant­ unpleasant: t = -.46, df = 68, p = .65. All results were evaluated at .05, divided by 3 as a Bonferroni correction). Thus the figures are for example  only, rather than to show systematic perceptual differences. In   the diagrams, African American

students found the classroom to be more friendly, warm, and pleasant than did White students, but, again, not to significant levels. Superimposing one transparency over the other shows this difference and should be readily apparent to an audience.




Perceptual mapping, used with new students, identified areas of interest and initial perceptions. These perceptions, and subsequent reality, may have important ramifications for retention of African American students at predominantly White institutions.


For new African American students, the campus is one which is less familiar than it is for White students. This lower familiarity may have important relationships to retention, where comfortability is strongly related to persistence.


A predominantly-White campus concerned with the degree to which students of color find a campus attractive might examine the results of perceptual mapping. In the study reported above, it is interesting that no African American student indicated the chapel as an area with which she or he wished to become familiar.

8 In view of the importance of spiritual values in African American culture (McEwen, Roper, Bryant, & Langa, 1989), the absence of a religious contact or reference point on campus is one of several potentially alienating factors. Astin (1973) and Lea, Sedlacek, and Stewart (1979) showed the value of having a contact point in retention.


Also noteworthy for its absence was the Black Cultural Center on campus. This center, located within one of the dining hall buildings, was not discernibly mentioned in any survey. Campus administrators in orientation and admissions may wish to include these and other important contact points in their work with African American students.


Perceptual mapping can be used in a wide variety of environments in addition to the university campus. Additional applications might include surveying the perceptions of building employees in a corporate setting when deciding where to locate a new facility. If the facility were designed to stimulate interaction, it might be located in an area already perceived as welcoming to those it might serve. In another application, customer service areas could be surveyed not only for the efficiency of services rendered but for the perception created for those who are served.


In the university setting, perceptual mapping can provide a way to evaluate a campus through the eyes of students. Communicating the results of such evaluations to administrators who can effect change in the environment is of paramount



importance. Visual techniques appropriate to the investigation may be helpful in making research results more consumer-friendly. As we seek better ways of serving our diverse student clientele, a clearer understanding of the perception of our services and locations will inform our efforts.






Astin, A. W. (1973). Impact of dorm living on students. Educational Record, 54, 204-210.

Banning, J. H. (1978). Campus ecology: A perspective for student affairs. Cincinnati, OH: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.


Bauer, G. E. (1975). Performance and satisfaction as a function of person-environment fit. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri, Columbia.


Cohen, S. & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 310-357.


De Armas, C. P. & McDavis, R. J. (1981). White, Black, and Hispanic students' perceptions of a community college environment. Journal of College Student Personnel, 22, 33 341.


Fleming, J. (1988). Blacks in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Huebner, L. A. (1989). Interaction of student and campus. In U. Delworth & G. R. Hanson (Eds.). Student services: A handbook for the profession. 2nd Ed. (pp. 165-208). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Lea, D. H., Sedlacek, W. E. & Stewart, S. S. (1979). Problems in retention research in higher education NASPA Journal, 17(1), 2-8.





McEwen, M. L., Roper, L. D., Bryant, D. R., & Langa, M. J. (1989). Challenging the boundaries of psychosocial theories: Incorporating the development of African-American students. Journal of College Student Development, 30, 429-436.


Moos, R. H. & Gerst, M. S. (1974). University residence environment scale. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.


Osgood, C., Suci, G., and Tannenbaum, P. (1957). The measurement of meaning., Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Pace, C. R. (1969). College and university environment scale. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Sedlacek, W. S. (1987). Black students on White campuses: 20 years of research. Journal of College Student Personnel, 28(6), 484-495.


Sergent, M. T. & Sedlacek, W. E. (1989). Perceptual mapping: A methodology in the assessment of environmental perceptions. Journal of College Student Development, 30, 319-322.


Webster, D. W. and Sedlacek, W. E. (1982). The differential impact of a university student union on campus subgroups. NASPA Journal, 19(2), 48-51.


Witt, P. and Handal, P. (1984) Person-environment fit: Is satisfaction predicted by congruency, environment, or personality? Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 503-512.


Figure Caption Figure 1. Boxed points would be printed in color for use in overhead transparencies.