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.


A newly developed method for assessing perceptions of environments is described. The advantages and applications of the method for assessing college environments are discussed.

Proponents of the person-environment interaction model assert that although the traditional individually based interventions for promoting student development are important, they are by no means the only method of ensuring that students will have a positive developmental experience (Banning, 1980). When the individual becomes the sole focus of intervention, his or her realm of change is restricted because environmental factors are subsequently disregarded, despite their potential influence on behavior. In his model, Banning proposed a multisource explanation of behavior with important implications for interventions which include the system as well as the individual.

Banning (1978) introduced the concept of “campus ecology” and suggested an ecosystem approach in which student development occurs under conditions of an optimal and nurturing environment. This environment is developed through a series of steps. These steps include goal setting, tailoring programs to meet student needs, assessing student perceptions observing student behavior, and providing feedback. During the stage in which feedback is provided, modifications are introduced into the environment as necessary to ensure the desired out- comes specified in the goal-setting stage.

A number of interaction theorists have pro- posed instruments that measure the perceptions of campus environments. These measures (cf. Moos & Gerst, 1974; Pace. 1963) use both traditional  pencil-and-paper methods and verbal-type items that are intended to represent characteristics of the environment. One of the disadvantages of these instruments is that some have been designed to assess only particular facets of the campus environment, such as residence halls or classrooms. Other instruments may be too general to allow campus organizations, such as student unions or counseling centers to assess their contributions to the overall environmental milieu. As Huebner (1980) pointed out, it has become increasingly important to assess campus subenvironments and subgroups independently as well as in relation to one another, but the absence of appropriate measures makes this a difficult task.


A physical settings approach to environmental assessment called perceptual mapping has been developed and piloted. Perceptual mapping is unique in that it uses maps in both the data collection and the data presentation stages of research. The perceptual map depicted in Figure 1 represents the results of an evaluative study conducted in a student union at a major university. Figure I is a pictorial presentation of, the data from Table I.

In this study, a map of the student union building was presented to a random sample of undergraduate students. The students were instructed to indicate their responses to each of 10 items by marking their preferences on the map.  For example, students were requested to place an “A” on the map in the one place where they felt most comfortable, a "B" on the map in the place that they most often frequented, and a ”C” on the map in the place that least met their needs. The measure, which included 10 items to which participants responded, required approximately 5 minutes to administer. Response frequencies were compiled for each item and were recorded on the map in the format indicated in Figure I.

The perceptual map uses posies to depict data quantities. Posies are a method used by cartographers to represent geographical characteristics. This posey method was first used in England in the early 19705 to map geochemical properties (Linton, personal communication, 1987). Each arm of a posey represents a different item dimension to which participants responded. The relative length of the arm represents the number of participants who chose this area in response to a particular item. In this particular application, posey arms that point down represent negatively valenced items (e.g., The place in which I feel the least comfortable), and arms that point up represent positively valence place in which 1 feel the most comfortable). Thus, responses to each of five items may be represented by each posey figure. The items

used in this application are represented in the  key in Figure I.

An additional visual method for representing perceptions involves a series of transparent plastic sheets that are commonly used with an over- head projector. In this method, responses to each item are represented on a separate transparent page on which the map of the physical space of interest (e.g., a student union) is superimposed. The number of responses to each item is categorized into frequency ranges, and each range is assigned a different color. Maps are coded according to these frequency range colors. Each item to which participants responded is represented on one unique map, and each color represents the number of responses to that item. When these color coded sheets are stacked one on top of the other, an overall representation of the data set appears. This mapping method provides an ideal format for presenting data to large groups of individuals because the results are easily visible and can be readily interpreted by those with varying experience in studying data analysis results.





FIGURE 1 Perceptual Map






Response Frequencies to Selected Items




                                                Craft                                        Dining

Item                                         Center              Restaurant        Room               Patio


Most Comfortable

  Frequency                                 0                         7                   29                  7

  Percent                                      0                         4                   17                  4

Least Comfortable

   Frequency                                2                         3                  16                   2

   Percent                                     1                         2                  10                   1

Best Meets Your Needs

   Frequency                                0                         5                    5                   0

   Percent                                     0                         3                    3                   0

Least Meets Your Needs

    Frequency                             14                        2                     1                   1

    Percent                                    9                        1                     1                   1

Favorite Place

    Frequency                               1                        0                    18                  9

    Percent                                    1                        0                    11                  6




One benefit of perceptual mapping is its focus on the perceptions of individuals in the environment. It provides participants with an objective representation of the physical environment and assesses perceptions or feelings about this I designated space. The perceptual map may include both behavioral (e.g., Designate on the map the place that you most commonly use) and perceptual or attitudinal items (e.g., Designate on the map your favorite place). Items may be designed to measure specific characteristics of the environment. Additional items might instruct participants to designate those areas with which they are familiar, areas in which they most often meet with friends, areas that they would most like to see improved, areas that they tend to avoid, and so on flexibility in the choice of items is a unique benefit of perceptual mapping.

Perceptual mapping provides an additional benefit for the evaluation of campus environments. It is a methodology that is easily used by individuals with minimal experience in research and statistical design, and thus helps to reduce the anxiety about conducting research and evaluation that is often experienced by student affairs professionals (Myerson, 1975). Individuals unfamiliar with statistical analyses and tables can interpret the perceptual mapping results because the map format is familiar and. makes clear the programmatic and design implications of the results. If statistical analysis of group differences in perceptions of the physical environment is desired, the chi square or other appropriate statistical techniques can be applied to test differences in the frequency of responses of two or more groups-


Perceptual mapping is a new technique for assessing the perceptions and attitudes individuals have toward the environment. It has a number of advantages and uses for student affairs evaluation, but it is a new method that needs further research. For example, the reliability and validity of the instrument need to be determined. Finally, the perceptual mapping methodology represents an assessment device to measure the perceptions of, and attitudes about, the environment, but it does not provide information about the sources of these perceptions. Although this may be a disadvantage of the instrument as it is now conceived, the measure can be used in conjunction with other instruments when this information is desired.

In summary, perceptual mapping represents a method of data collection and representation  that has the advantage of being easily understood by both the participants and student affairs professionals who may be unfamiliar with traditional data analyses.


Banning, J.H. (1978) Campus ecology:  A perspective for student affairs.  Portland, OR:  National Association of Student Personnel Administrator.

Banning, J.H.  (1980). The Campus ecology manager role.  In U. Delworth, G. R. Hansen, & Associates (Eds.).  Student services:  A handbook for dent services: A handbook for the professional (pp. 209-227). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Huebner. L.A. (1980). Interaction of student and campus.  In U. Delworth, G.R. Hansen & Associates (Eds.). Student services: A handbook for the profession (pp. 117- 155). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moos. R.H. & Gerst, M. (1974). University Residence Environment Scale manual. Palo Alto. CA.: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Myerson. E. (1975). Changing values and priorities in funding student services. NASPA Journal, 23, 53-58.

Pace. C.R. (1963). CUES College and University Environment Scales. Princeton. NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Journal of College Student Development (July 1989) Vol. 30, pp. 319-322