2 tools to help PhD students make their thinking visible

In this post, I share two ways to map your thinking, at different scales (rather like geographical maps)…

CQOCE Diagrams (or “Thesis Maps”)

One of the challenges that most/all PhD students have is to make their thinking visible — to themselves, to their supervisors, and to other researchers. There are so many potential ideas to weave into a narrative, and often different narrative pathways.

In our Learning Analytics PhD Program, we’ve been using the unpronounceable but very useful CQOCE diagram described by Luis Prieto in his Happy PhD blog. I encourage you to learn more about this:

“the diagram is commonly used in the introduction section of a dissertation, and it is meant to introduce, in graphical form, some of its main elements: the research Context, main research Question, Objectives, Contributions of your thesis and their Evaluation. However, many of us have also used it way before starting to write the dissertation book itself, as a “guiding star” when discussing with others and planning the thesis work.”

We have also been using it not just as a writing up device, but as a challenge right in the first year, to get doctoral researchers thinking about their thesis story. I tend to just call it the Thesis Map! As Luis comments, this goes through many revisions as the PhD takes its twists and turns. So in the end it serves two key purposes:

  1. As a mirror for the supervision team to reflect on how we’re doing — “Oh, the contributions I thought I was making don’t align with the Research Questions…” “What kind of evaluation will be needed next year to back up this claimed Contribution 2?…”
  2. As a navigational aid — a map — for the reader of the thesis, or indeed, for the audience if it’s used in a talk (“…in this talk I’ll be covering only this part of the map, but it shows you how this is a stage in a longer journey, in a  wider landscape…”)

Here are two recent Learning Analytics theses that use this, from Vanessa Echeverria and Carlos Prieto.

Echeverria, V. (2020). Designing Feedback for Collocated Teams using Multimodal Learning Analytics

Prieto-Alvarez, C.G. (2020), Engaging Stakeholders in the Learning Analytics Design Process


Note that sections of the map can then be introduced in each chapter, to remind the reader where we are on the journey.

Argument Maps

The Thesis Map provides a macro-structure for the thesis argument: once you’ve bashed your map into shape, then your high level claim to have evidenced contributions to advance knowledge that addresses important RQs just drops out naturally. But there will be many micro-level arguments in the thesis that are invisible at this scale.

Zooming in, we’re experimenting with Argument Maps, that make visible more detailed moves. Here’s my briefing during a PhD session which introduces some basics…

2 weeks later, a couple of researchers shared their maps for feedback, and both commented on how it helps clarify thinking. Thanks to Ben Hicks and Gloria Fernandez-Nieto for jumping in!

Ben used the freely accessible ArgDown website which uses a classic Argument Map notation, enriched with optional colour-coding from #tags:

Gloria used the free Compendium tool that my team developed at KMi Open University, using the IBIS notation (QuickStart Guide to install):

Note: Al Selvin inventor and power user of Compendium, used it to create multimedia maps of his thesis thinking and qualitative data analysis [screen demos], incorporating many kinds of documents (which can be dragged and dropped onto maps).


Far more info on Knowledge Cartography is available if this interests you.

I hope these help you make your own thinking more visible — to yourself, your supervisors, and the world  🙂

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