Using Lego Serious Play to explore my PhD research journey

Today I was lucky enough to get a place on a Lego Serious Play workshop run by David Gauntlett, who uses lego to conduct all kinds of interesting research in Media, Art and Design at the University of Westminster.

The aim of the session was to explore the use of Lego as a tool for gathering qualitative data during the research process, as well as reflecting upon my own PhD experiences so far and learning from other people’s experiences.

Using Lego for metaphorical modelling

David explained that the idea behind Lego Serious Play is that by using a visual aid the participants are encouraged to think about their experiences and opinions and represent them in model form. The idea is that it gives people a new way to express and explore complex subjects and ideas through a creative method.

As my PhD research is focused on exploring experiences and understandings of research impact (undoubtedly a very complex and often contentious issue), I thought this could be a useful tool for me to use during my data gathering stage.

Getting used to building with Lego


We started out by building a free form creature, which could be any life form, as realistic or fantastical as you like. This stage allowed us to become familiar with the Lego pieces and to explore how everything could be used and fitted together. I really enjoyed this, and made the Stompocopter (obviously trademarked, don’t go nicking my ideas all you toy companies out there), with a working helicopter tail and huge stompy feet.

Moving from literal to metaphorical modelling



After this stage we talked a bit about metaphors and how they can be used to explore ideas which are hard to describe by borrowing meaning from other items and concepts. We then applied this knowledge to building some models representing positive and negative supervisory experiences of a PhD. In mine, the model at the top uses parts from my earlier Stompocopter to represent a supervisor pushing a student to plough on through their journey without any real consideration for the student’s opinions. This has led to the student having to develop a very thick skin (represented by the crash helmet). The collection of objects below represents a more positive experience, with the skills and guidance from the supervisor represented by the wheels, ladders and spade which can all be used by the student to navigate issues and barriers during their journey.

Exploring our own PhD journeys

Now that we were all getting used to how to use and discuss the modelling we were doing, we moved onto the main task of the afternoon – representing our own personal journey through modelling.


I decided to use the concept of a river in my model, as I am interested in using the Kawa river model as a possible data gathering method during my case studies. The river here represents my PhD journey, with the tributaries indicating different paths of thought and possible directions I could go down with my work. The green bushes represent obstacles along the way, but by using the tools and skills I am developing (shown by ladders and bridges), I will hopefully be able to navigate my way through. I used the animals to represent different feelings throughout my journey; elephant – plodding away slowly at my research during difficult times, tiger – determination and passion for my subject, horse – a sense of urgency that comes in spits and spats, kitten – occasionally feeling overwhelmed and timid in my abilities. I found thinking about the theoretical side of my work very interesting, and represented the struggles I sometimes have with navigating complex theoretical work by using the web, as theory often seems to be something which needs untangling before I can move on.

Lego Serious Play as a research tool

Overall, I found the exercises really helpful in terms of looking at my PhD experience from different angles, and found that the modelling helped me to articulate my thoughts and feelings quite clearly. Doing this as a group was also beneficial in that people had the chance to learn from each others experiences too.

Having had an introduction to using Lego serious Play as a tool for exploring research ideas and potentially gathering data, I am going to consider using it as a visual method during my case study section next year.

As always, I’m very interested to hear from anyone who has comments about this subject or has carried out similar research themselves.

Planning my first article from my PhD research on societal impact

I am currently trying to prepare for my first progression viva which is in June, by getting my methodology chapter into shape for submission in may. However, I’m also keen not to take my eye off the ball and lose focus on the rest of my PhD, so have given myself the task of preparing my first article for submission. (I have published an article from my UG research on colonial discourse and one on dissemination, but this will be the first article to come out of my PhD research).

After carrying out my initial scoping workshop to look at experiences and opinions around research impact, particularly societal impact, I wondered if the research design and findings of the workshop might make for an interesting article on using participatory research to inform the development of methods for a larger research project.

I have outlined my initial plan below, with a couple of links to journals I am considering as potential places to publish.

Title: Using an action research approach to explore researcher experiences and opinions of societal impact

  • Background to my research

Context of research into societal impact

Impact definitions

Overall PhD aims and research questions

How the scoping workshop fits in to overall research

  • Carrying out the workshop

Research design

Practical issues

  • What did I learn?

Data gathered


  • Next steps

Using the data to inform interview questions

Possible journals

Educational Action Research – my work fits the Education subject area, and the journal has an emphasis on looking at different research methods and designs. Gold Open Access option (£1700), co-edited by Pat Thompson, a big name in my field.

Higher Learning Research Communications – International journal, completely open access, broad scope of articles related to higher education including teaching and learning but also best practice and faculty experiences. – I have a feeling this journal might be more realistic for my current stage.

I have sent this off to a couple of very helpful colleagues for some initial feedback, as I think it is always worth getting another opinion to help you think about angles for a new article, or consider outlets you wouldn’t have thought of.


As always, any comments very welcome!

The results of my PhD scoping workshop on social impact

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

Some of the data gathered from my workshop

As part of my wider Phd research into researcher perspectives on societal impact, I held an initial scoping workshop a couple of weeks ago to further develop my understanding and gather data to inform the writing of my interview questions to be used in later case studies. I found it really useful, so thought I would share with you how and why  I did it. As always, comments very welcome!

Participatory or action research

The idea was to draw upon a participant action research approach, as this approach allows for an emphasis on participant experience and understanding that is integral to my research questions and aims.

This workshop design allows the researcher and participants to work together with two broad aims: to understand the participant’s world, and to learn how to change aspects or carry them out more successfully. In this case, these broad aims were to understand more fully the impact debate and the issues surrounding it, and to learn how to change and improve the understanding, communication and assessment of social impact.

Aims of the workshop

The initial scoping workshop addresses two key sets of aims. Firstly, it directly addresses my research aims as detailed above in the introduction. By holding the workshop and analysing the data gathered I further my own understanding of the impact debate whilst also creating a space in which participants can discuss and explore their impact experiences and opinions.

In addition to this, the workshop addresses some specific aims relating to research design:

• To identify key issues and concerns surrounding social impact for researchers.
• To aid the informed development of a set of questions to be used during the data gathering stage of the case studies.

Structure of the workshop

Although participatory action research is always going to be approached in different ways depending on the context of the subject and participants, there have been attempts to suggest structure templates as a basis to design workshops around. I adapted an eight-step structure (Heron and Reason 2006) into a more compact five-step one to suit the amount of time I had available and to focus more on the participant input than my own research journey. I did however keep a short section in to explain my research aims and to illustrate how the workshop fits into my research journey, as this information is important when ensuring that participants are well informed about how the data gathered will be used.

• Welcome and introductions
• Short presentation on the context of my research and where the workshop fits in as part of my research journey
• Group discussions around what social impact means to the participants and feedback
• Group discussion around which areas of social impact the participants feel need further understanding and feedback
• Summary, next steps for the research and thank you

Data analysis

The majority of the data collected during the workshop was in the form of mind maps and notes written on flipchart paper during group exercises. For analysis of this I have taken direction from a qualitative analysis approach often used for coding different types of data (Bryman 2012). The stages of analysis include the following:

• Transcribe and code at an early stage
• Initial read through of documents, no note taking
• Second read through with marginal notes including key words
• Review the emerging codes

After typing up all the comments from the flipchart sheets, I followed the above stages, resulting in a list of key ideas and questions around each discussion point. I have then summarised these into the following themes:

Exercise 1 – What do we need to consider when
defining social impact?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Working with industry
• Effects on practice/services
• Data/publication access

Exercise 2 – What are some of the issues and Qs which could
help us understand social impact better?

• University strategy/management
• Impact as part of the research journey
• Metrics/measuring
• Public engagement
• Differences between subjects
• Influencing policy
• Overlap with academic/economic impact
• Defining impact

Many of the issues arising from the two discussions overlapped, indicating that a lot of the key issues surrounding social impact are not seen by the participants as being sufficiently understood.

What next?

I am now using the data gathered from the workshop to write a draft set of semi-structured interview questions to use during my case studies. Overall, it was a really useful experience and has definitely given me more confidence in my research design.

Pinning down my methodology – Part 3

Following a very useful, but somewhat intense supervision a few weeks ago, I have been focusing on stepping back from my very practical research design and workshop planning, and instead getting back to methodology basics. This has meant immersing myself in the maze of approaches and trying to pin down the philosophical theories which will be most appropriate to inform my research, following my previous posts on methodology part 1 and part 2.

Now, I’m going to be brave and admit that I have been struggling to get my head around the various concepts which will make up my methodology chapter – and I am sure I’m not the only one. If you, like me, do not have a background in educational research, then I am sure you might also feel a little baffled when confronted with a range of interlocking concepts and theories whose terms are continually developing and being debated.

That said, I feel I have made a mini-breakthrough this week in this area, and wanted to share my steps for getting there in case they might be of help to any fellow PGRs wading through the mire of educational methodology. So here goes.

Start from the beginning

I made the initial mistake of trying to develop my understanding of methodology theories through reading journal articles, as this is my usual go-to platform for learning and exploring. Silly me! Without the basic grounding in terms and debates, the articles did more harm than good, leaving my reeling with confusion and frustrated with myself.

On the advice of my supervisor I attended some EdD classes within my School, and was also able to access all the supporting materials for these classes on our online portal, meaning I could sit at home in my spare time and go through the lecture slides and reading material, which was amazingly useful. If your School runs an EdD class I would highly recommend asking if you can have access to at least the online materials, are they give a great overview of the basics in methodology.

Explore all avenues

Depending on your own personal learning style, it might also be worth exploring other platforms for finding information and learning these core concepts. For me, when I am trying to get my head around something new and complex, focusing only on linear reading does not do the trick – I need to mix it up a little, listen to people speak on the subject from their point of view. Live lectures are great for this, but this can also be supported by online resources – YouTube is brilliant for this! Some useful examples:

Complex research terminology simplified – very basic in the level of understanding it goes into, but perfect for getting your head around the different terms used in educational research methodology.

Graham Gibbs’ series on research methods – based on the social sciences, but covers many areas and concepts which cross over in Education too.

Using a combination of EdD materials, video tutorials and textbooks, I finally feel I have enough information to understanding the basics of what my methodology will look like:


Methodology outline


Apologies for the horrendous hand writing 🙂

So my next step, over the Christmas holidays, is to start getting my reasons down for choosing this avenue and finding some good sources to back up my decisions. Fingers crossed I will have a draft outline of this chapter to share with my supervisory team by January, exciting!

As always, comments, questions and feedback very welcome 🙂

Bite size chunks – managing your writing

On my last post I had just handed in my extended research proposal to the School board and ethics committee, and was nervously awaiting the results.

Proposal accepted!

Thankfully, I don’t have to go back to square one just yet, as they were happy with my work so far and even gave me some lovely feedback about the interesting topic and reading I had done so far. Woohoo!!

Anyhow, following this I struggled to figure out where to go next, and kept coming back to my proposal document and bleakly staring at the words, panicking that I couldn’t figure out where to slot in my next reading notes or start a brand new section. Obviously, this is a totally fruitless way to waste vast swathes of time, and my productivity hit a bit of a lull.

Group inspiration

Luckily, yesterday I was on a half day part-time PhD support group organised for the University, and it has really given me the kick-start I needed. I would definitely advise getting involved in these kind of groups and networks as early as possible, as they are a great way to collaborate with other new researchers and try out ideas with each other.

Be gone writer’s block!

As I was explaining the rut I was in and my frustration, another PhD student and lecturer, Jean, told me about the way she writes and how it works for her, and it was like a switch had been flicked in my head and banished my writers block! Jean explained that, to make things more manageable, very early on in her writing she made separate documents for each section of her thesis-to-be. Then, when reading through her articles and book chapters, she would make a note of which section they were relevant to, and add a few notes to that document, and so on.

Now, I know it sounds obvious when written down like this, but when you are at home on your own staring at a document for what feels like the billionth time, logical answers aren’t always forthcoming, so it really was a breakthrough to talk this through with Jean.

Choosing your sections

Feeling super motivated, I scooted home after work and got straight on with separating out my sections and updating them with some recent reading. For now, my structure looks like this:

  • Introduction (covers a summary, research questions and aims and timeline)
  • Context (focuses on recent changes in funding and research landscapes, including assessment)
  • Social impact – definitions
  • Social impact – assessing, how and why
  • Methodology
  • Research Design

All in all it took me a couple of hours to organise everything and update each section with a few new pieces – what a sense of satisfaction!

Big thanks to Jean for sharing this method 🙂

Submitting your Proposal/Plan…or yeay!

So this week I submitted my formal Research Proposal and Plan to my university PGR and ethics committee. Those of you who are further down the road in their PhD traipse will know how satisfying this is! Yeay!

Being someone who can procrastinate until the cows come home, and then until they have tea, get tucked up in straw, dreams some cow dreams….it was a real relief to feel like I finally have something down on paper. After months of reading, faffing, stressing and some (ahem LOTS) of reorganising my writing space, I finally have around 5000 words of fairly succinct explanation around my PhD topic and approach. And yes, I have worked out how much of my final thesis that equates to. And then immediately wished I hadn’t.

Now that this first hurdle is over, I really need to try hard to keep the momentum going and not sit back for a few weeks waiting for the comments to come in. So, I have devised a little plan of action for the next few weeks:

  • Plough through the ever-growing pile of articles bordering my writing space – I aim to read 2 articles a week, make notations and try and add a summary into my research notes.
  • Sign up to the EdD classes which start at my uni in Sep – these discussion sessions focus on methodologies and theories, which are both areas I need to focus on more.
  • Do some more blog posts! I think blogging about my theory and methodology reading might help me to negotiate some barriers.

Anyone else at a similar stage to me and have any tips/questions around where to go next and how to re-focus?

Pinning down my methodology: Part 2

The Kawa River Model

Having covered the basics of my methodology in Part 1, I now want to talk a bit about research design. Bear with me though, I am still very much on a learning curve with this stuff, so all the ideas are under development.

Why qualitative?

So, as I discussed in the previous post, I will be using a qualitative approach to do my data gathering, as I understand this will allow me to build up the most comprehensive picture of social impact definition, understanding and practices within the wider context of the participant subject areas and experiences.

Interviews and visual representation

I plan to carry out semi-structured depth interviews as well as asking participants to create visual representations of research journeys and social impact interpretations. I am choosing to use the depth interview rather than the structured interview to allow the participants to bring experiences, opinions and topics into the interview which they feel are key to the impact debate, rather than dictating the areas to be covered. This lets the participant be in charge of the conversation direction, hopefully leading to a much more relevant and contextualized set of data.

How to select the participants?

I did think about holding an initial workshop open to all researchers which would be used to identify appropriate researchers who would take part in the longer term case studies. However, I binned that idea after realising that it is too dependent on unpredictable nature of open invites: How many times have you been to/run a training session just to find that half the people don’t turn up? As my research is very dependent on covering a range of disciplines, it seems much more sensible to make a carefully planned selection than to leave it all to chance.

Which subject areas to cover

To make this selection, I will be using my existing contacts and project experiences to identify one researcher from the four broad discipline groupings across the University;

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)
  • Arts
  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences

These 4 researchers will be invited to take part in a long term case study over 12 months to explore their understanding and experiences of impact. The case study research will consist of a combination of in depth interviews which will then be transcribed, and visual methods including cognitive mapping and journey representation, possibly in a form similar to the KAWA model.

Making space for the story

I have always been interested in how people tell a story through their research in order to translate it into real-world scenarious and communities. By using the diverse qualitative methods above I hope to build a detailed picture of researcher experiences and give them space to explore their experiences of how impact is generated in their field of work.