ASET logo
[ EdTech'88 Contents ] [ EdTech Confs ]

Eliciting personal constructs of research, teaching and/or professional development

Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt
Griffith University

The purpose of this paper is to introduce a research methodology in higher education which enables us to elicit personal theories of several aspects of higher education, for example research, teaching, learning, professional development, etc. It is an alternative to the traditional methods of studying people's perceptions and perspectives, for example by questionnaire, interview, structured group discussion, etc.

It is important for anyone involved in effecting change in people, be they students or staff who want to learn and develop their knowledge and skills, to investigate the current state of the learner and to help him or her to articulate personal theories, to compare them with those of others, to negotiate their meaning, and to revise them continually. How can this be best achieved?

Traditional methods, such as the questionnaire and structured interview, have the advantage of allowing data collection from a statistically significant number of subjects, required in large scale quantitative studies; but they have the disadvantage of the researcher influencing the subjects' responses by means of questions or non-verbal suggestions. The language and criteria, determined by the 'expert' researcher, might be alien to the subjects' own personal construct systems and, therefore, be misunderstood by the subjects. Consequently, their responses are likely to be inaccurate or personally invalid. Interview data, whether collected in the form of written notes or transcribed from audio or video recordings, are always the product of an interactive communication. As Pope and Denicolo (1986) argue, the ensuing verbatim transcript is the result of several influencing factors: the interviewer's own personal intuitive theories; the questions in his/her mind which originally defined his/her research; his/her skills in perceptive listening and questioning techniques; and ideas and questions which develop during the interactions with the interviewee. Given these caveats and in order to circumvent them, this paper argues for the use of a more sensitive instrument, the repertory grid technique, by which people can construe their personal theories of a particular topic, without the researcher's influence, but by comparing people or things they know well from their previous experience and by expressing the similarities and differences in abstract terms.

The repertory grid technique has been widely used in psychology and management training. But very little research has been undertaken in higher education except in teacher education. Pope and Keen (1981) have applied personal construct theory to education in general; Diamond (1983, 1985) has used the repertory grid technique in secondary teacher training; Kevill et al. (1982) for course evaluation; Kevill and Shaw (1980) for evaluating staff-student interactions and teaching effectiveness.

This paper aims to show how this methodology can be used in higher education. It is structured in four parts. First, it outlines the theoretical framework of Kelly's Personal Construct Theory. Second, it explains the repertory grid technique based on Kelly's theory. Third, it presents some examples of recent case studies in higher education which have applied this methodology; and finally, some conclusions are drawn with suggestions for further research.

Kelly's Theory

Kelly's epistemological position is 'constructive alternativism', that is, the assumption that our present constructs or interpretations of the universe are subject to revision or replacement. This means that people understand themselves, their environment and anticipate future events by constructing tentative models or personal theories and by evaluation these theories against personal criteria as to whether the prediction and control of events (based upon the models) have been successful or not. All theories are hypotheses created by people which may be valid at any particular time, but may suddenly be invalid in some unforeseeable respect and replaced by a better theory.

On the basis of his epistemology, Kelly (1955, 1963) has developed his theory in terms of a fundamental postulate elaborated by eleven corollaries. The fundamental postulate refers to the basic assumption underlying his theory; the corollaries some of which are relevant to this paper are propositions which amplify his psychology of personal constructs.

Kelly's Fundamental Postulate reads: "A person's processes are psychologically channellised by the ways in which he anticipates events" (Kelly, 1963, 46). Kelly believes that science and theory building is not the prerogative of scientists, theorists or researchers, but that every human being is a 'personal scientist' and capable of creating theory at various levels. Personal scientists are engaged in a process of observation, interpretation, prediction and control. They erect for themselves a representational model of the world which guides their behaviour and action. This model is constantly tested, modified or replaced in order to allow better predictions and control in the future. People's behaviour in the present is determined by the way they anticipate events in the future through the use of personal constructs in order to forecast events (theory building) or to evaluate previous forecasts and their validity or efficiency (theory testing). This process of knowledge creation and constant review of one's knowledge is applicable to the researcher, to the learner in the formal education system, as well as to people in everyday life. The only difference is the level of theorisation and abstraction.

Kelly's fundamental postulate and his corollaries give a picture of the person/learner as a 'personal scientist', with a hierarchical construction system (organisation Corollary) which is personally unique (Individuality Corollary) and which can be explored by him/herself as well as by others (Sociality Corollary). Apart from their individuality, a group of people may be similar in terms of their construction of experience (Commonality Corollary). The development of intelligence or conceptual change depends on the permeability, ie. the degree of openness for change, of a person's constructs (Modulation Corollary) and on the balance between hierarchical integration and consistency of differing constructs on the one hand and their differentiation and inconsistency (Fragmentation Corollary) on the other. Finally, a person is not predetermined in his/her thinking, but can choose alternatives (Choice Corollary). His/her construing is both cognitive and emotional; the personal construct system is a holistic entity. If any part within the system is changed, this change will have implications for other parts of the total system. Although Kelly's view of a person is a holistic one, including cognitive functions and psychological feelings (for example fear, anxiety), as well as early experiences and social conditions, he writes almost exclusively about people as personal scientists and cognitive construers of knowledge about the world. For Kelly, learning is the active, creative, rational, emotional, intentional and pragmatic construction of reality. But he knows that all theories, including his own, are human hypotheses which may fit all requirements at a particular time, but may eventually be found wanting in some unforeseeable respect and, therefore, be replaced by a 'better theory'.

The repertory grid technique

The repertory grid technique is a powerful heuristic tool which can be used not only for eliciting personal constructs, but also as a basis for 'learning conversations' (Harri-Augstein and Thomas, 1979), formative group discussions, problem solving, negotiation of meaning, and decision making. It was designed by Kelly (1955) and further developed by Shaw (1980,1984) using computer technology. The repertory grid enables the researcher to elicit from subjects constructs which they customarily use in interpreting and predicting the behaviour of those people whom they know well and who are important in their lives. Another important factor is that this technique facilitates the elicitation of constructs and responses from subjects without influencing them by means of questions, as is the case in interviews or questionnaires, for example. The best definition of a repertory grid is given by Shaw (1984, 14):
A repertory grid is a two way classification of data in which events are interlaced with abstractions in such a way as to express part of a person's system of cross references between his personal observations or experience of the world (elements), and his personal classifications or abstractions of that experience (constructs). (Original emphasis)
In Kelly's method of eliciting personal constructs the subject nominates a certain number of people in his/her life (elements) and is required to compare them in triads and to say in which way two of the three elements - any two - differ from the third. The words or phrases resulting from this comparison form the construct pair. Thus, both the elements and the constructs are nominated by the subjects themselves.

Meanwhile, many forms of repertory grid technique have been developed, some of which represent a significant departure from Kelly's individuality corollary (ie. persons differ in their construction of events) in that they give the constructs to, rather than elicit them from, the subjects. This means, that the assumption behind the use of provided constructs is that people resemble each other in their construction of events. Another development of Kelly's original grid is to provide the elements, and only one construct, with the intention to compare individual grids and to arrive at a group (or mode) grid.

One example of a repertory grid to elicit personal constructs of teaching effectiveness is appended to this paper with instructions for completing, rating and interpreting the grid.

One example of a repertory grid to elicit personal constructs of teaching effectiveness is appended to this paper with instructions for completing, rating and interpreting the grid. Two elements ('self' and 'ideal self' as a teacher) and one construct (Effectiveness) are provided to make comparisons possible.

Applications in higher education

The following are examples of case studies which have applied Kelly's theory to higher education: three case studies of staff and postgraduate students' personal constructs of research effectiveness at universities in Australia, Great Britain and Germany, a repertory grid study of personal constructs of professional development and a case study of personal constructs of second language teaching.


In the series of case studies eliciting staff and postgraduate students' personal constructs of research effectiveness, the first study by Diamond and Zuber-Skerritt (1986) was conducted with eight Honours students in the social sciences at an Australian university and four staff members involved in teaching their methodology course and/or supervising their dissertations. Comparison between the computer analysed results of the pre-course grids and those of their post-course grids demonstrated considerable developmental changes in the students' perception of the scope, delineation and clearer definition of what constituted for them good, effective research. The staff learned to use the repertory grid technique as an aid to course evaluation by asking at the end of the course whether students' expectations of research (as delineated in the pre-course mode grid) had been fulfilled.

The second study was conducted by the author (Zuber-Skerritt, 1987a) with six staff and six postgraduate students (MPhil and PhD) in a British University, all engaged in some aspect of educational research. On the one hand, the study demonstrated the use and potential power of the repertory grid for better understanding one's own and others' constructs of research and for more fully appreciating different points of view. On the other hand, it pointed to its potential danger and abuse. For a repertory grid can be used as a basis for sharing and negotiating meaning with others, in order to solve a particular problem or to make decisions, or it can be a very private matter and should be treated confidentially. But each participant must decide whether the use should be private or public.

The third study in this series (Zuber-Skerritt, 1988) conducted with five academic staff and seven postgraduate students at a German university demonstrates how the repertory grid may be used to elicit, discuss and negotiate staff and students' individual constructs of research, with the result of a greater group consensus and a clearer picture of their shared criteria of research effectiveness. Many of these criteria cannot be transferred to any other group of researchers, because they vary for each group. But this case study provides an example of the kinds of answer we may expect to the question: What constitutes effective research? And it illustrates the use of a method and procedures by which the answers can be found. The significance of the three studies relates to the exploration of both the topic of research effectiveness and the use of the repertory grid technology. Similar studies may be conducted on the same topic in other disciplines using the repertory grid technique with or without the computer analyses.

Professional development

Another area in higher education which can be explored by means of the repertory grid technique is professional development. One study (Zuber-Skerritt, 1987b) suggests that the seven teaching academics at an Australian university whose personal theories of professional development were elicited and who all had experienced at least six different methods of professional development, including action research, believe that the best way to learn about university teaching is not to be given information and advice (on how to improve teaching) by outside experts who determine what academics need to know. Rather, their theory of professional development is that academics can and should try to learn about teaching as they do in their research about their discipline or particular subject area, ie. as personal scientists (Kelly, 1963) and problem solvers, through active involvement, practical experience and reflection about the experience (Kolb, 1984; Carr and Kemmis, 1986). An important condition is that these developmental activities be personally initiated, self directed and consciously controlled by the university teachers themselves. This kind of self professional development is directly relevant to the teachers' needs; and as one academic put it, it is active, productive and creative in practice.


Finally, the repertory grid may be used to elicit personal constructs of learning and teaching. For example, in a study (Zuber-Skerritt, in press) of eight language teachers at an Australian university, as part of a wider study on attrition in second language learning, it was important to establish what the three Asian language teaching terms considered as constituents of effective teaching. their agreement on mutual criteria can be used in the evaluation of their practice.


The above repertory grid studies suggest that this technique is a powerful heuristic tool in higher education, not only to elicit people's present personal constructs of research, teaching and professional development from the researcher's perspective, but, moreover, to help staff and students to become aware of their own and other people's personal perspectives of professional or academic aspects in higher education, and to use the grid results as a basis for discussion, negotiation of meaning with colleagues, and for decision making. Where comparisons of mutual elements and/or constructs are possible, computer technology can be used for a more sophisticated data analysis (Straw, 1984) which is helpful for the participants' discussion and possible group consensus leading to mutual criteria of effectiveness which may be used for the evaluation of practice.

However, the repertory grid technique could not be used as a research method without having the participants discuss, negotiate and confirm the results presented by the researcher. It is mainly an instrument to focus a group discussion on some constructs we may share and agree upon, in this case on constructs of effective research, teaching or professional development. So the limitations are that these persona! theories are not necessarily generalisable and valid to other university staff and students, although they are of direct, practical importance to the staff and students involved in the particular study. Other researchers and teachers cannot rely on the content of the personal theorising by participants in a case study as 'objective knowledge', but they may use the methodology in order to elicit their own theories in their particular context.

It is hoped that this paper might stimulate further research and development in higher education by similar applications of Kelly's theory and the repertory grid technique to other areas of higher education, wherever people's personal perceptions and perspectives differ or need to be more explicit, or agreed upon, for example, with respect to effective team work, committee work, administration, etc. This technique could also be applied to student learning, individually and/or in groups, for example in the area of effective study methods, such as essay writing, reading and note taking for academic purposes, discussion skills in tutorials, etc.


Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical: Education, Knowledge and Action Research. Falmer Press, London.

Diamond, P. (1983). "Theoretical positions": A comparison of intending and experienced teachers' constructs. The South Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 11(1), 43-53.

Diamond, P. (1985). Becoming a teacher: an altering eye. In D. Bannister (ed), Issues and Approaches in Personal Construct Theory. Academic Press, London, 15-35.

Diamond, P. and Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1986). Postgraduate research: Some changing personal constructs in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 5(2), 161-175.

Harri-Augstein, S. and Thomas, L. F. (1979). Self-organised learning and the relativity of knowing: towards a conversational methodology. In P. Stringer and D. Bannister (eds), Constructs of Sociality and Individuality. Academic Press, London, 115- 132.

Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Volumes 1 and 2. Norton, New York.

Kelly, G. A. (1963). A Theory of Personality. Norton, New York.

Kevill, F. M. and Shaw, M. L. G. (1980). A repertory grid study of staff-student interactions. Psychology Teaching, 8(1), 29-36.

Kevill, F., Shaw, M. and Goodacre, E. (1982). In-service diploma course evaluation using repertory grids. British Educational Research Journal, 8(1),45-56.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Pope, M. L. and Keen, T. R. (1981). Personal Construct Psychology and Education. Academic Press, London.

Pope, M. and Denicolo, P. (1986). Intuitive theories - a researcher's dilemma: Some practical methodological implications. British Educational Research Journal, 12(2), 153-166.

Shaw, M. L. G. (1980). On Becoming a Personal Scientist: Interactive Computer Elicitation of Personal Models of the World. Academic Press, London.

Shaw, M. L. G. (1984). PLANET: Personal Learning, Analysis, Negotiation and Elicitation Techniques. Department of Computer Science, York University, Ontario, Canada.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1987a). A repertory grid study of staff and students' personal constructs of educational research. Higher Education, 16, 603-623.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1987b). Action Research in Higher Education - The Advancement of University Learning and Teaching. PhD Thesis, Deakin University, Victoria.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1988). What constitutes effective research? - A case study. Higher Education in Europe, 3.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (in press). Personal constructs of second language teaching.

Appendix: Repertory Grid Form

Constructs of Teaching for Self and Colleagues

Subject area:
Emergent Pole ElementsImplicit Pole

With their attributes as teachers in mind, what do the pair have in common?E1 E2E3E4E5E6 With their attributes as teachers in mind, what makes the other teacher different?











Appendix: Repertory Grid Instructions

Constructs of Effective Teaching for Self and Colleagues

The grid you are about to complete will help us understand your personal constructs about teaching effectiveness. A construct is a way in which two things are similar and yet different from a third. It can be a short phrase or just one word. It is bipolar, for example efficient/ inefficient. To establish your constructs you will be asked to compare different attributes of teachers you personally know.
  1. Instructions for Elicitation

    1. Please write your name, date and your teaching subject area at the top of the attached forms.

    2. We want you to focus your thoughts on your own concepts of effective teachers. You need to select six teachers you know well, two of whom refer to you. Begin by placing your own initials in the box with E1 (element 1). This represents you yourself now as a teacher. Now place your initial with a "+" with E2 to represent you as the (ideal) kind of teacher you want to become. This is, column 1 for each of us represents "the teacher I am" and column 2 "the teacher I want to become" . Place the initials of four other teachers you know well in the boxes E3 to E6.

    3. You will note that three of the squares in each horizontal line have circles in them (for example E1, E2 and E3 in line 1). Please consider these first three elements (ie. teachers 1-3 in line 1) and determine how any two of these are similar for you and different from the third. When you have decided which two are similar and the important way in which they are alike as teachers, put an "X" in the two circles corresponding to the two which are alike. Do NOT put any mark in the third circle.

    4. Now in the blank under 'Emergent Pole' still for line 1, write the word or short phrase that tells how these two are alike. Next write in blank under 'Implicit Pole' how the third element is different from the other two. There are no right or wrong answers in this procedure.

    5. Now go to line 2. Think about the elements circled (ie. E4, E5 and E6). Put an "X" in the circles to show which two are alike. Write the construct pair (consisting of the emergent pole and the implicit pole) in the blanks just as you did before.

    6. Complete lines 3-8 in the same way as you did for the first two.

  2. Instructions for Rating

    1. Please rate each of your teachers on a five-point scale for each construct: Give rating 1 for at least one of the most alike pair (whom you crossed) and 5 for the singleton (circled, but not crossed by you), irrespective of whether the description is 'good' or 'bad'. Rate all other elements accordingly, dependent on whether they are more like the pair description (ie. 1-3) or more like the singleton description (ie. 3-5).

    2. Finally rate each teacher for overall effectiveness. Give ratings of 1 for the most effective teacher(s) through to ratings of 5 for the least effective.

  3. Instructions for Scoring and Interpreting your Grid

      This is a simple way of scoring your form. The idea is to identify which of your views are most closely linked with the judgements you have made about the overall effectiveness of your six teachers.

    1. Write the ratings you gave the teachers for overall effectiveness on a scrap of paper.

    2. We need to establish the differences between these ratings and all the other sets of ratings you have recorded in the middle panel of the form. A convenient way to do this is to use the scrap paper with the overall ratings on it as a mask. Simply align it with a set of ratings, establish the above differences (no need for minus signs or anything like that), record the sum of the differences in the margin on the right hand side of the form and move on to the next set or row.

    3. Low scoring differences such as zero, one, two, three, even four indicate views that are closely associated with your judgements about effectiveness. High scoring items, anything scoring 12 and above, indicate one of two things:

      Either the high scoring items are not closely linked with your judgements of effectiveness;

      Or, the left-hand and right-hand descriptions might need to be switched round.

    4. Check this by re-scoring the items but this time with the overall effectiveness ratings reversed.

      So if your effectiveness ratings - the ones you put on the scrap paper mask just now - were

        5   1   3   4   1   2

      reverse them to become

        1   5   3   2   5   4

      and use the reversed ratings to re-score all the other sets of ratings.

    5. Whenever you find that the new score (using the reversed ratings) is lower than the previous score it indicates that the left and right-hand descriptions need to be swapped over. (Put R in the right-hand margin and put a tick if NOT R).

    6. That's it. The number crunching is over! Now you can see which of your views (about how teachers teach) are closely linked to your judgements about their respective effectiveness.

      Your lowest scoring items, including any that were re-scored using reversed ratings, are most closely associated with your effectiveness judgements.

      Your highest scoring items are least associated with your effectiveness judgements.

    7. Write (print) your lowest scoring items on a sheet of paper with your name on it and return it with your form to us for confidential, more sophisticated computer analysis. (Keep a copy, if you like).
Thanking you for your collaboration.

Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt and Pat Diamond

Please cite as: Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1988). Eliciting personal constructs of research, teaching and/or professional development. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 126-135. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications.

[ EdTech'88 contents ] [ EdTech Confs ] [ ASET home ]
This URL:
© 1988 The authors and ASET. Last revised 12 May 2003. HTML editor: Roger Atkinson
Previous URL 26 Apr 1998 to 30 Sep 2002: