Don’t let your students fall off the concept map!

Maps can be amazing things — they can not only reveal what is there, and how things are connected, but also how to navigate and master a terrain. Of course, some maps are more amazing than others…

For high-impact pedagogy that can apply in a variety of situations, though, the concept map can be hard to beat. A “concept map” is defined by Cañas and Novak of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in this way:

Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts.

If you’re unfamiliar with concept maps and their potential uses for student brainstorming, classroom discussion, and assessment of learning, check out this brief, useful video by Karen Rohrbauck Stout from Western Washington University’s Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment.

I experimented with concept mapping in my Rhetorical Theory class last year. While I found it a great tool for guiding class discussion in a way that helped students define tools and shape the key ideas of a theoretical perspective, I had less success helping students use concept mapping independently to study course material.

If you’re unsure about incorporating concept maps in your classes (especially if you’ve tried, crashed and burned before, or heard of someone who has), Maryellen Weimer‘s advice might help you rethink how to use this potentially powerful tool for student learning.

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Keeping Students on Board with Concept Maps

Written by: Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D.
Published On: August 25, 2014

The benefits of concept maps are well established. They encourage students to organize knowledge and do so in ways meaningful to them. They help students sort out, prioritize, and understand relationships between terms, concepts, and ideas. Students can also use concept maps to forge relationships between new knowledge and what they already know.

But students don’t always see these benefits when first introduced to concept maps, and as the authors of the article referenced below discovered, how concept maps are used in a course directly affects student perceptions of their value.

The case in point here involved four physiology courses: endocrinology, exercise physiology, immunology, and neurophysiology. Concept maps were used in all those courses, but instructors used them in very different ways. Students were surveyed and interviewed about their experiences with concept maps. Based on relatively positive experiences in one class and less positive ones in other classes, the authors offer advice for using concept maps in four areas.

Structure—In one of the courses, students were asked to create a map at the beginning of the semester and add new material to it on a daily basis. Students strongly objected to this approach. They found constructing a map this large and comprehensive a daunting and difficult task. Smaller map projects did not engender this degree of negative response.

Feedback—In all the courses, students felt they needed more feedback from the instructors. Instructors didn’t provide feedback because concept mapping was not a graded activity in any of these courses. Some student comments indicated that they believed that there was a “right” concept map and they wanted to compare what they had created with what the teacher considered a “correct” configuration of concepts or ideas. In preparing students for a concept mapping activity, teachers might want to explain that although some map representations might be “better” than others, there are many “right” ways to organize or relate a set of concepts or ideas.

Exam alignment—Students were most positive about the use of concept maps in the endocrinology course, and that was because students saw them as a valuable exam preparation tool. Concept maps were not used on the exams in that course, but concept map material appeared in matching, multiple-choice, and essay questions. The authors recommend that teachers enhance the value of concept maps in this way or by actually having students construct concept maps in response to exam questions.

Learning styles and study habits—Some students reported that concept mapping was not consistent with the way they typically reviewed and studied course content. There were less of those comments made by endocrinology students, who did not create maps alone outside of class. They constructed their maps during recitation sections and were encouraged to interact with each about their maps. They also received some instructor feedback during this time. It may have been easier for students to see the value of concept mapping under these conditions.

College courses should expose students to a range of different study strategies. As the experiences reported in this article illustrate, how they are introduced to a new activity, how the teacher supports their efforts to use the new approach, and how the new strategy is integrated with other course activities all contribute to the overall experience and the perceived value students attribute to the activity.

Reference: Bentley, F.J.B., Kennedy, S., and Semsar, K. (2011). How not to lose your students with concept maps. Journal of College Science Teaching, 41 (1), 61-68.

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