The concept map: a learning tool for any subject

The concept map: a learning tool for any subject

What are concept maps?

Concept maps are visual diagrams representing how a particular concept or idea is related to other ideas, terms, topics, or processes.  Concept maps can be used for any skill level and with any subject matter. Though concept maps can take many forms, they commonly include both ‘nodes’ (concepts) and ‘arcs’ (linking lines denoting relationships) (see the gardening example below).

Concept maps are particularly useful as a teaching tool in that “in addition to showing what knowledge a student holds, concept maps also illustrate how that knowledge is arranged in the student’s mind” (Kinchin & Hay 2000, p.52).

3 great uses for concept maps in your classroom

Concept map about gardening, with many sub-balloons and arcs connecting them. By Noelle BoucqueyWhy should you use concept maps in your teaching? Concept maps can help your students develop sophisticated thinking and also help you assess what students are learning.  

Get a baseline assessment of what students know

Concept maps are great for exploring what knowledge students are bringing to your class. Research has shown that concept maps are as effective as personal interviews at revealing patterns of knowledge about particular subjects (Kinchin & Hay 2000). If you have a few core topics you expect to cover in class, try asking your students to create concept maps on one or more of these topics. Then review these for patterns in how the students are depicting the topics (are they missing key connections to other ideas? Are they drawing erroneous relationships?), and make changes to your lesson plans accordingly.

Help students achieve meaningful learning

Perhaps the most important use of concept maps is in fostering the type of learning that cognitive psychologists and education scholars denote as ‘meaningful.’ As opposed to rote learning or memorization, ‘meaningful’ learning occurs when students actively “integrate new information with existing relevant information” in their minds (Novak 2010, p.60). This type of meaningful learning helps to enhance the retention of new concepts as well as enable the future application of such concepts to new situations (Novak 2010).  

Three students in a classroom working on a concept map together. Photo courtesy of Noelle Boucquey.The process of creating a concept map enhances meaningful learning by requiring students to think about the relationships among different ideas. It is one thing to pick out a term from a multiple-choice definition set; it is quite another to demonstrate a deep understanding of that term by mapping out where it fits into a larger schematic of related concepts.

When introducing a new idea, encourage students to ‘struggle through’ depicting it in a concept map. Since each student will be starting from a different cognitive framework, it may be productive to have students work together on creating a map, so that they also discuss and debate amongst themselves how to depict relationships (Kinchin & Hay 2000). You can also ‘scaffold’ their learning by giving students lists of core concepts and linking words to use in creating their first concept maps (Novak 2010).

You can even take students’ metacognitive learning further by helping them to recognize what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it. For instance, have them create initial and post-lesson or post-course concept maps, and explain the evolution in their learning.

Assess the effectiveness of your course material

You can also use concept maps for end-of-course assessments, to guide potential changes you might make for the following year (What did everyone ‘get’? What concepts you thought were important have gone missing? What links between concepts have been misunderstood?).

For example, Stanford mechanical engineering professor Sheri Sheppard, along with undergraduate student Ruben Pierre-Antoine and Mark Schar of the Center for Design Research, recently used concept maps to evaluate how to improve an engineering course curriculum (Pierre-Antoine, Sheppard, and Schar 2014).  In their study, students were given a list of course topics and asked to create concept maps. The authors then analyzed the maps for the main focus (central terms) of the students and how they were connected. They found that while key aspects of the course were well-represented (such as project analysis), other concepts important to the professors (such as ethics) were missing. The results helped the team make changes to the course and illustrated that “professors can gain insight into what it is like to be a student of their class” by using concept maps (Pierre-Antoine, Sheppard, and Schar 2014, p.8).

How have you used concept maps in your class? Share here!

References and Resources

Kinchin, Ian M., David B. Hay, and Alan Adams. “How a Qualitative Approach to Concept Map Analysis Can Be Used to Aid Learning by Illustrating Patterns of Conceptual Development.” Educational Research 42, no. 1 (2000): 43–57.

Novak, Joseph D. Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations. Routledge, 2010.

Novak, Joseph D. “Concept Maps and Vee Diagrams: Two Metacognitive Tools to Facilitate Meaningful Learning.” Instructional Science 19, no. 1 (January 1, 1990): 29–52. doi:10.1007/BF00377984.

Pierre-Antoine, Ruben, Sheri D. Sheppard, and Mark Schar. “Utilizing Concept Maps to Improve Engineering Course Curriculum in Teaching Mechanics.” Paper given at the 121st American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, IN June 15-18, 2014. Paper #10682. Appendix (example of more successful worksheet). Slides from presentation.