Course Design Tool: the Concept Map

Course Design Tool: the Concept Map

This is the first in a series of blog posts from the Course Design Institute, a 4-day workshop for faculty on how to design and teach a course from the ground up.  The first day of the CDI focused on the task of figuring out what students need to know, and what to teach in the course.

Knowledge gap overview

It may be easy to overlook, but there is a giant gulf between your knowledge framework, as a professor or TA, and the understanding your students are trying to build.

When students walk into your classroom, they are in a state of "unconscious incompetence"--that is, they don't know what they don't know.  Conversely, you are in a state of "unconscious competence."  You intuitively and subconsciously make decisions about how to approach a problem or evaluate an idea, and can fluidly move between multiple representations of the task as you work through it.  

As your disgruntled students might put it, you can quickly get the right answer, you just can't explain how you did it.

The “expert blind spot”

Worse, it's easy to come across as condescending and rude when this "expert blind spot" prevents you from remembering that a concept is genuinely difficult.  Comments such as, "clearly we can infer..." or "it should be obvious that..." slip easily from our expert tongues, but they demean our students for whom the concepts are not at all clear or obvious.

How might we become more aware of our own expertise and reduce this blind spot?  One such method that we've used in the Course Design Institute is to draw a concept map.

Map your knowledge

CDI participant Markus Pelger drawing a colorful concept map on a whiteboard. Photo by Steven Bell.Take a piece of paper and begin writing down the key concepts from your course.  As you go, begin drawing links to fill in the relationships between concepts.  For example, "X is prerequisite knowledge for Y", or "A is a specialization of B", or "C is a parallel concept to D".  

It doesn't matter where you start, or how you lay out your map.  The important thing is to keep probing the various concepts you've written down, expanding them and drawing out the connections to other topics.  You're trying to answer the question, "What does it take to think like an expert in your field?"

You'll find that as you go, more and more ideas emerge.  You may even find that the topic connections or organization themes are different than you had initially supposed.  After going through this process during the CDI, one faculty member observed, "I had started with a list of topics, but I found I wasn't identifying the real topics."

As you map out your knowledge, you may find new threads of understanding or new ways of organizing your course content.  You may find that you need to include additional material to prepare students for concepts you initially thought were straightforward, or that you need to explain a thinking process in more detail.  

If nothing else, the exercise will help you become aware of the richly connected way in which you think about your discipline, and give you a concrete base as you attempt to pass this web of knowledge to your students.

Next up: How the academic calendar and other time factors should influence your course planning.

Headshot, Steven BellSteven Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in Electrical Engineering, where he helped to create and teach a popular "maker-centric" introduction to EE.



See Also

The concept map: a learning tool for any subject discusses using concept maps as a learning activity for your students.