A1 Concept mapping

Learning from the PEEL Experience, page 218
June 1995

Concept mapping is a procedure that assists students in their understanding of the connections between the major concepts in a content area. The process also requires students to understand the concepts themselves. It is a procedure that has consistently worked early in the change process. It looks a "legitimate" task to students and teachers, but demonstrably engages students in different, and improved, learning. It can be used in a range of ways and it has been common to see improved linking in students questions and comments.

In a concept map some terms are arranged on a piece of paper and each is connected by lines to as many others as is sensibly possible. On every line is written the nature of the connection the learner is making. Drawing concept maps requires students to form links - usually many more links than they would make while reading notes or participating in a lesson. Because one sequence must be chosen in classrooms or textbooks to present ideas and events, students commonly fail to think about linking ideas which appeared 3 weeks or 15 pages apart - they display "linear learning". Depending on the types of terms chosen the teacher can stimulate different types of links.

Concept maps can be used in a number of ways for different purposes. As some of these purposes are mutually exclusive, teachers need to be clear as to why they are using a concept map on any particular occasion. Various features of concept maps are discussed next.

  1. Concept maps are a powerful diagnostic tool. Diagnosis requires not just looking for correct/incorrect links, but reading what students say and using this to help decide what they currently believe. For instance in the example shown in Figure 1, the student firstly does not link between photosynthesis and any of the energy concepts and secondly seems to regard photosynthesis (which is a process) as a place - a part of the leaf.

    Figure 1 Concept Map of Photosynthesis

  2. Concept maps can be used either early in a unit of work as one way of probing the ideas students hold, or later in the unit to monitor student progress (see Using Concept Maps as A Before and After). In the former case, as with all probes of student views, it is essential that students are not assessed or judged; the teacher should stress that the maps are being used to identify the range of views in the class.
  3. Concept maps can give valuable feedback on the effectiveness of previous teaching. Weaknesses in the teaching are often reflected in a particular link or links being incorrect or missed in many maps.
  4. Including one or two of the activities done by the class as terms on the map, such as "experiment 3" and a "zoo excursion", will promote reflection on the purposes of the activities.
  5. Asking students to replace one concept with another on a completed map and then make the adjustments they see necessary, can focus on their understanding of the similarities and differences between the terms. For the concept map in Figure 1, replacing photosynthesis with respiration focuses on the relationships between these two processes.
  6. Including a relevant application, such as "light bulb", with electricity concepts can give information about the ways students are linking science concepts with their everyday world.
  7. Concept maps can provide excellent summaries of units of work. When used in this way, the students need a more complete list of concepts than for some other purposes.
  8. Maps can be used to help students integrate a new concept into their thinking. After they have produced a concept map using known concepts, introduce and discuss the new concept and then ask them to add the new concept to their map.
  9. Concept maps are an excellent stimulus for small group or whole class discussion. English teachers in particular have found that generating maps such as that in Figure 2 stimulates high quality discussion and analysis of literature.
  10. Concept maps are a powerful way of stimulating higher order thinking. Maps can force students to link ideas in new ways. The more widely separated the terms, such as terms from both chemistry and biology, the more divergent is the thinking promoted.

We have found students learn to use concept maps fairly quickly - after two or three attempts most students are quite competent. However these first one or two attempts do involve a different and difficult task for students; a little time and encouragement is essential if negative reactions are to be avoided. We offer the following advice for training students, particularly younger students, to use this procedure.

  1. Show the students a completed example. This applies to many procedures - students need to be able to imagine the final product.
  2. Begin with a simple and familiar example. A good start is to have the links definitional, such as contour line, altitude, map and slope. If the students are working alone, use only 4 to 6 concepts. If they are working in pairs, more concepts can be used.
  3. Emphasise the importance of thinking about all possible links and writing on the links. These are the two most common sources of errors with inexperienced users.
  4. Do not expect students first attempts to be good. If the attempts are poor, give students a second attempt at the same map, perhaps with one or two extra terms.
  5. For the first map they attempt, give a suggested layout for the concepts, or even give one possible link.
  6. It is vital to stress that there is no one correct answer; layouts can vary, more than one form of appropriate link between a pair of concepts is often possible, and there are occasions when it is not clear whether a link exists.
  7. Before and after the first attempt, discuss some of the different sorts of links that are possible in order to broaden the students perspectives about what kinds of links can be constructed.

The next five pieces of advice are relevant once students are familiar with the procedure.

  1. Generally we would suggest using 7 to 10 terms only (see Figure 2). However, more can usefully be used where some terms have only 1 or 2 links, and where there is a strong hierarchy of concepts. For instance, the map of rock, sedimentary, lava, slate, marble, metamorphic, granite, igneous, shale, pumice, magma, limestone and sediment contains a manageable number of links even though there are 13 terms.

    Figure 2 Concept Map on Romeo & Juliet

  2. Require students to organise their own layout of concepts.  Giving students a suggested layout can prompt them in ways that reduces the effectiveness of the procedure.  On the other hand, giving suggestions about how to form their layout can be helpful to students.  These suggestions would include thinking about the number of links a concept has, putting linked concepts close to each other and non-linked apart, beginning with the concept(s) they see as the key or most central ones in terms of links.  Our usual advice is to put the central concept(s) in the middle of the diagram, as in Figure 1.  Others have suggested putting the central concept(s) at the top.
  3. Initially it is best to select terms from a small area of content because the links are fairly easy to find. However the most powerful thinking comes when the terms are drawn from much broader domains: whole units, groups of units and even different subjects.  In other words, choose some terms which will generate quite new linking.
  4. A concept map of a novel can include the names of characters as well as concepts, and often the names of objects, if they symbolise concepts.  Figure 2 shows a concept map of the play Romeo and Juliet.

    Another variation, called a relationship map, includes only the names of characters. Students have to link the characters by explaining the relationships between them.  This requires the students to provide the concepts.

  5. The task can be varied for students experienced in mapping by asking them to select the concepts.  This can be done at the end of a topic, or from a chapter of a textbook, or from their class notes (see Developing Effective Note-Taking Skills).  This variation can be very valuable in that they have to both identify the concepts they perceive to be significant and map them. A half-way position is obviously possible - give students some concepts and invite them to add others if they feel others are needed.

With younger students concept maps can be made more engaging by constructing the map on a table top. The selected items can be linked with masking tape with the connection written on the tape. (Concept Mapping SEEDS 97 p24)