Concept maps II

A couple of pointers on how to use concept maps in class.

I recently presented concept maps as a tool both here and in a workshop I co-taught. And I  was pleasantly surprised by how many people said that they were considering employing this tool in their class! So for those of you who might want to use it – here are some more pointers of how I used it. But beware – there is a whole body of literature on this method out there – these are only my own experiences!

So. Firstly – for concept maps to work in class you will have to introduce them the first time round you are using them. What I did was to start drawing a concept maps on the board, and have students tell me what else to add to it and how. I used “roses” as my example, with the question of how roses and people interact.

The way it developed was that students named different parts of roses (stems, petals, thorns, …) and that roses can both hurt people (with their thorns) and make people happy (because of the way they look, because of what they symbolize, because of the context they are presented in, …), that roses use up CO2 and produce O2 which is relevant for us, that roses need soil, that they might need fertilizer, that they become soil again when they die. As you can see, even this very simple example can already produce quite a complex concept map. And it gave me the chance to point out all the different features I wanted the students to include, but without me actually having to give away concepts and connections that I thought were important for the topic they were later working on.

Another very important point: Bring sheets of paper. There will already be enough resistance against trying this (and any) new method – don’t give the students the chance to boycott it because they don’t have anything to write on!

And most importantly – enjoy. It is really amazing to see concept maps develop over time, and it is even more amazing to see how students enjoy seeing their progress mapped out by their maps.

Concept maps

Drawing concept maps at the beginning, the middle and the end of the course.

Using concept maps in teaching is something that I first tried last year in both the GEOF130 and CMM31 courses. The idea is that coming in, students typically don’t have a very good overview over the topics and concepts that are going to be covered in an introductory oceanography class, but that that will hopefully change over the course of the course.

The reason for trying to use concept maps in teaching was twofold.

Firstly, I wanted students to see how they gradually learned more and more about oceanography, and how they started to see connections between concepts that initially did not seem related.

Secondly, I am a big concept- or mind-map drawer whenever I need to study complex topics. For every big examination at university, be it in physics or ship-building or oceanography, I have drawn concept maps (even though at the time I didn’t know they were called that, and I was using them intuitively to organize my thoughts, rather than purposefully using them as a method). So why not try if it helps students study, too?

So how did it work in practice? Students were asked to draw concept maps during the first lecture, during a lecture some time half-way through the course, and at the end of the course. I collected and scanned the concept maps (out of my own curiosity) but students always had access to them and were encouraged to work on them any time they wanted to. Concept maps got impressively complex fairly quickly, and students reported that the maps helped them both to see their progress and to organize their thoughts.

For one of the courses, I used the concept maps as basis for the oral examination in the end (which was a lot more time-intensive to prepare on my part than I had imagined, and I wouldn’t do that again) and for part of the grade. For that, I had written down a list of concepts that I thought they should definitely have learned in my course, and a list of connection between concepts that I thought were crucial, and I just counted them and ticked them off on a list. Again, this was a lot of work and I am not sure if I would do it again. Not because it was so much work, but because I am not sure if by grading basically whether students went through the table of contents of the textbook and made sure all the headings were included in the map, I am encouraging just that and nothing more (although I actually don’t think this is what happened in either of the courses, but still, thinking of constructive alignment, basically naming concepts is not a learning outcome I want from my class).

So in conclusion, I would definitely use concept maps in teaching again (Isn’t it impressive to see the maps develop?), but not as a tool for evaluation.

P.S.: A big THANK YOU! to the student whose concept maps I am showing here (and who wishes to remain anonymous, but kindly agreed to let me use them as an example).