Connections with Concept Maps
McAllister, TRC Faculty Consultant andDepartment of History
accustomed to writing about academic subjects, but have you ever asked
them to draw a "picture" of how they comprehend a topic? Commonly
known as "concept maps," this technique calls upon students
to create diagrams, drawings, or some other non-narrative representation
to display their understanding. This task requires students to think in
a holistic fashion, to make connections between seemingly disparate bits
of information, and to select key features to highlight. The procedure
helps students create conceptual paradigms to store information, and to
unearth relationships they had not previously discovered.
as important, examining students' responses can yield useful insights
for instructors. Concept maps can be used to gain a better understanding
of how students think, certainly an elusive and perplexing topic for many
University teachers. Concept maps stress the importance of relationships,
a higher-order thinking skill most instructors wish to instill in students
grappling with complex material. Moreover, released from the bonds of
writing linear narrative, students often respond with a burst of creativity
that enhances enthusiasm and interest in the subject.
concept maps can be as simple as asking students to make one on the spot.
Several years ago I taught the Western Civilization History survey. After
two days of careful lecturing about the intricacies of the French Revolution,
a very complex and important period, I asked students to "draw"
the events of 1788-1794 without relying on words, text, or linear depictions
(such as a cartoon presented in chronological order). I gave them only
ten minutes, urged them to focus on content rather than making them look
"pretty," and collected their handiwork. The results were fascinating;
I reproduced several examples on
overhead transparencies and showed them to the class, prompting further
I asked my University Seminar students to create a concept map incorporating
the salient points of John Burnham's Bad Habits, a central text
for the semester. I gave them two weeks' notice, and presented a rough
example of my own attempt to show how the key elements fit together. (I
used an airplane analogy, which I thought rather clever, but the students
didn't seem overly impressed.) On the appointed day, students displayed
an impressive variety of approaches to mapping the important relationships,
several utilizing color in dramatic and effective ways. I paired the students
so each could talk at some length about their depiction with a colleague,
and then I randomly selected several to present their work to the whole
class. The exercise proved valuable for students by presenting them with
alternative ways of conceptualizing a difficult text. I found it useful
for gaining a deeper understanding of my students' cognitive processes
and interpretative skills. It was also, frankly, a lot of fun, with students
exuding an enthusiasm reminiscent of show-and-tell from one's youth.
If you would
like to find out more about incorporating concept maps into your teaching,
the TRC has several readings on the subject, and TRC personnel can consult
with you about specific strategies for implementation.