Monday, July 12, 2010

Concept maps: THE tool for learners?

Learning (be it as a scientist, a teacher, a student, or any combination of the above, this will be the topic of another blog) is a difficult process, as any scientist, teacher, or student will tell you. However, sometimes you get struck by lightening, by an experience that makes you wonder, "How did I ever function without this?". 3 years ago, I was introduced to concept mapping by Steve Crawford, but I am not exactly sure how we got on this subject. Probably one of those serendipitous moments in life, instigated by being on the same floor and bumping into each other (location, location, location). Steve even has a whole room set up to use concept mapping for his research (yes, I am only a little bit jealous).

I used it for the first, haphazardly I have to admit, in Fall 2008 for Biology of Polluted Waters. I did give students to choice between either creating concepts using pen and paper, or computer software, and they only had to use it for the semester-long assignment. This was a mixed success, because I forgot rule number 1 when teaching: start small, and practice. I added more information on concept mapping in Winter 2009 for Community Ecology, but only really committed in the Summer and Fall of 2009, with providing guidelines on how to use and construct concept maps, specific exercises, grading rubrics (bad ones, updated them since), moving focus away from writing to concept maps, including them in all part of the learning experience.

It is such an important tool that I also force all my grad students (and I try this with all my collaborators as well), to construct a concept map before sending me any written text. If they do send me a written text first, I often have to quickly create a concept map before I can read the text again, and I send them the concept map first before rewriting the text. That is why concept mapping earns a separate commandment in The Cottenie Commandments.

So I do think they are an important tool for learners. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but I want to point out 2.

  • Firstly, it is a very intuitive way of presenting and working with information. The example I use in one of my classes is this diagram by Richard Scarry (I got this idea from the book "Advanced Presentations by Design, from Andrew Abela", highly recommended):

  • Second, it provides a very efficient way of taking information and working with it to come up with the intuitive presentation. One of the best examples to illustrate this transformation of complexity to a structured, logical, intuitive representation of information is by somebody who makes his living doing this (and I can use another TED talk again). Why do I like this example so much: almost everybody has a credit card, but hardly anybody reads the agreement (at least I do not) because of the complexity of the language and the document. But reading the one pager that has all the necessary information, waw. 

As you can see, these 2 examples are not your regular examples of concept maps. Why did I take these two examples? Because they also illustrate that concept maps and concept mapping should never be the goal or the objective, which is ultimately about information presentation. I am convinced, though, that they were an important tool, either explicitly or implicitly, in creating these two presentations. Do I have proof of this? No, but we are working on a study that will test the potential relationship between concept mapping and critical thinking.


  1. Good TED talk, I especially like the line: "There's no way that we should allow government to communicate the way they communicate."

    We could also substitute "government" for "scientists"...?

  2. Guilty as charged, it is hard to get 15 years of hardwiring out of my system.