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Interesting articles and the latest innovations in teaching and technology will be listed here and updated monthly.  This month's article is from the USAFA Educator, Volume VII, Issue 1, Fall 1998.  It was written by a friend that has been recognized as an outstanding teacher by several institutions.   We hope that you will find his article on "concept mapping" interesting and useful. 

A Primer on Concept Maps

 Dr. Robert Noyd, Department of Biology, United States Air Force Academy 

With all the emphasis on developing higher-ordered thinking skills, it is easy to overlook the fact that before students can think critically about content, they must first understand its basic terminology, the concepts represented, and the relationships between these concepts. Thus, learning subject matter content becomes a mental building process, enabling students to actively construct a conceptual framework to which new concepts are added, related, and refined. Concept maps--diagrams that show students how content is structured--are effective teaching and learning tools. This article presents one method of concept mapping and several ways it can be used in the classroom.

 Features of a Concept Map

Maps are constructed using circled terms to represent concepts. A linking word or phrase is used to clarify the specific relationship between two concepts. Lines connect concepts vertically, and arrows connect concepts horizontally.

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 1. Organization is Hierarchical. Concept maps are built with the most general or inclusive concepts at the top with more specific concepts placed under them (subsumed). This way, the map is organized in the same way that humans organize and store knowledge. This also gives students a place to begin map construction and assesses their basic understanding of the concepts and their relationships to each other. A group of vertically related concepts is called a map segment.

2. Concept Relationships. The specific relationship between general and more specific concepts is shown with words or phrases called linking words. Linking words are important indicators in assessing whether a student comprehends the material. Linking words may be general or may be more specific to the content area mapped. Examples of general linking words include:

contains  includes made by can be such as lives in
occurs in may indicate measured by have are from
is involved in is based on limits determines takes place when
uses produces increased by influences to form can be converted to
3. Horizontal Structure. Students who understand how the knowledge from one area (map segment) is related to other areas (map segments) make important connections across their map. This is called cross-linking. Cross-links, like linking words, are similar descriptive words or phrases: however, cross-links show the direction of meaning with an arrow.

Ways to Use Concept Maps

1. Lecture Presentation. Build as you go, asking students to provide linking words and cross-links during or at the end of lecture. As a summary, this approach creates a better learning tool than written notes that parallel the text.
2. In-class Exercise. Give students an incomplete map and have them fill in concepts or linking words.
3. Cooperative Learning/Group Activity. Use as an in-class group activity. Have students list concepts on index cards, collect, and trade cards. Each group builds a map with the mix of cards they've received.
4. Text Reading. Have students transform a section of the text into a concept map.
5. Reinforcement Assignment. Give the students a list of terms and have them construct a concept map.
6. Assessment. Give the students a list of terms and have them construct a concept map as an exam question. Maps are often more revealing and less time-consuming than essays. It is very difficult for students to bluff their way through a concept map.

Benefits of Using Concept Maps

* Shows the organizational structure of content as a compact source of information.
* Offers a simple and easy-to-learn study and/or teaching technique.
* Promotes better retention and understanding of subject matter. Concept details are easily reconstructed from a map, which reduces the burden on memory and thus reduces memorization errors. 
* Is a versatile teaching tool that can be used to present and reinforce content or assess its understanding.
Issues Relating to Concept Maps

Use Maps Progressively. Begin familiarizing students with this technique by showing them a completed map and then progressively increase their involvement. Perhaps you can have them complete an incomplete map or add linking words and cross-links before having them create a map from scratch.

Model Concept Mapping. Show students how you would map the content in a meaningful way before you assign them the same task. Throwing it at them will guarantee frustration for most students.

Instructor Map vs. Student Map. Your modeling of the mapping process is essential if students are to use this technique; however, it is important for students to actively create their own maps as a meaningful learning task. Often, the goal is not to simply memorize the instructor's map, but to understand the important connections. 

There's No Single Correct Map. It's important to emphasize to students that there is not a single correct map and that the process of creating a map involves learning and interacting with the material. However, maps vary in their accuracy, degree of sophistication, hierarchy, and completeness.

Amount of Information on a Map. There is a limit to the amount of information a concept map will show effectively. 

Concept maps can quickly become too complicated if the number of cross-links becomes excessive. If this occurs, create separate maps and have a cross-link to the general concepts at the top. 

General Applications

Plot and Character Relationships. I once mapped the characters in a soap opera. It quickly became very complicated and difficult to follow. The newspaper publishes soap opera plots; have students try to map one. This type of lean-ting task also applies to historical events. Family trees and organizational charts are types of concept maps.

 Components of a System. Whether it's a sandwich, a system of government, a curriculum, or a jet engine, maps are useful tools to show how the pieces fit together.

 Assessment Rubric

I assess a concept map primarily on the basis of its organization and linking words (about 75-80% of the question's point value). I then award points based on the quantity and quality of the cross-links.

 * Map Organization. Is the map organized from most general to more specific? Are all terms included and placed in appropriate locations? (~ 35-40% of total points)
* Linking Words. Are the linking words precise and accurate in showing the relationships between concepts? (~ 40% of total points)
* Cross-links. How many cross-links are shown? What degree of integration is demonstrated? (~ 25% of total points)

Novak, Joseph D. and Gowin, D.B.. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge University Press. New York, N.Y.
Angelo, Thomas A. and Cross, K. P. (1993). "Classroom Assessment Technique 16: Concept Maps" In Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2' edition. (pp. 197-202). Jossey-Bass Publishers. San Francisco, CA.


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