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Help Students Visualize Connections in Learning with Concept Maps

Two students laugh with each other
Venture College, CID, Allison Corona photo.

Helping students make connections between concepts or lived experiences does not always happen easily. Yet, it is one of the most important teaching tasks to instill higher cognitive order thinking. A good exercise to accomplish this is to ask students to create a concept map.  Concept maps are visual representations of how concepts are connected.

They usually begin with placing a keyword, concept, picture, or even question at the center of a page or screen. From that central point, connections are made to other ideas, concepts, words, etc. through lines that may be labeled. You might think of this as a spiderweb moving from a small base (idea) to more connections on the outside. Related to concept maps are mind maps, which are a less organized version and are typically used to brainstorm ideas.

Concept maps are beneficial for the learning process because they allow students to reflect on what they already know, and at the same time, organize this information in a logical manner.

There are many ways to utilize concept maps in a course and can be assigned as formative or even summative assessments. They can be designed on paper or online, individually or in a group, at home or in class, graded or ungraded, used to assess prior knowledge or check the understanding of a concept after learning about it. The possibilities are endless.

Some practical examples include:

  • Students create a concept map on the course topic during the first semester session. This helps to assess what they already know or what they think they know about the topic, which can spark excitement for students and inform your instruction. Students can also later be directed to re-examine the initial concept map they created and reflect on what they learned since then.
  • Students work in small teams to create a concept map, either synchronously or asynchronously. Each student may be tasked to start their own branch and then adding words to other students’ branches.
  • Student design a concept map as a summative assessment of their learning. Be specific about your expectation. For example, provide the first level of connections from the original idea, a minimum number of words or levels to include, and/or a list of key words that need to be included. Make sure that students have already had practice creating concept maps in your course and are familiar with them.

Adapted from Karen Kortz, Professor of Geology at the Community College of Rhode Island.