Concept Mapping Improves Student Learning

Donna Saulsberry was in a bind. As an associate professor of computer and information technology at Doña Ana Community College, one of her jobs is to prepare her networking students for the Microsoft® Certified Systems Engineer certification test. Having survived a Microsoft certification boot camp herself, she began instructing her students in much the same way as she was taught: lecture, practice, and multiple choice tests.

The teaching method was effective in that most of her students did well on their assessments, but she knew their ability to analyze real-world scenarios wasn’t what it needed to be, especially given the rapidly changing technology landscape in which they’ll be working. When Microsoft began testing students on their ability to apply their knowledge in unfamiliar situations, Saulsberry knew she needed a more effective teaching strategy. The answer came in the form of concept maps; diagrams that show the relationship between concepts.

In the Jan. 28th online seminar, Using Concept Maps to Assess Online and Traditional Classes, Saulsberry provided examples of concepts map assignments from her classes, and showed how the maps are used to improve and demonstrate students’ understanding of course material.

“Assessing students’ critical thinking skills and knowledge transfer is the strong point of concept maps,” she says. “By developing assignments which have students develop a concept map to solve a specific problem, I have been able to assess this well enough that the assignments and concept maps the students created in response are included in the college’s institutional assessment of critical thinking.”

Typically arranged in a hierarchical manner, with concept boxes connected by lines and “linking phrases” that explain the relationship (e.g. “results in” or “contributes to”) concept maps are particularly effective with visual learners. Saulsberry also found that, after a few practice maps, her students prefer concept maps to other forms of assessment, and that the maps are equally effective with both her online and classroom-based students.

Basic concept mapping can be done with a pen and paper, a whiteboard and sticky notes, or PowerPoint, but as you incorporate concept mapping into your daily instruction, it’s best to take advantage of the concept mapping software that’s available. Saulsberry recommends Cmap, which is free and has versions for Windows, Mac and Linux, and in last week’s seminar she provided detailed instructions on how to install and use the software. To download the Cmap software, visit