Helping Students (and Faculty) Connect Information through Concept Mapping

The other day, I was sitting in a meeting and heard a most respected colleague extol the virtues of Edward Tufte’s writings. She was especially complimentary about his essay on the cognitive style of PowerPoint and described how it had changed how she was teaching. I have not yet read Tufte’s essay (I’m planning to order a copy), and I just missed being able to attend his latest workshop in Phoenix last week. However, I gathered from her short description that one of Tufte’s main complaints is that PowerPoint imposes a linear structure on the delivery of information that obscures the connections between the ideas presented.

Now I know that at least one of my CTL colleagues will complain that this is not a problem with PowerPoint, but rather how PowerPoint is used. I will encourage them to post something about how PowerPoint can be used to create a connected presentation.

My Tufte-inspired colleague went on to describe how she had modified her teaching to be more connected. As she taught each major concept, she attached a poster to the wall about that concept. As these posters accumulated, she could draw connections back to previous concepts all the way to the end of the semester when I imagine that the walls were covered with posters. I’ll bet that some really deep learning occurred in that classroom.

I began to think about what she had accomplished and how it related to what I have been doing for several years. I have been trying to achieve deep learning with my students beginning with a Kaleidoscope project in the fall of 2002. I did some research on the topic of deep learning because it seemed like a simple idea that all educators could agree with. Although the phrase deep learning is widely used, I traced it back to Noel Entwistle (also Paul Ramsden and John Biggs) who is at the Edinburgh School of Education (you have to check the names and affiliations – this is from memory). Using phenomenological research methods (a qualitative method), they describe two ends of a continuum of student approaches to learning. At one end, there is the surface approach to learning in which students 1) treat the course as unrelated bits of knowledge; 2) memorize facts and carry out procedures routinely; 3) find difficulty in making sense of new ideas presented; 4) see little value or meaning in either courses or tasks; 5) study without reflecting on either the purpose or strategy; and 6) feel undue pressure and worry about work. Whereas deep learners: 1) relate ideas to previous knowledge and experience; 2) look for patterns and underlying principles; 3) check evidence and relate it to conclusions; 4) examine logic and argument cautiously and critically; 5) are aware of the understanding that develops while learning; and 6) become actively interested in course content. Clearly, we want our students to be deep learners!

A major conclusion of this research is that it is what the students do that matters! Of course, the Scottish research includes faculty approaches to teaching, which you can correctly assume affects how students approach learning (think of what my colleague above was able to accomplish). My focus has been on how assessments can affect student approaches to learning. I have argued elsewhere that students seem to adapt their learning approach to the assessment expectations built into our courses. Thus, surface level assessment promotes surface level learning. In course design, our objectives must be embedded in assessment tasks. If for example course objectives focus on the big questions of biology, assessments must also focus on the big questions of biology. Our students should achieve understanding of those concepts and be able to communicate that understanding.

One of the assessments that I have been using for many years is concept mapping. One of the great powers of concept mapping beyond its visual display of concept structure is its provision for crosslinks between concepts and between propositions within concepts. This brings us back to the connection that I made with my colleague and her room full of posters. Her description of her room full of posters brought an image to my mind of the concept maps that I use to guide my instruction. You see, I not only require my students to map concepts. My image was of a large concept map that was constructed through the semester. As each new concept was added or expanded, crosslinks to previous concepts created connections to prior learning. The result at the end of the semester would be a beautiful web of learning!

Immediately, my mind jumps to one of my great struggles about concept mapping. Should I share my expertly drawn maps with my students or should they be supported to construct their own? My bias is toward the latter, but maybe there is a middle ground that we can achieve. I would love to discuss this further with anyone interested.

When I started with concept mapping, it was all paper and pencil. And erasers were important too because concept maps should evolve as understandings and knowledge grow! I thought I really had something when I showed students how they could put concepts on Postit! notes and move them around. Of course, now there are several options for concept mapping software. I am partial to CmapTools developed by Alberto Canas at the Institute for Human Machine Cognition. Alberto is working directly with Joseph Novak who invented concept mapping. CmapTools is freely available from

There are many neat features of CmapTools, but one that is relevant to the current discussion is its presentation mode. This tool allows you to build an entire concept map one proposition at a time. I wonder if Tufte knows about this? This would seem to be a solution to his concerns about PowerPoint presentations. What do you think?

If you are interested in more information about concept mapping, I am giving a workshop on February 15. You can register by going to the Select Workshop Registration and enter your information.

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