A globally used teaching and learning strategy, concept mapping has a measurably positive impact on learning across cultures, age ranges and topics of study (Schroeder et al., 2018). Researchers observe that learners engage in “self-questioning, reflection, and summarization” when using them, and make decisions about relationships among ideas. These thinking processes are all complex cognitive and metacognitive learning exercises.
But what makes concept mapping so effective for learning? Some researchers establish that concept mapping supports deep (rather than rote) learning (Novak and Canas, 2008). Other researchers find that concept maps help establish and revisit prior knowledge, and organize and collect new knowledge in meaningful structures. They help learners find patterns across learning units, making them better able to make connections between new information and their existing knowledge (O’Donnell et al, 2002).
There is also sufficient evidence that concept maps are effective universal design for learning (UDL) tools. They can help reduce cognitive load, as they are usually clearly written and structurally organized (Haugwitz et al., 2010). Using them can benefit learners who may not have full concept acquisition or who may have challenges processing language. Creating them can help clarify relationships between ideas, and hierarchies within them. Maps usually rely on less text, and are highly visual and interactive, allowing the reader to explore and recall structures, examples and concepts.
Although concept mapping can take many non-technical forms, including markers and paper or whiteboards, apps and software are largely taking over this particular teaching strategy. Concept mapping apps are often collaborative and allow for sharing and re-editing, making them more flexible and valuable for learning.
So what are some best practices to keep in mind when using concept mapping as a teaching and learning tool? Read on.
Choose a Tool that is Flexible
Ideas take many forms and so should concept maps. Whether you ask learners to concept map with markers and paper, whiteboards, or an app like Padlet or LucidCharts, assume learners will want to incorporate variety. Concept mapping should not rely on text alone, but support the incorporation of images and realia or video, audio, links, and embeds. Mapping apps and teaching approaches should also incorporate interactive activity such as liking, commenting and upvoting each others’ contributions. A creator should be able to revisit, reorganize and – most importantly – share their maps with peers.
This is not to say that concept mapping apps should be complex, or challenging to learn. They should be straightforward tools that help expand and broaden use over time. This is one reason why many educators love tools like Padlet.
Help Learners Construct Them
Learners benefit from studying concept maps, but they benefit even more from building them (Schroeder et al., 2018). Studying concept maps was found to support learning better than studying lecture notes, texts, or outlines or lists.
Once learners have had a basic introduction to concept mapping, provide opportunities for learners to build concept maps as part of their graded course work. Incorporate concept map construction into essay writing, project planning, problem solving and task design. Offer opportunities for learners to share their concept maps with another learner, receiving meaningful peer to peer feedback. Create learning activities prompting learners to revisit their concept maps and add to them in an ongoing basis, improving retrieval practice, recall, and concept attainment.
Using concept maps has better traction if extended in duration – explorations that last greater than 4 weeks in duration tend to have the greatest influence (Schroeder et al., 2018). If developed and built upon throughout a unit or topic, a concept map can be a powerful reflection of learning developing over a period of time. Brainstorms constructed at the beginning of a unit can be referred to at regular points, giving learners the chance to add in and reorganize new information.
Build Active Learning Around their Use
Concept mapping is most often measured against lecture-based lessons, which helps explain some of the robust research on how effective it is as a learning approach. But even when measured against other active learning strategies, concept mapping still measures as more effective. Mapping is a highly active and critical thinking learning activity, and can be complemented with other learning strategies that support and extend this.
Haugwitz, M., Nesbit, J. C., & Sandmann, A. (2010). Cognitive ability and the instructional efficacy of collaborative concept mapping. Learning and Individual Differences, 20, 536–543. doi:10.1016/j. lindif.2010.04.004.
Novak, J. D. & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006(01) Rev 01–2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Retrieved on Jan 13, 2020 from http://cmap.ihmc.us/Publications/ResearchPapers/TheoryUnderlyingConceptMaps.pdf.
O’Donnell, A. M., Dansereau, D. F., & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14(1), 71–86. doi:10.1023/A:1013132527007.
Schroeder, N. L., Nesbit, J. C., Anguiano, C. J., & Adesope, O. O. (2018). Studying and Constructing Concept Maps: a Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 431–455. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-017-9403-9