Faculty Focus


Concept Maps Help Build Connections to Learning

About eight years ago, students taking Alice Cassidy’s Biology 345 course were asked to create a learning portfolio as their final project for the course. The portfolio was intended to help students demonstrate their learning in creative ways that include examples, connections and reflections, based on three key criteria: content, links and visual diversity. Two pages of the eight-page portfolio had to be a concept map.

Concept mapping, a technique first described by Joseph Novak in the late 1960s, uses visual representations to show relationships among ideas or concepts. It can be an effective way to help students gain a better understanding of difficult concepts.

In the online seminar Concept Mapping: How Visual Connections Can Improve Learning, Cassidy, head of Alice Cassidy In View Education and Professional Development and the former associate director of the Centre for Teaching and Academic Growth (TAG) at University of British Columbia, shared some of the concept maps her students created and noted that student feedback on the assignment was largely positive.

“I found that they valued the experience very much–the creativity of it, the way it valued not only how they showed their understanding of key concepts of the course, but how it valued connections they made between the course, or formal learning, with other aspects of their lives, or informal learning,” she said.

Concept maps come in many forms, including a Spoke: where all related concepts are linked to the main concept in the middle of the page; a Chain, where concepts are linked in a linear sequence; or Net, which is a highly integrated and hierarchical network. And the good news is, there’s no one correct way to create a concept map and there’s no wrong place to start, Cassidy said.

To help you get started, Cassidy provided the following guidelines:

  1. Note, on paper or electronically, the concepts you wish to include
  2. Rank or order the concepts; starting with a key or main concept you wish to emphasize.
  3. Step 2 might help you choose the type of concept map to construct (e.g. chain, tree, spoke, etc.)
  4. Step 3 helps you decide where to place your first concept on the page
  5. Decide where to cluster or arrange the rest of your concepts
  6. Add these concepts, one by one
  7. Connect the concepts with lines or arrows
  8. Label the lines or arrows with one or a few words to describe relationships between concepts
  9. Add more concepts if needed
  10. Review your completed concept map and re-arrange/re-work it, if necessary, by adding, subtracting or changing concepts.

As noted, concept maps can be created on paper or electronically. Some of the software tools used to build concept maps or mind maps (simpler versions of concept maps that do not have terms linking the key words) include: Cmap, Inspiration, MindGenius, Creately, and Visio.