We learn by connecting new information to prior knowledge (Palfreman, 1992). Much of this involves categorizing information according to patterns. Whereas the average American football fan just sees 11 individual defenders on the field, a veteran NFL quarterback sees the formation within the context of a category, such as a “two-deep zone.” This allows him to quickly interpret formations and decide how to react to them. In this way, much of expertise comes down to accumulating a storehouse of categories for structuring new information.
But instructors often convey information in isolated packets without the broader structures needed to understand it. In our zeal to “cover content,” we forget to establish the connections with broader categories that students need to understand and retain the information.
This is where concept mapping comes in. Concept maps are visual representations of the connections between concepts that look a bit like spiderwebs with circled concepts at the intersections. For instance, an underlying theme in my medical ethics course is the tension between medical paternalism and patient autonomy in decision-making. A concept map might start with the broad category of “medical decision-making” written in the center within a circle and the terms “medical paternalism” and “patient autonomy” in separate circles connected to it. Each of these circles would then have more concepts branching out from them, such as definitions of each term, situations whether each would be used, and famous cases that illustrate each.
By building a concept map, students can add new concepts as they encounter them. This will allow them to see how the dual concepts play out in a variety of ways in clinical practice and, over time, develop an eye for discerning which concepts come into play in new cases. The student thus deepens their understanding of these fundamental concepts as they move through the course, helping them develop expertise in the field.
One way to incorporate concept maps into teaching is to have students develop them from their notes from class or the assigned material. The exercise will help them reflect on what they have learned as well as synthesize their learning into enduring understandings. The instructor can then assign students to compare their concept maps in groups so they learn from one another, with a group map as the exercise’s deliverable.
Commentators normally use the terms “concept map” and “mind map” interchangeably, but Richard Byrne (2021) suggests a distinction that I find helpful. He considers mind maps more a representation of the concepts that students associate with a central concept, whereas concept maps concern how concepts really are related. Mind maps are also less structured, whereas concept maps have a structure of concepts and sub-concepts within the larger concept.
This makes mind mapping better for group brainstorming sessions, where the goal is just to get ideas down on paper rather than analyze them. Instructors can also have students sketch out a mind map of concepts that they associate with a lesson’s topic at the beginning of the lesson, and then revise that after the lesson by incorporating what they have learned. This allows them to correct prior misunderstandings and structure the information in a form that connects it to prior knowledge and grows their understanding.
There are numerous free concept-mapping systems, as well as systems with a free level of access:
GitMap is an online system that offers hundreds of templates to structure a concept map. These can make it much easier to get started than simply a blank page. GitMap also allows the user to add images to represent concepts, as well as to pick an outline format rather than the spiderweb view.
Whimsical is more of a general-purpose design tool that includes a concept- and mind-mapping function, along with outlining, flowcharts, sticky notes, and wireframing (which is a bit like webpage design). It is also designed for collaboration, which makes it good for teams to use to design projects.
Transno and Text2MindMap are both designed to have the user enter the information as an outline and then the system creates a concept or mind map out of it. Text2MindMap in particular is fast and easy to use. Instead of navigating menus, options, and other information, the user simply types up an outline on the left side of the screen, which the system uses to build a concept map on the right. The user can also drag the boxes around and download the result.
Forky, Bubbl.us, MindMup, and Coggle are more good concept-mapping systems with their own nuances in function. An instructor can give their students a list of systems and allow the students to pick the ones that most appeal to them.
Concept maps are an ideal way of providing students with a hook to hang new information on. They give information the structure and significance needed to produce deep and long-lasting understanding.
Byrne, R. (2021, August 26). Five benefits of conducting mind mapping activities. Free Technology for Teachers. https://www.freetech4teachers.com/2021/08/five-benefits-of-conducting-mind.html
Palfreman, J. (Writer, Producer, Director). (1992). The thinking machine (Episode 4) [TV miniseries episode]. In J. Palfreman (Executive Producer), The machine that changed the world. PBS. (Available on YouTube here)