Learning With Concept Maps

Learning with concept maps is like lighting up a Christmas tree in your brain. What makes this approach a bright idea?

Research suggests that concept maps aid in the learning process because they help surface a learner’s “current” mental model for a given domain. A concept map is a visual diagram made of nodes (concepts) and links (relationships). As the learner gains new experiences in this domain, his/her mental model will develop complexity. Because of this complexity, the learner’s new concept map will show more nodes and links. Perhaps even some of the old nodes and links will be modified.

This is what learning is about. If there is a learning design tip to offer, use concept maps to surface the learner’s prior experiences and introduce new concepts that will integrate with the learner’s prior experiences. It’s a nice visual process. The process can even work in a team, where several learners collaborate to create a single concept map for a given complex problem to solve.

Joseph D. Novak, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University and Senior Research Scientist at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, introduced concept mapping in the 1970’s. He used this technique to represent the emerging science knowledge of his students. Since then, concept mapping has been used worldwide in higher ed, business, government, and research.

In my prior life as a Learning & Development Manager at a Fortune 50 company, I worked with several lean manufacturing “experts” to develop concept maps around the goal of making a factory lean. Each expert, with my assistance, developed their own concept map. Each map was different – which is no surprise because each expert had different experiences. Each expert also told me that they “learned a lot” from creating their maps.

I took the concept map approach with the experts even further. One day all the experts met with me in a classroom. Each of their concept maps was on display on the wall, where they could be reviewed by the experts. I then gave them the challenge to create, as a team, a single concept map that captured key concepts from the individual ones they created. The amazing result from this exercise was that they were able to connect the dots to create a simpler concept map that presented a logical approach to making a factory lean. In fact, this new map provided the foundation for a new lean manufacturing course.

This is the power of concept mapping. It is a learning tool, a research tool, an analysis tool, and an evaluation tool. There are several concept mapping software products in the market today. Do a Google search and you will find plenty to choose from.

About Parker Grant, PhD

Parker Grant is the founder of Instructional Design Industry, an online community for learning designers, instructional designers, and many other learning professionals (new and experienced). Parker holds a PhD in Adult Learning and a MS in Educational Technology. His consulting firm, Learning Connects, continues to offer learning design and development services.

What are your thoughts?