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Using Concept Maps in Assessment

If you are looking for an innovative, multifunctional, evidence-based assessment method that can provide you with insightful information about students’ comprehension of complex concepts–in snapshot format, no less­­–consider using concept maps as one of your options. You probably are familiar with concept maps as a powerful learning tool that promotes deep, meaningful learning, as opposed to rote and superficial learning. But, they can do more than provide learning tasks. Concept maps can be used as a visual teaching tool and to assess students’ knowledge you otherwise may not have access to.

One of the more challenging aspects of assessment is finding methods that allow access to students’ comprehension of abstract, complex concepts, and to capture that information succinctly. And by succinctly, I mean without creating an undue burden of grading. Some types of assessments are very easy to grade but they require a lot of work up-front. Essays and reports can provide a better look at the structure of students’ knowledge and reasoning. But, if you are like many educators (including myself) the idea of assigning papers is a lot more appealing than the idea of grading papers. With a little upfront work, concept maps can provide a meaningful way of assessing more-complex learning and identifying students’ reasoning errors without an undue burden of grading.

A concept map is one of several types of graphic organizers that can be used to show the relationships between and within concepts: ideas, theories, hypotheses, structures, processes, models, and so on. From a purist perspective, mind maps differ from concept maps in that they do not specify the relationships by which its components are related. Argument maps are used to represent very specific chains of reasoning to support a premise.

The skeleton of any concept map is that of nodes and links. Nodes are ideas or concepts represented in rectangles or circles. Links are lines that are often, but not always, directional, and that describe the relationship between nodes using a word or phrase. Each link is thought of as a proposition. Examples of linking words and phrases include “because”, “needed for”, “results in”, “triggers”, “influences”, and “explained by”. There are many possibilities, depending on the concept being diagramed. For a quick overview of the use of concept maps in medical education, see: Torre, DM, Durning, SJ & Daley, BJ (2013), Twelve tips for teaching with concept maps in medical education, Medical Teacher, 35:201-208.

Concept maps can look different for different students, so grading them can carry a degree of subjective judgment; but, but so does grading essays, oral presentations, professional behavior and other worthwhile assessments. To decrease variability in the way those products look, you give specific instructions or expectations and parameters for the assignment. Using those instructions and parameter, you can then create grading rubrics to achieve satisfactory consistency in grading. Those ideas apply to concept maps: specifically define the task and create a grading scheme based on those same specifications.

If a concept map is used as a significant determinant of grades, more rigor is required in the design of the task and the associated grading rubric than for formative assessment or as a learning activity. Variations in concept map design vary from very unstructured to very structured.  At the less-structured end is the from-scratch assignment “draw a concept map to represent the homeostasis of body temperature regulation”. That approach gives you a truer picture of how each student’s knowledge is represented, but increases the subjectivity of the judgments required in grading. Two more-structured options that lend themselves to increased consistency in scoring are constructing a concept map with created terms (C concept-mapping) and constructing a concept map using selected terms (S concept mapping). For an in-depth discussion on the use of Generalizability theory (G theory) in establishing the reliability of the C and S methods of concept mapping, see Yin, Y. & Shavelson, RJ. (2008), Application of generalizability theory to concept map assessment research, Applied Measurement in Education, 21:273-291.

In C mapping, the assignment provides a list of topics or subcomponents of a concept, but the student draws a map using linking phrases he or she creates. For the body-temperature homeostasis example above, you might provide a list that includes such things as “environmental temperature”, “wind”, “convection”, “heat production”, “heat loss”, “shivering”, “energy requirements”, and so on. By providing the topics, you restrict the possible configurations of the map. In S mapping, the assignment would provide not only a list of items such as those above, but also a list of supplied linking terms such as “increases”, “decreases”, “requires”, and “produces”. Supplying the linking terms as well as the topics or ideas to be linked further restricts the possible (correct) configurations of the map. As you can see, there is a trade-off between how well the map represents students’ unprompted thinking and an increase in consistency of form that allows for decreased subjective judgment in grading.

Construct an initial grading rubric by listing the key propositions and assigning point values based on whether each expected proposition is missing or irrelevant, incorrect, partially correct, or correct. As you grade the concept maps, you can gain an understanding of both individual and group comprehension of the concept, as well as their misunderstandings. In fact, a great way to promote learning is to assign small groups to create a collaborative concept map.

Students can draw concept maps on paper. In that case, it is best to have them first draft their map using small sticky notes they can move around instead of writing, erasing, rewriting, and starting over. There are a number of free and paid web-based and downloadable software programs, as well as apps for tablets and smartphones. In your search engine, the search term “concept map programs” will generate many hits. When using your smartphone or tablet to search for applications, “concept map” or “concept mapping” will return some options. Some programs and apps seem more intuitive and user-friendly than others, and some have more options for map configuration than others. The IUSM Lilly Library has software called C-map.

If you’d like to know more about concept maps in teaching, learning, and assessment, there are resources in the medical education literature as well as in higher education literature. A PubMed search will lead you to the medical education-specific resources, and the databases Academic Search Premier (EBSCO) and JSTOR, both available through the IUSM Lilly Library are great places to search for more literature on concept maps. Of course, we’d love it here in Student Assessment if you came by to see us, too! We are happy to talk to you about any assessment-related questions you might have.


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Melissa Alexaner

Bio coming soon.