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Random Thoughts on Instructional Design

Concept Maps for Assessment & Understanding

Concept Mapping

Concept maps are drawings or diagrams showing the mental connections that students make between a major concept the instructor focuses on and other concepts they have learned.


This technique provides an observable ans assessable record of the students’ conceptual schemata — the patterns of associations they make in relation to a given focal concept. Concept Maps allow the instructor to discover the web or relationships that students bring to the task at hand — the students’ starting points. This assessment technique also helps the instructor assess the degree of “fit” between the students’ understanding of relevant conceptual relations and the instructor’s map and/or course objectives. With such information in hand, the instructor can go on to assess changes ans growth in the students’ conceptual understandings that result from instruction.

By literally drawing the connections they make among concepts, students gain more control over their connection making. The Concept Map allows them to scrutinize their conceptual networks, compare their maps with those of peers and experts, and make explicit changes.

Related Teaching Goals

  • Develop ability to draw reasonable inferences from observations
  • Develop ability to synthesize ans integrate information and ideas
  • Develop ability to think holistically: to see the whole as well as the parts
  • Develop appropriate study skills, strategies, and habits
  • Learn to understand perspectives and values of the subject


The Concept Teaching instructional strategy involves the learning of specific concepts, the nature of concepts, and the development of logical reasoning and critical thinking. When designing units they may be deductive (rule to example) or inductive (example to rule).

Concept teaching should proceed through four primary phases:

  1. Clarify goals and conditions.
  2. Illustrate examples and non-examples.
  3. Students provide examples and non-examples to demonstrate attainment of concept.
  4. Guide students to think about their own thinking (examine their decisions, consequences of choices, how concept fits in with bigger picture).

Suggestions for Use

While students are likely to have some trouble identifying levels of association, they may have even more difficulty identifying the types of relationships among concepts. By going over a parallel example, you can clarify exactly what is expected of the student.

This technique is useful in any course that requires conceptual learning. In courses with a high theoretical content, Concept Maps provide insights into the connections students are making among theories ans concepts. At the same time, Concept Maps can be used to assess the connections students make between theories or concepts and information. In courses where students must learn large numbers of facts and principles, Concept Maps can help faculty see how and how well students are organizing those details into correct and memorable conceptual networks.

Before beginning instruction on a given concept or theory, instructors can use Concept Maps to discover what preconceptions ans prior knowledge structures students bring to the task. This information can help instructors make decisions about when ans how to introduce a new topic — as well as discover misconceptions that may cause later difficulties. During and after a unit, they can use Concept Maps to assess changes in the students’ conceptual representations. An ideal use of this technique is to employ it before, during, and after units on critical concepts.

Suggested Tool: VUE

“The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University. The VUE project is focused on creating flexible tools for managing and integrating digital resources in support of teaching, learning and research.” VUE provides a flexible environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing information.

Usage Ideas

  • Faculty
    • Visual representation of assignments and how they fit into the course, program or discipline
    • Provide a picture of complex concepts
    • Develop non-linear presentations
    • Interactive syllabus
  • Students
    • Provides a method of assessing how well students understand a concept or theory
    • Peer facilitation

Sample Maps

Designing Problem Based Cases

VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) can be used in conjunctions with OpenLabyrinth for the development of highly interactive, low bandwidth problem based learning units. You will be amazed at how quickly the units could be developed; the number of decision point could be designed into the scenarios, and the ability to repurpose portions of the units in other activities.

Click on the following links to download OpenLabyrinth or to view sample cases.

  • OpenLabyrinth – application for designing virtual patient and other decision path activities – (current version available for PC only. According to the presenters a cross platform version scheduled to be released in December)
    • Virtual patient demos developed with labyrinth
    • Pine (Pathways for Interactive Narrative Education) Project – site provides links to medical, patient education, midwifery, interprofessional, nursing, and rural health emergency virtual cases and associated development documents that are available to all site visitors. {}


  • Concept Maps reflect research in cognitive psychology by directing instructor and student attention to the “mental maps” used to organize what we learn.
  • Because it calls for a graphic response, this technique favors students with strong visual learning skills. These same students are often at a disadvantage in verbal assessment.
  • It prompts students to consider how their own ideas ans concepts are related, as well as to realize that those associations are changeable.
  • Concept Maps can serve students as prewriting and note-taking devices, in addition to being powerful self-assessment techniques.


  • Comparisons among student responses can be difficult to make unless the instructor restricts responses to choices from a closed list of terms. Such restrictions, however, will diminish student creativity and the variability of responses.
  • Students with well-honed verbal skills but less developed graphic skills may find this assessment frustrating ans question its value.

One comment on “Concept Maps for Assessment & Understanding

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This entry was posted on June 12, 2010 by in Techniques and tagged , .

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