Concept Maps: Revealing and Remodeling Student Knowledge Structures by the Use of Absolute vs. Conditional Terms

Jennifer Osterhage
Biological Sciences
Teaching Certificate Graduate '07

Educational research has indicated that sustained learning involves creating an accurate conceptual framework on which to hang conceptual information and ideas. However, students' conceptual framework is often based on prior knowledge, and may contain incomplete or invalid ideas. Concept mapping exercises have been extensively used in the science classroom to assess students' conceptual frameworks by analyzing the ways students organize and present knowledge. I was interested in determining whether the use of concept maps in the classroom, as both an assessment tool and a learning activity, can identify and address specific misconceptions held by students in an undergraduate Genetics course. I have developed a concept mapping exercise in which students individually created their own maps of core concepts. Through the analysis of these maps, I have uncovered a very common misconception: many students represent connections in very absolute terms, when the connections between concepts are more accurately expressed conditionally. Analyzing student concept maps based solely on the use of absolute vs. conditional language revealed a large difference in exam grades, indicating that this misconception may affect students' ability to apply conceptual knowledge during exams. I also present the use of a non-traditional instructor-led concept mapping session to specifically address this misconception and promote the formation of a deeper conceptual framework. Students found that this exercise "helped create a clear and easy way to integrate information."


I gathered data for this project in the undergraduate Genetics course at Vanderbilt. Biology majors take this course after a year of introductory biology. The course is required for most of the biology major programs. Students in the course have generally done well in introductory courses, but many have difficulty with the Genetics course because it requires a different way of thinking, applying knowledge, and problem solving than their previous biology courses. I am gathering the data for this project as a guest lecturer - I am no longer a teaching assistant in the course. The students are familiar with me, however, because I gave two guest lectures earlier in the semester. This course has been recently redesigned, with help from the Center for Teaching, with the ultimate goal of helping students to "think like geneticists." One main enduring understanding from this course is to identify a problem, formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment, and interpret the results.


In my project, I investigated these questions:

1. Can concept maps reveal specific misconceptions held by students that may be roadblocks to learning?

2. Can instructor-led concept mapping sessions address these misconceptions and promote students' ability to apply knowledge?

I became interested in these questions as a teaching assistant and refined my focus during the first two cycles of the teaching certificate program. As a teaching assistant for the Genetics course, I observed that students had a firm grasp of the "facts" of genetics, but had difficulty applying this knowledge to new problems. I believe that one reason this occurs is that students don't see the "big picture," a common complaint of instuctors across disciplines. If students don't have an understanding of how concepts are connected, they will have trouble applying multiple concepts to answer a single question, a common task in the Genetics course. As part of the teaching certificate program, I investigated the literature on designing learning experiences that help students create a conceptual framework of ideas in a course. Literature on teaching and learning in biology has shown that the use of concept maps, both in course design and as an assessment tool, may help achieve this goal. I set out to test the hypothesis that concept mapping exercises increase students' "big picture" understanding, which may aid them in applying knowledge to new problems. I believed that these exercises would also be helpful to the instructor in assessing students' understanding and possible misconceptions.

Gathering Evidence

To determine whether concept maps are valuable to assess student understanding, I asked students to individually create a concept map of eleven concepts (of my choosing) they had recently studied. I wrote the concepts on post-it notes so that students could first arrange the concepts on the page, with the most over-reaching or important concepts at the top of the page. I then asked them to create connections between the concepts with arrows and a description of how the concepts were related. To analyze these maps, I first looked for general trends and then scored each map based on three criteria: hierarchy, accuracy, and descriptiveness. I hoped to identify any misconceptions students had, and assess their level of understanding.

As a second part of this project, I created my own concept maps that addressed misconceptions I saw in student maps, and would also hopefully help them review for the final exam. I presented these maps in an interactive review session, and asked students to fill out a survey asking whether they thought the session helped increase their understanding of the concepts.


When analyzing student maps, I first scored each map using three criteria: hierarchical order of concepts, level of descriptiveness, and accuracy of descriptions. I then looked through the maps to identify any common misconceptions. Interestingly (and unexpectedly), I observed that many students used very absolute terms when describing connections between concepts, while these connections (to an expert) are very rarely absolute. An example of a student concept map with very absolute descriptions is shown in the Concept map #1 box below. Concept map #2 shows another student map that is not only more descriptive, but also uses qualifying words such as "can affect" and "can change" to describe connections. Concept map #1 was produced by a student that did poorly in the class, while map #2 was made by an A student. When concept maps were separated based on the use of absolute vs. conditional terms, there was a 12-point difference in exam averages between the two groups (see figure below). This indicates that the use of absolute language may predict lower exam scores.

As a second part of this project, I designed a review session for the final exam where I addressed the misconception about the absoluteness of connections between certain concepts. For example, in the first concept mapping exercise, many students said that a Southern blot shows mutations that affect phenotype. In fact, this is only sometimes the case. To address this, I shared a concept map about southern blots in an interactive review session where nodes containing different types of mutations and the southern blot node were connected with different arrows indicating a "sometimes," "always," or "never" connection. I then asked students that attended this optional session to fill out a survey in which I asked if the exercise helped them better understand the connections between the material and if it would help them on the final exam. Student comments were very positive, and indicated that the concept maps "help create a clear and easy way to integrate and connect" information in a way that would be helpful for them on the exam.

In conclusion, I have found that analysis of concept maps can identify common misconceptions. Specifically, many students inacurrately describe connections with absolute terms, which may predict lower exam scores. Finally, instructor-led concept mapping exercises can address these misconceptions and help students connect and integrate information.

Student Concept map 1
Student Concept Map 1
Student Concept map 2
Student Concept Map 2

Resources and Obstacles

The Genetics instructors at Vanderbilt University, especially Katherine Friedman and Mark Woelfle, were allies to me for this project. They gave me the opportunities to teach and gather data in the Genetics course. Dr. Friedman was also a knowledgeable resource when designing my concept mapping exercises. Jeff Johnston, an assistant director at the CFT, helped me gather data and refine my project. Dr. Johnston also led a group that recently redesigned the Genetics course at Vanderbilt. Being a part of this group gave me valuable insight into the difficulties students have in Genetics, and ways that I might use this project to help further identify and possibly alleviate these problems. My Cycle II working group, led by Jeff Sheehan, helped me reflect on the use of concept maps in the classroom. My Cycle III working group, led by Derek Bruff, has helped me collect and analyze data for this project in new and exciting ways.

Being a part of the Biological Sciences department also assisted me in this project. The department values teaching, and gives every graduate student the opportunity to teach. The department has also allowed me to serve as a teaching assistant more semesters than required to help me practice and refine my teaching. As a graduate student in biology, I have learned how to be a scientist: how to design experiments, gather, and interpret data. This knowledge helped me design my scholarship of teaching and learning project, and to analyze and interpret the results.

One of my main difficulties with this project was a dearth of teaching opportunities. Since I am no longer a teaching assistant in Genetics, I have no official contact with students. I had to gather data during one class session when the professor was out of town, and during an optional session that less than 1/3 of the class attended. Therefore, the amount of data I have is limited, and I don't have additional opportunities to refine the project or gather more data. I plan to continue this study next year, however, when I design and implement my own courses.

Looking Ahead

When planning my own courses next year, I will create a concept map for each course I design. I think that this will ensure that each lecture helps achieve my learning goals for the course and fits into a larger picture. Periodically sharing this map with students will help them create a conceptual framework for the course, which has been shown to be an essential part of teaching for learning.

I also plan to use group concept mapping exercises in class to assess student learning. These exercises are fun for students and can help them think about the information in different ways. As shown from this project, analysis of these maps can help me identify misconceptions and levels of understanding - providing a low-cost, yet valuable assessment of student learning before exams.

Approaching teaching and learning as a scholarly activity has, and will, impact my teaching in a positive way. My interest in teaching and learning has greatly increased during this process, and has led me to a career in higher education. I have recently accepted a tenure track faculty position at a liberal arts institution that values teaching above all other responsibilities. I believe that completion of the Teaching Certificate Program was instrumental in my hiring. In this position, I plan to utilize knowledge about the scholarship and teaching and learning that I have gained through this program to become active in the field of science education.

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