Improving the quality of concept maps

Whilst looking at concept maps that are available on the web, and when reviewing papers for publication, it is clear that some maps that are presented are not concept maps, and that some researchers pay little attention to the context in which their mapping interventions are placed.

I have suggested six points (Kinchin, 2014) that will help to generate more robust and ecologically valid research into the use of concept maps:

    • Concept mapping should be used in compatible curriculum settings that reflect the constructivist underpinnings of the tool. It is important that the concept mapping tool is epistemologically aligned with the context in which it is set. If the teaching and the assessment regimes within a curriculum are intent on transmitting fixed information from teacher to student, then the potential utility of concept mapping is lessened. There must be room in the curriculum for students to visualise personal understanding if the tool is to be helpful. Concept mapping should be used where assessment regimes are focussed on meaningful learning and not memorization and recall.
    • Concept mapping should be used as a learning tool, ‘directing’ the search for information, not ‘ending’ it. If the expert concept map represents the answer to be memorised by students then the curriculum intent is non-learning rather than meaningful learning. Possible pathways to meaningful learning must be recognised if concept mapping is to play an active part in the students’ development.
    • Teachers/researchers should have clear instructional objectives for the use of concept mapping that needs to be conveyed to students. It is not helpful to students to simply deposit concept mapping as an activity within the teaching scheme unless there is a clear aim in doing so. Teachers need to be clear what the benefits of a concept mapping activity might be, and should share this with their students.
    • The degree of freedom afforded students in a concept mapping intervention should be justified and explicit. Students may be presented with a blank sheet of paper or with a list of concepts to link. Either approach has validity, depending what it is that the teacher is hoping to achieve.
    • The structural grammar used within a concept mapping intervention should be representative of the discipline. It is only sensible to insist that student construct hierarchical concept maps if the structure of the discipline being mapped is indeed hierarchical. It is, therefore, important to determine the structure of the discipline before asking students to map it. It should also be noted that a single map may not be adequate in representing the structure of a clinical science, and that sequential mapping over time may be required to observe changes in understanding.
    • Concept mapping should be combined with other learning strategies such as retrieval practices, collaborative learning, dialogue and feedback. Concept mapping is most effective as a learning tool when combined with complementary activities to enhance the learning environment. Students’ interactions with concept mapping will be personal and idiosyncratic with some students requiring more scaffolding and supplementary learning tools than others in order to gain the most from concept mapping activities.


Kinchin, I.M. (2014) Concept mapping as a learning tool in higher education: A critical analysis of recent reviews. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 62: 39 – 49.


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