Concept mapping research that misses the point

There is an enormous literature developing on the use of concept maps as a learning tool across the range of academic disciplines and across the range of student age-groups (from primary school to post-graduate studies). Inevitably, as such a body of literature grows in various directions there will be some authors who I agree with more than others.


However, I feel (yes, just a personal opinion) there is some research on the use of concept maps that just misses the point. For me the point is to enhance education and to help students improve the quality of their learning. Therefore, experimental set ups need to relate in some way to classroom practice. Otherwise we will end up with research papers that show that ‘oxygen enhances learning’ where a control group (deprived of oxygen for 24hours) had lower scores in the end of unit test than those students who were provided with oxygen.


I do not see the point in papers that attempt to show that group work is better than individual study, or online learning is better than face to face instruction, or that testing is better than concept mapping (e.g. Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). Within a sensible classroom regime, there would be a healthy variety of methods used to help students learn. A rigid diet of any single classroom practice would, in the end, become tedious. Students do not operate in laboratory controlled conditions. Concept maps cannot be isolated from everything else in order to assess their effectiveness. In the same way, the use of VLEs, flipped pedagogy or even better textbooks, will on their own, and in isolation from a positive learning context, be unlikely to transform the quality of learning of the students in our care. We’d have to look at the whole package, and the nature of the optimum package will change from subject to subject, teacher to teacher, student to student and even from day to day. That is where the adaptive expertise of teachers fits in – to manipulate the classroom environment in response to a myriad of shifting variables.


There is also a problem of having studies look at student’s learning over a period of one lesson, one week or even one month. We know that some students learn more slowly than others for a variety of reasons. We seem to be short on research that follows students through their learning with in-depth analysis over an extended period of time.


There is a problem of assessing “concept mapping and learning gain” and this provides  a flawed starting point in the development of research questions. We should be looking at ‘expert teaching and learning gains’, within which concept mapping and retrieval practices (testing) may well have complementary parts to play. The assumption that a particular classroom practice will (on its own) result in student learning gains appears a bit naive. These studies, like many that have come before, appear to have lost sight of the importance of a teacher in the classroom. The quest for the ‘automation’ of teaching seems to be sending researchers on a fool’s errand. Learning is a social activity in which teachers and other students have an active role to play.


The most recent paper I have found in this experimental vein is by Lechuga et al., (2015). Let’s just focus on one problem within this paper as I feel it is quite important. Within the methods section the participating students were divided into groups, one of which was “the group with experience in concept mapping” which was selected from their responses to a questionnaire about study habits. However, we have no idea about the level of expertise these students have achieved in the development or use of concept maps, simply that they reported using them. Given the frequent confusion in the literature between concept maps and mind maps, we don’t even know for sure if these students had actually been using concept maps. We certainly don’t know if the maps they produced would be classed as ‘excellent’ or having ‘high explanatory power’, or if they were simply doodles on a page.  As is often the case, no exemplars are given in the paper and so we have no way of determining the level of the students’ mapping skills. Therefore, we have no real view of the shared characteristics of this group. However, by removing these students from the other three randomly assigned groups, we are losing a valuable asset in their learning – more knowledgeable peers.  To then assess the effectiveness of the learning support by testing students predominantly by assessing their verbatim recall of content again seems to miss the potential value of concept mapping in developing higher order thinking skills (HOTS). So the research is not testing what is potentially being developed.


We need to observe our students closely in settings that are as authentic as possible rather than using students as lab rats and data points. We need in-depth studies of cases that can be used to build a rich picture of learning within our institutions rather than rushing straight for the ‘big picture’ , and we need to match our students to appropriate support and testing in order for them to achieve.



Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772-775.

Lechuga, M.T., Ortega-Tudela, J.M. & Gomez-Ariza, C.J. (2015) Further evidence that concept mapping is not better than repeated retrieval as a tool for learning from texts. Learning and Instruction, 40: 61 – 68.




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