Using concept mapping to experientially introduce systems thinking

This page is authored by Meghann Jarchow, University of South Dakota, based on an activity that she developed.
University of South Dakota, Interdepartmental - sustainability
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Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


This activity was developed as an introduction to systems thinking where the students use concept mapping to explore a complex issue, such as ethanol production from corn grain. After a very brief introduction to systems thinking and ethanol production from corn grain, the students were given a broad question from which to develop a concept map (e.g. How does the production of ethanol from corn grain affect agriculture, the environment, energy production, and government policies). As a class, the instructor and students develop a concept map based on their collective knowledge of factors that affect any component of the map (e.g. ethanol production increases corn prices, which increases the amount of corn grown on the landscape, which could increase the amount of nitrate flowing into water bodies, etc.). Interactions and feedbacks among components of the map should be explicitly considered and highlighted. Following the mapping exercise, the students pick one problem identified in the concept map, and examine how methods of fixing that problem have rippling - and often unintended - consequences throughout the map.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

The objectives of this activity were to allow students to:
  1. be introduced to and experience systems thinking and
  2. appreciate the complexity and interrelationships in sustainability-related issues.
This activity addresses sustainability because it introduces students to systems thinking and complex issues. It can incorporate the geosciences if a topic related to geosciences is selected as the topic of discussion.

Context for Use

  • In the form that it was developed, this activity works best in a class size that is sufficiently small for all students to participate in the activity (ideally less than 20 students), but could be modified to include small group discussions for larger classes.
  • This activity would be appropriate for high school through upper-level college students and is appropriate for students with any disciplinary background.
  • Participation by the students is essential for this activity to be effective.
  • At least 50 minutes is needed for the activity, but it could be used in classes up to 2 hours.
  • This activity was developed as an introduction to systems thinking, and the concept used for this activity can vary based on the students' knowledge, therefore, there are no prerequisite skills for this activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

Timing for the activity for a 50 minute class:
  • 10 min = framing the activity (including the objectives, introduction of the topic, a description of systems thinking, and a description of concept mapping)
  • 20 min = concept mapping activity
  • 15 min = identify a problem and map how addressing that problem affects the whole system
  • 5 min = wrap up and highlight how objectives were met

  • Materials needed:
  • White board/chalk board and colored markers/chalk

  • Description of the concept mapping activity:
  • Provide the students with a broad question that will be the topic for the concept mapping.
  • Either in small groups or as a whole class have the students say general concepts/issues that they think of when they hear the question. Write those concepts/issues on the board so that they can be referred to later, if needed.
  • Write the general topic/question on the board (e.g. ethanol production), and start the mapping exercise off by mapping one issue onto the general topic (e.g. corn prices). One option is to use different colored markers to indicate if the new issues are positively or negatively related to the general topic - with green for positive and red for negative (e.g. ethanol production INCREASES corn prices).
  • Have the students call out how the first issue affects other issues (e.g. increased corn prices increases the amount of land put into corn production). Continue this process, and try to be very responsive to where the student interest leads the process (the actual output of the map is much less important than the process). As interest in any particular line of topics wanes, start a new line of topics (e.g. ethanol production reduces dependence on foreign oil) - this is where the list of topics from the beginning of the activity is helpful.
  • As the concept map develops, make sure to draw lines connecting issues from different lines or highlight feedback loops. It is desirable for the map to be messy and complex. If there are disagreements among members of the class, for example, it is good to highlight that on the map (e.g. there might be debate on whether increased corn production increases or decreases soil erosion) - or there might be areas where more research is needed (or it is just unknown to the class).

  • Description of identifying a problem activity:
  • Systems thinking is characterized by the fact that there often aren't simple, linear solutions to problems - and problems are evaluated in the context of the whole system.
  • In this part of the activity, students are asked to identify an issue in the concept map that they think is undesirable (e.g. increased ethanol production results in increased land being removed from the Conservation Reserve Program). The whole class should select one issue that you all will collectively assess.
  • Ask the students how this issue could be remedied - and you could require that the remedy relate to the course content (e.g. a policy fix in a political science class). Again, one remedy is selected for the whole class (e.g. put a tax on corn production to reduce the amount of corn grown). A new color can be used to identify the remedy and it's effects.
  • As a class go through the map and indicate how that remedy would (likely) affect the other aspects of the concept map (e.g. a corn tax would increase the price of corn for animal feed). Additional effects can be added to the map as needed. Hopefully the remedy will affect many aspects of the map, and will result in some desirable and some undesirable outcomes to the system.
  • This part of the activity highlights how taking a cause-and-effect approach to problem solving in complex systems can result in ripple effects and unintended consequences.

  • Concept mapping activity example Power Point presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 532kB Jun12 12)

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    It is helpful if students aren't trying to take notes on the concept map as it is being created because then they are focused on writing the map down rather than being part of the process. The instructor can write down the map after class and send it to the students after class, if the map is needed.

    It is important that all of the students in the class are involved. If just one or two more vocal students are dominating the discussion, calling on students to solicit their opinions is necessary.


    The instructor can assign the students to either develop a new concept map about a new topic or further expand on the concept map developed in class - and to develop a recommendation for ways to improve the system. The map developed by the student should be assessed as to whether the student identified interrelationships among issues. The recommendation about ways to improve the system should be assessed as to whether the student articulated the complexity (and often no win-win answer) of the system and tradeoffs that occur with different alterations to the system.

    References and Resources