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Developing Concept Maps

Making Thinking Visible

Concept maps are visual representations of linkages/connections between a major concept and other knowledge students have learned. Concept maps are excellent tools to provide instructors with diagnostic pre-assessment prior to beginning a unit and formative assessments during learning activities. Concept maps also provide immediate visual data to geoscience instructors on student misconceptions and their level of understanding. Angelo and Cross (1993) indicate that concept maps develop student abilities in certain critical areas. Among these are:
  • The ability to draw reasonable inferences from observations
  • The ability to synthesize and integrate information and ideas
  • The ability to learn concepts and theories in the subject area

Getting Started With Concept Mapping

Students may not be familiar with concept maps and it is suggested that they practice with familiar concepts. Michael Zeilik's website Concept Maps provides step by step directions on the construction and use of concept maps in the college classroom. Concept maps can provide a springboard for classroom discussions of systems and relationships among major and sub-concepts in the geosciences. They can be used to focus learning if concept maps are developed by the instructor, or may be used as pre-diagnostic assessment tools or formative assesments as concepts are developed.

Formative Assessment Using Concept Mapping: A Geoscience Application

At the beginning of an Introductory Metroeorology unit on Moisture in the Atmosphere the instructor passes out copies of a concept map (Acrobat (PDF) 450kB May2 05) to her students. The major concepts are identified, but detail is missing. As the unit progresses the instructor asks students to add to the original concept map. For example the students could add:
  • the types of reservoirs that occur on land
  • different types of precipitation
  • additional mechanisms such as transpiration
As the unit progresses the students continue to see the major concepts repeatedly, and the instructor can track student understandings of the relationships of parts to the whole (or misconceptions) as they arise by collecting and reviewing the concept maps.


  • Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (Second Edition). Angelo and Cross, 1993 This book by Thomas Angelo and K. Patricia Cross provides a practical guide to help faculty develop a better understanding of the learning process in their own classrooms and assess the impact of their teaching upon it. The authors offer detailed how-to advice on classroom assessment - from what it is and how it works to how to plan, implement, and analyze assessment projects. Their approach is illustrated through numerous case studies. The book features fifty Classroom Assessment Techniques, each presented in a format that provides an estimate of the ease of use, a concise description, step-by-step procedures for adapting and administering the technique, practical advice on how to analyze the data and other useful information. (citation and description)
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques: Concept Mapping. This page describes concept maps, one of a series of Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) provided by the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) website. The CATs of FLAG were constructed as a resource for science, technology, engineering and mathematics instructors to emphasize deeper levels of learning and to give instructors valuable feedback during a course. A concept map is a diagram of nodes adjoined by directional lines and organized in hierarchical levels that move from general to specific concepts. Concept maps are used to assess how well students see the big picture, and to illustrate students' conceptual knowledge. This site provides an overview of this assessment instrument that includes information about how to use them. This site is also is linked to a set of discipline-specific tools that can be downloaded for immediate use, as well as supplementary links and sources to further explore this assessment tool. ( This site may be offline. )
  • Assessment and Active Learning Strategies for Introductory Geology Courses. McConnell et al. (2003) This article describes several techniques to promote active learning in the classroom and compares classes taught using these with those using traditional lectures. General education Earth Science classes was evaluated using formative assessment exercises conducted by students in groups. (Full Text Online)
  • Using Concept Maps to Plan an Introductory Structural Geology Course. [Clark and James, 2004] This article in the Journal of Geoscience Education describes a method of designing a structural geology course by using concept mapping. A detailed description of concept mapping is provided as well as an explanation as to why this approach is used and effective in planning a structural geology course. Also included in this article are examples of concept maps referring to structural geology topics. (Full Text Online)
  • Concept Map Assessment of Classroom Learning: Reliability, Validity, and Logistical Practicality. [McClure and Sonak, 1999] This article in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching evaluates the characteristics and practicality of concept mapping as a technique for classroom assessment. Results indicate that the time required to provide training in concept mapping, have students produce maps, and then score them justifies the use of concept mapping as an effective and efficient classroom assessment technique. (citation and description)
  • Assessing Science Understanding: A Human Constructivist View. [Novak, Mintzes and Wandersee, 2000] This book by Joel J. Novak, James H. Mintzes, and Joseph D. Wandersee describes different kinds of assessments for measuring student understanding of science concepts. The book explores many assessment types and how they can be used in the classroom to improve instruction and learning. Topics include assessment concept maps, structured interviews, observations, portfolios and written products. The book also provides useful examples, data, and extensive references to the literature. (citation and description)
  • Comparison of the Reliability and Validity of Scores From Two Concept Mapping Techniques. [Ruiz-Primo et al., 2001] This paper from the Journal of Research in Science Teaching reports the results of a study that compared two concept-mapping techniques; one high-directed, “fill-in-the-map,” and one low-directed, “construct-a-map-from-scratch.” The article examines whether skeleton map scores were influenced by the sample of nodes or linking lines to be filled in; if the two types of skeleton maps were equivalent; and if the two mapping techniques provided similar information about students' understanding. The authors conclude that the construct-a-map technique better reflects differences among students' knowledge structure. (citation and description)
  • Novel Assessments: Detecting Success in Student Learning. [Williams et al., 2004] This journal article from Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment illustrates how multiple methods can be used to assess student understanding. The authors describe four assessment techniques, including a knowledge probe, paired questions, concept mapping and experimental problems, and suggest that these methods will engage students in diverse ways to demonstrate their understanding. (citation and description)