Why use concept mapping for assessment?

50 years of evidence supports CM’s cognitive benefits—and the research is still growing!

Most everyone agrees: we should base educational practices on the best available evidence of their efficacy — not tradition, personal judgment, or other subjective influences. Accordingly, and wisely, most public education funds are reserved for evidence-based learning resources. Yet, this creates a challenge for education innovators as funding for large-scale efficacy studies are hard to come by.

In the case of concept mapping, early signs of significant promise helped mitigate this catch-22 by inspiring a 50-year history of evidence building. Across the globe, researchers and educators have offered empirical demonstrations of the benefits through anecdotal reports, case studies, and methodologically rigorous studies published in prestigious journals.

In the U.S., the evidence base proved solid enough for policymakers to include concept mapping as a prescribed interactive computer task in the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 2019 Science Framework. Indeed, countries as diverse as Costa Rica and India have called for broader inclusion of concept mapping in national-level curricula.

And the evidence continues to grow. Here are some findings from around the world, just since 2020. They illuminate uses for assessment and some of the challenges for implementation that are being effectively addressed by new software innovations.

1. “Concept maps can be used to replace rote learning with meaningful and enjoyable learning”

The purpose of this study was to find ways to help India’s National Education Policy meet its educational goals with concept mapping. The outcome of this review of the evidence base was highly favorable:

The outcome of the review is that Concept mapping can offer an effective tool in education for both, teaching and learning process […] Concept maps provide a unique graphical view of how students organize, connect, and synthesize information […] which develops critical thinking of the learners. Further, it provides platform for collaboration, discussion; arriving at shared understandings among members of groups.

“A journey towards the commitments of national education policy 2020 through concept mapping
Indian Journal of Science and Technology

2. “Concept maps are evidence based pedagogical tools”

This case study from Malaysia focused on concept mapping as an intervention to “transform the student into a critical, reflective individual” through four key facets of the education process: teaching, training, testing, and thinking.

Yes, students did grapple with ideas to identify meaningful cross links between concepts; this provided a platform for misconceptions to erupt which were revelations (sometimes startling!) for the teachers.

Concept Maps for Teaching, Training, Testing and Thinking

3. “[S]tudents’ treated with concept mapping method exhibited better conceptual understanding”

This study of 8th-grade science students in Ethiopia compared the test results of two groups: one group of randomly-selected students learned about photosynthesis using concept maps, and the other group learned through traditional lecture methods. The results were statistically significant:

The finding of this study indicated that students taught with CM method had better conceptual understanding and learning of photosynthesis concepts, and they retained what they have learnt during intervention than those who were taught using lecture method.

Effectiveness of Concept Mapping Based Teaching Methods on Grade Eight Students’ Conceptual Understanding of Photosynthesis at Ewket Fana Primary School, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education

4. “[C]oncept maps should be used as an alternative assessment of higher order thinking skills”

This higher education-based study based in the U.S. compared student performance on concept map test items versus multiple-choice, short answer, and essay items on the same exam. The results suggested that “concept maps may be less influenced by student language skills and short-term memory than written answers”, and that broader use could overcome a key implementation challenge:

[S]tudent inexperience with concept maps… is probably the biggest limitation of our study. This obstacle could be alleviated if more instructors were to use concept maps for organizing course content and assessing student learning.

Concept Maps for Structuring Instruction and as a Potential Assessment Tool in a Large Introductory Science Course
National Science Teaching Association

5. “The long-term benefits […] outweigh the short-term costs”

This study explored concept maps’ performance as a one of the approaches used in the Cultivating Diverse Talent in STEM project. The findings indicated concept mapping’s potential as a means of equitable assessment, as traditionally underrepresented students performed similarly to other students in concept mapping-based assessments:

[Physical and life science concept map] assessments are effective and equitable methods for identifying talented students from all demographic groups who can benefit from and be motivated to choose the opportunities offered (Alfaiz et al., 2020; Bahar & Maker, 2020; Maker, 2020a, 2020b; Sarouphim, 2002; Zimmerman et al., 2020).

Concept Maps as Assessments of Expertise: Understanding of the Complexity and Interrelationships of Concepts in Science
Journal of Advanced Academics

6. “[C]oncept maps are well accepted by [adult/higher education] students”

This review analyzed a collection of studies around the effects of concept mapping on adult learners. Despite some initial challenges involving “concept and link selection, student resistance, and software difficulties,” overall the review’s findings offer promise in key areas of learning:

Findings show that concept maps promote development of critical thinking skills, facilitate integration between theory and practice, develop meaningful learning, promote technology inclusion, promote student collaboration, can lead to better academic scores, and can be used as a tool for the learning progress and assessment.

Concept Mapping: Benefits and Challenges in Higher Education
The Journal of Continuing Higher Education

7. “The use of concept maps is always considered to be effective in the classroom”

This study from India summarized and analyzed the results of a questionnaire about concept mapping usage in the classroom. Eighty educators who responded unanimously affirmed concept mapping’s effectiveness, although they also noted challenges regarding the amount of effort required:

There are several teachers who are using concepts maps in their regular teaching learning process. […] However, there were some respondents who found making and implementing concept maps time-consuming and effortful. All opined that concept maps are in use and found effective in the teaching learning process.

The status of concept mapping in teaching learning process: Exploring the present awareness, use and challenges
Indian Journal of Science and Technology

Key Takeaways

Emerging research further bolsters concept mapping’s multi-faceted uses in education — from lesson planning, to collaborative learning, to assessment. While overwhelmingly corroborative of concept mapping’s benefits, there are some notable challenges to address in order to fully maximize its potential.

In order to effectively apply concept maps to the classroom, students and teachers need to have an understanding of the methods used to generate maps. Technology needs should also be considered before introducing concept maps, both in regards to hardware acquisition and initial software training.

Despite those up-front costs, emerging evidence continues to show the value of concept mapping in cultivating critical thinking, boosting student achievement, and closing learning gaps. Further, it surely warrants continued study to better understand and isolate its myriad cognitive benefits and applications.

For institutions of learning and educators across the nation that are seeking to invest in proven solutions for increasing student performance, there are ample research-based reasons to include concept mapping and supporting tools in their instruction toolbox.