16 April 2013

Teaching with concept maps

One of the most challenging parts of the introductory biology (genetics and evolution) course I've been teaching this year is helping students understand how myriad biological phenomena and tools are related to each other. As a part of my macroevolution lesson on Monday, I provided students with a list of key words and instructed them to make a concept map. If you aren't familiar with these tools, I found this website to be a particularly useful introduction, although there are many others spanning a breadth of disciplines in which they may be used. 

After students had a chance to try their hand at mapping these terms on their own, I communicated a few ideas of my own for connecting different thoughts. I used the open-source software VUE, which has functionality far beyond what I've shown here. Below is one of my attempts to unite disparate ideas in a web-like format:
Of course, there are as many ways to relate these concepts as there are scientists thinking about these concepts. Part of that complexity arises from how you choose to relate the words. The example above shows quite simple relationships. Below is another example, in which the relationships are diagrammed in a much richer manner (arrows and labels on connections, color coding/nesting of ideas, concepts mapping to multiple other nodes). 

Is it perfect? Nope. Is it comprehensive? Certainly not. I've gradually learned over the course of my educational and professional career that my brain naturally builds connections between disparate content knowledge. Whereas other folks find concept mapping challenging because of misunderstanding the relationships between nodes, I find them frustrating because of an inability to exhaustively explore relationships. Concept maps are a balance between conveying information and rendering connections useless through convolution.

I'm not sure whether this exercise helped students. I'm going to provide a few examples of concept mapping schemes later this week as they prepare for their final. At the very least, some of the teaching assistants for the course found the activity interesting and useful. Minor victories!

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