Concept Maps: Evaluation Models for Educators

Edson Coutinho

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Concept Maps: Evaluation Models for Educators

Edson Coutinho

Business Department, Centro Universitário da FEI, Sáo Bernardo do Campo, Brazil


Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. This paper aims to present seven models in order to assess concept maps of students in classroom. These assessment models provide teachers (or professors) with a tool to evaluating concept maps and reinforcing the learning method instead of traditional teaching methods present in some higher educational institutions, such as in Brazil. To build this paper, this author made a deep research in national and international journals in order do find assessment models of concept maps. This paper does not propose to debate or discuss which model is considered the most suitable for the assessment. However it is possible to observe that the models have some “common” dimensions of evaluation, even though three of them have a larger number of dimensions or assessment. Thus, it is up to educators to choose the most suitable model for their needs and also considering the scope of each course. Future studies should put in practice some of these models with purpose to foment this knowledge area.

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Cite this article:

  • Coutinho, Edson. "Concept Maps: Evaluation Models for Educators." Journal of Business and Management Sciences 2.5 (2014): 111-117.
  • Coutinho, E. (2014). Concept Maps: Evaluation Models for Educators. Journal of Business and Management Sciences, 2(5), 111-117.
  • Coutinho, Edson. "Concept Maps: Evaluation Models for Educators." Journal of Business and Management Sciences 2, no. 5 (2014): 111-117.

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1. Introduction

People organize meanings regarding the knowledge or content in a more efficient way when they consider learning more general and inclusive about a particular subject. In this case, the concept maps emerge as a possibility to facilitate meaningful learning through diagrams that can be drawn by means of key concepts. As a result, the concept maps have become an educational resource as demonstrated in Novak and Cañas [12] and Oliveira and Frota [15] studies. For these authors the concept maps are a sort of tool for intervention of a teacher (or professor) in their theoretical classes and in practical activities. The concept maps may be used by students to take notes, to solve problems, to plan studies, to organize reports, to study for exams and to identify and integrate topics of a subject. For educators, the concept maps may help in teaching a new topic in a course, to enhance the understanding from the moment the students make connections and a hierarchy of concepts through the tree structure and the learning assessment. In summary, the conceptual maps allow an approach of the students to the concepts studied by them, from a methodology focusing on student learning and not the educator teachings.

In general, the concept maps are intended to understand how the students connect and line up the concepts presented in the classroom. Thus, a question comes out: “how could an educator evaluate a concept map drawn by a student?” This paper aim to present seven models for assessment of concept maps in order to understand how the students organize in their cognitive the concept of a given subject. This paper does not propose to debate or discuss which model is considered the most suitable for the assessment. It is up to educators to choose the most suitable model for their needs and also considering some constraints such as: course characteristics, subject content, age of students and, also, the purpose of the educational institution. The insights for the development of this paper emerged from the implementation of a Pedagogical Course Project (PCP) based on the competency-based education in an undergrad course of Business in a University located in São Paulo State. In this PCP the concept maps is one of the main teaching/learning tools used to assess students in this course. Therefore, the contribution of this paper is towards education, providing educators to use the graphical representation of concept map in conducting their classes, mechanisms or assessment alternatives.

2. What is Concept Map?

Coined by Joseph Donald Novak in a research program at Cornell University in 1972, concepts maps have been designed with the purpose to monitor and understand changes in children’s knowledge regarding the understanding of science [14]. In the course of this program, the researchers interviewed a number of children and had difficulty identifying specific changes in the understanding of scientific concepts. Novak based his research program on Ausubel's theory. Ausubel was a researcher, which developed studies about the cognitive psychology and believed that learning was given through the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing concepts and proportional systems already present in the student (or individual).

This knowledge structure is called cognitive structure of the individual. Having as a challenge to find a better way to represent conceptual understanding of children, Novak came up with the idea that children’s knowledge could be represented by a sort of concept maps. Based on this study, Novak designed and presented a new tool and a new opportunity that might be used to comprehend the way individuals organize the concepts cognitively for the understanding of some subject [14].

Novak developed the concept maps from diagrams indicating relationship between concepts or between words that are used to represent other concepts. The concept maps are structures that present the most general concepts down to specific ones; they are used with the purpose of organizing and sequencing content hierarchically [13]. It is worth mentioning that the concept maps cannot and should not be misunderstood with any charts or diagrams, since the purpose is not the same. Concept maps are hierarchically organized from the lines, the relationship among several concepts identified and explained by the individuals, then it is up to them to build cognitively the relationship among concepts and recognize what is more important about a given subject.

The concept maps are based on human cognition, and soon they attracted the interest of educators seeking new alternatives in terms of teaching pedagogies. The concept maps come up to provide the students (at any level) the relationship among concepts that other pedagogies do not provide in order to build a knowledge base about a particular topic or subject. It should be emphasized that there is no way a student establishes relationships among contents, if the basic concepts were not handed out previously and absorbed by them. Here, it is recognized that the contribution of Ausubel becomes so necessary in concept maps through the theory of meaningful learning, where students create links among concepts from the proposition. This researcher brings in the scope of their studies, the perspective that students acquire and organize concepts according to their cognitive structure, in other words, by student’s perception [1] and [13].

There is no doubt that the concepts are the basis of human understanding. Fodor [6] does a metaphor when characterize that the concepts are as “atoms” of human thought; Vergnaud [17] argues that the conceptualization is at the “core” of cognitive development. This researcher believes the field of knowledge does not exist without concepts, because human knowledge consists of conceptual fields. Therefore, it is possible to answer the probable question: why are concepts important? Because without them there is no understanding about of anything, there is no cognitive development and the individuals living in a world of concepts.

This same author defines the theory of conceptual fields from three sets: (I) a set of situation that gives sense and constitutes its referent; (II) a set of invariants (the categories of thoughts seen as relevant); propositions understood as being true about the reality; and relationships (the operation of the concept and its meaning); (III) and a set of symbolic representations that form its significant. For Moreira [8] the role of concepts in knowledge constructions is the motto of the conceptual maps and should centralize the activities of teaching and learning, since without them the individual is not able to have understanding of the knowledge and the human cognition would be harmed. In this sense, Ausubel defines that concept learning is given in two ways: one is the construction of concepts from real experiences, learning by discovery and by the comprehension of the other concepts; and second in which new knowledge may be obtained by interaction and “anchoring” under concepts existing in the cognitive structure of the individual.

But, when recognize the meaningful learning? In this case, when individual absorb new information and “anchor” on concepts or relevant propositions pre-existing in their cognitive structure. To be meaningful learning, it is necessary to establish the relationship between the theme that will be learned from the cognitive structure of the individual, by not arbitrary and not literal way. Another possibility is the predisposition that the individual must have in order to link, not arbitrary and not literal, the new subject with the pre-existing concepts, and learning will be distinguished in proportion of their willingness and interest in such relationships. For Novak and Cañas [13], when learning is significant, there is integration which is positive and it results in human enhancement. The human being thinks, acts, and understands the concepts in an integrated way.

Thus, it is possible to draw up an analogy between the meaningful learning and mechanical learning. In the meaningful learning prioritizes some aspects, such as: meant, understanding, transferring ability, relationship among concepts. In the mechanical learning four aspects are prevalent: (I) new content is “stored” in a literal way, without interaction; (II) educators present the concepts; students memorize and “decorate” the concepts; (III) the students generate a dislike to certain content of subjects, mostly those related to field of human sciences; (IV) there is less knowledge kept concerning the content, thus, it will be gradually oblivious. It seems that in mechanical learning, there is low level or no integration of new knowledge with existing ones, resulting in negative consequences: the learned knowledge tends to be soon forgotten; and the structure of knowledge (or cognitive) is not reinforced or modified to clarify misconceptions. Therefore, the learned knowledge has little or no potential for use in training or solving problems.

3. Concept Maps versus Mind Maps

Tony Buzan was an English mathematician and psychologist, who created mind maps in the end of the 1960s. Buzan conceived this tool through the observations of the behaviors of students and co-workers who obtained great results using different strategies work and to record their information. Buzan found that they got a great performance from designs, colors, illustrations, symbols and arrows and record of study texts with colored pens. Soon, his study was based on the psychology of learning and Buzan took the view that ideas are not created by the human brain in an organized manner, but rather chaotic; as images seemingly unconnected and random, which will become clear as the neural network of the brain works their relationships with the experiences already witnessed. Before such principle, Buzan created the mind map as a way to draw and structure the thinking that enables quick and deep exploration of ideas, without losing focus of the central theme. It is a graphical representation that designs the process of thinking about a particular subject or theme, though a process of stimulating creative thinking, by means planning, summarization and memorization. This technique allows relating a set of ideas that new ideas emerge, reaching a virtuous circle that is the focus of creative thinking [3].

Mind mapping is a powerful tool for recording information non-linearly, ie, drawn from “webs”, where the main idea is placed at the center, because the ideas are only described with keywords and illustrated with images, icons and many colors. A mind map must be structured from a “tree” and its “branches”; where the center the main trunks expand each topic from the main subject, and each of them come out “branches” smaller with explanatory details. The “web” format of a mind map enables a strong structure through the bindings created, because while linked each other, can be benefit from the support of the entire structure, helps strengthen and understanding it. When drawn, a mind map is organizing a hierarchy and the topics of subject, while summarizing, providing a global view, showing details and interconnections of the subject and the use of figures and colors can promote memorization of information to “encourage” the brain.

Thereby, the mind map is a useful tool for various applications, such as lecture notes, book summaries, planning lectures, etc. In short, to organize thinking similarly to the way the brain works, because the mind map improvement their skills, promoting the understanding, analysis, interpretation and records of the subject. Buzan and Buzan [4] identified some advantages in using the mind map in relation to the traditional way of record: (I) reductions in record time information, avoiding loss of content; (II) reduction in reading time: easier identify and memorizing information; (III) reduction in time to identify keywords in a text, since the mind map these are words used; (IV) and stronger correlation between the information.

Thus, the question comes out: what are the benefits that mind maps provide for those who use them? First, the organization of knowledge and greater opportunities for application. Second, it is easier and safer to remember about subjects learned previously. Third, focusing on what is relevant and important about some specifically topic. Fourth, increased productivity in the study; and Fifth, the information is more structured and secure. However, the development of mind maps depends on several factors: the resources that the individual has; the individual's goals and needs; the content to be mapped and its current format; the individual's level knowledge about the content; the individual's experience with mind map; and the individual's experience about software to assist them in the drawn and modify the mind maps. In summary, the ideal is the structural unit of mind maps.

This guideline leads to mind maps that are known mnemonic, because: contain keywords that are used to reactive memories; serve to develop memory and make easy the memorization (through technical exercise); and should be easy to remember about some sort of subject. This means that mind maps are as a network of concepts linked and connected, where goals are finding creative associations between the ideas [9] and [18]. There is no doubt that the mind map has the major advantage of freely and without restrictions to prepare the structure; but the main disadvantage is that the links are restricted to simple associations, and is no efficient for an aim which requires an understanding of how a concept is essential to understand the other. For this case, the concept map seems to become more effective. The Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows the structural differences between the two sorts of maps.

Figure 1. Structure of the Conceptual Maps

Nevertheless, the concept maps may produce to educators the following benefits: (i) summarize and integrate concepts; (ii) make easy the understanding of complex concepts; (iii) understand connections among several concepts; (iv) assisting in the teaching and learning process; (v) increase the "role" of students learning; (vi) learn concepts from relations and propositions; (vii) make students to show the understanding about some subject; (viii) organize concepts through hierarchies. However, the challenges are: awareness that concept maps cannot be applied in all classes and the educators must set up criteria to evaluate the maps.

4. Models for Assessment of the Concept Maps

One of the biggest challenges of the concept maps is the evaluation process, due to the fact that the map is prepared by the perception of individuals learning. In the other words, there are no maps 100% incorrect (or wrong). However, there are some models using assessment scales, for example 0-3; and there are others who assess using: great, good, acceptable and unacceptable. In order to provide a variety of options of assessment, it will be exposed seven alternatives for assessing a concept map. We will not discuss the merits about what is the best or worst, but rather, provide the reference parameters for evaluation.

The first model prepared by Bartels [2] established three assessment parameters: concepts and terminology; knowledge of the relationships between concepts; and ability to communicate through concepts maps, as follows in Table 1. The second model is from Cronin, Dekker and Dunn [5], and has a structure very similar to Novak and Gowin [14]: concepts; grouping; hierarchy, branching and proposition, as follows in Table 2. The third model was prepared by the National Computation Science Education Consortium [11] from Louisiana, United States. This model evaluates the conceptual map based on three components: structure, content and cooperation, as follows in Table 3. The fourth model was prepared by University of Minnesota [16], where the assessment considers five scales: structure, relationship, exploratory and communication, as follows in Table 4. The fifth model was designed by Novak and Gowin [14] and refers as scoring criteria for concept maps. Nevertheless, this model is structured in four levels: propositions; hierarchy; cross links; and examples, as follows in Table 5. The sixth model, built by McMurray [7], is based on Novak and Gowin [14] model. The assessment model has six parameters: breadth, interconnectivity, use of descriptive links, efficiency of links, layout, development over time, as follows in Table 6. Finally, Mueller [10], who developed the seventh assessment model concept map. The author has established four assessment parameters: legible, accurate, complete, and sophisticated, as follows in Table 7.

It must be acknowledged, from the seven models of evaluation of conceptual maps, the different views of the authors who produced such models. It is not for them to hold a position on which is the best or worst model, since these authors draw no empirical research to make conclusions. The focus is to awaken interest "mappers" in the practices of drawing concept maps. The author wanted to show in this paper that there are several options for the assessment of concept maps. However, it is worth saying that the "mappers" should consider certain questions to establish the method to be used: profile of students, course content and educational institution.

5. Final Considerations

It is clear in this paper that the concept maps are: (I) effective in identifying valid and invalid ideas; (II) understood as knowledge in construction, because they fit into a social constructivist-interactionist perspective; (III) tools for sequentially organize content using ideas from progressive differentiation (those dealing inclusive) and integrative reconciliation (delineating similarities and differences between the selected ideas); (IV) concepts and threads that should be explained by those who make them, because the author is externalizing meanings; (V) flexible instruments that can be used in several situations and purposes; (VI) effective for focusing the content expected to be learned; (VII) applied to students who already have some familiarity with the content, because then they will be able to realize the integration, reconciliation and differentiation of meanings; (VIII) dynamic, since it reflects the understanding from who does it and when does it. So while the concept map works with several progressive ideas to achieve a concept, the mind map follows several pathways targeted by an idea.

Regardless of the model assessment of concept maps chosen by the educator, they should be used to assist students to enhance their maps and, consequently, their knowledge on a specific topic. This paper does not have the purpose to point out what is the best and the worst model, but rather to relate the reference parameters used to assess the concept maps. It was observed that there are models: broader; more complete, with better scales or evaluation categories; and some that contains parameters redundant. However, in general, one might note that all models use some ordinary parameters in order to assess: (I) the progressive organization of the concepts; (II) the concept network of relationship or built ideas; (III) the words or phrases that will concatenate the concepts cognitive, map the visual aspects, which relate to how the student communicates; (IV) and how the concepts maps can be clear, concise and explained descriptively from the characteristics about the subject. As much as the above assessment models are available, nothing prevents an educational professional might prepare their own model. Nevertheless, it worth mentioning that the concept maps are idiosyncratic nature; thus lets open up new possibilities for its assessment. In summary, assessment model must come from learning expectations that the educator expect with regards its students.

Wherefore, to say what is the best or the worst assessment model of concept maps would be premature and reckless in this paper, since it would fit an empirical study on institutions and courses to conduct plausible explanations from what the best way to assess a conceptual map, even though Cronin, Dekker and Dunn [5], University of Minnesota [16] and McMurray [7] models include a larger number of dimensions for the assessments. Therefore, we suggest future studies to test the models presented in this paper, to know, in fact, which one(s) is(are) considered the most appropriate(s) to assess the concept maps produced by students.


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