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Concept mapping as a vehicle for gaining insight into students’ understanding of personal development. Institute for Applied Social Research M. Jankowska (1) and A. Gaitan (2) (1) Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, (2) Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health & Social Science.

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What is concept mapping cming

Concept mapping as a vehicle for gaining insight into students’ understanding of personal development

Institute for Applied Social Research

M. Jankowska (1) and A. Gaitan (2)

(1) Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning,

(2) Department of Psychology,Faculty of Health & Social Science

The central purpose of education is to empower learners to take charge of their own meaning making (Novak 1998:9)

Can concept mapping (CM) capture representations of personal development (PD) of students from different cultural backgrounds? Can it help tutors gain insight into students’ understanding of it? These questions contributed to an investigation of concept mapping in the intangible field of personal development – firstly as a research tool and secondly as a reflective tool supporting PDP (unintentional outcome).

  • Methodology

  • Interpretive, phenomenological approach – suitable for investigation of subjective perspectives on and understandings of personal development

  • Mixed method approach for triangulation (semi-structured interviews, concept maps, an evaluative questionnaire and documentary sources)

  • Grounded theory and content analysis

  • The data here concentrates on findings about the use and value of concept maps.


The data was gathered on a postgraduate module (winter 2007/08). 64 concept maps were content analysed (32 at the beginning and 32 at the end of module). 22 maps from 11 participants (also interviewed) were analysed in a greater detail (Jankowska 2009)

What is concept mapping (CMing)?

CMing (CMing) is a research tool which helps reveal learners’ knowledge of a particular topic and has been used, especially in science, to capture students representations of particular subjects, diagnose the gaps in knowledge, follow the progression or, in fact, measure the impact of specific interventions introduced (ref). But it can also be a powerful teaching tool for making the process of acquiring knowledge explicit. Novak (1998) believes that the visual representation of knowledge in the form of a CM promotes the interaction of new material with existing cognitive structures and in that way contributes to meaningful learning.

  • Key findings regarding concept mapping

  • Sketching a CM can reveal personal understanding and therefore provide a platform for personal development;

  • CMing can be a valuable scaffold for reflection and has also potential to move (at least for some) studentstowards deeper understanding and instigate change (and therefore offer opportunities for transformative learning);

  • Novak’s typology of learning (1998), which proposes a simple division to non-learning, rote learning and meaningful learning is too simplistic and not useful for discussions on personal development. A more open ended, phenomenographic approach, which recognises that CMs have a potential to initiate further reflection and knowledge construction can be more suitable. Such an approach should take into account the nature of personal development: non-linear, intangible, ‘soft’, difficult to capture and measure and marked with periods of incubation, stagnation, transition, progression and reaching some dead ends.

Examples of concept maps

Beginning of the semester End of the semester

Findings relating to cultural variations in understanding PD

Student 10 – second map

Student 10 – first map

Family and friends are high on the list for all the participants hence social life seems to be an important area of personal development, regardless of cultural background.

Concepts of marriage and children are specifically used by Africans and high on their priorities. Moreover, only Africans highlight religion as an important aspect of development.

CEE focus more on self exploration (self awareness, self improvement, self limits, personal satisfaction) and academic development (knowledge, experience). At the end of the course this tendency is retained and more concepts are added (e.g. self-actualisation, university). CCE are the only participants who explicitly use concepts of fun in learning and challenges.

A concept of educational qualifications seems to be of a big importance to Chinese and British participants. British participants used substantially more concepts and links in their maps than any other group (hence their maps are more complex). However, as the group was very small, it is difficult to draw any conclusions.

Chinese participants stress social life even more than others – apart from the concepts used by all the students (family, friends), they mention social activities and personality (beginning of the course) and relationship or being a useful person (at the end). They value education and educational qualifications a lot. They are the only group that openly stresses money, salary and life style (quality of life). In terms of career, at the beginning of the course they mentioned having own business; towards the end a general notion of a job is used more frequently.

Student 9 – first map

Student 9 – second map

Student 5 – second map

Student 5 – first map


- Discussion of the opportunities and challenges of CMing both for a researcher and participants

- Critique of current approaches

- Exemplification of the cultural variations in the visual and conceptual representation of PD

- Outline of an unintended research outcome – a discovered strength of CMing in supporting students’ reflection in the area of PDP.


Hay, D. B. (2007). Using Concept Maps to Measure Deep, Surface and Non-learning Outcomes. Studies in Higher Education, 32 (1), 39 – 57.

Hay, D.B. (2008) Developing dialogical concept mapping as an e-learning technology, British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (6), 1057-1060.

Hay, D. B. & Kinchin, I. M. (2006). Using Concept maps to reveal Conceptual Typologies. Emerald Education + Training, 48, (2-3), 127-142. Emerald Group Publishing Limiting.

Hay, D.B., Kinchin, I.M. (2008) Using concept mapping to measure learning quality, Education and Training 50 (2), 167-182.

Jankowska, M. (2009). Concept mapping technique as a vehicle for gaining insight into students’ understanding of personal development. Presentation on International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (ICERI), Madrid, 16-18 November 2009. (ICERI 2009 proceedings, ISBN: 978-84-613-2953-3).

Kinchin, I.M., Lygo-Baker, S., & Hay, D. B.. (2008). Universities as centres of non-learning. Studies in Higher Education 33(1), 89_103.

Kinchin, I.M., Cabot, L. B., & Hay, D. B.. (2008) Visualising expertise: towards an authentic pedagogy for higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(3), 315 – 326.

Novak, J.D. & Canas, A.J. (2006). The Theory Underlying Maps and How to Construct Them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2008", available at: