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Concept Maps Don't Work - Unless You Use Them Correctly

Many teachers are fans of using concept maps as a way to organize class notes and have students organize and present what they know. Mapping just seems like it ought to be an effective technique


Research indicates, however, that maps really aren’t that effective.

They’re certainly not as effective as the technique of retrieval practice.


Retrieval is a learning event. Practicing retrieval is a simple and effective way to enhance long-term, meaningful learning...[but it is] underutilized. Conversely, the most popular learning strategy among college students – repetitive reading – leads to very limited levels of learning. - A powerful way to improve learning and memory


But there is a caveat regarding the effectiveness of concept maps:  it has to do with how they are created.


If we give maps to students and don't require them to do anything other than look at the maps and take notes, then this is little better than just reading the text or reading their own notes. The visual layout of the notes does little to assist in the learning process.


If students have the book (or research article) and a concept mapping tool open on their desks they will likely just go back and forth between the map and the reading  and copy key ideas with only occasionally typing something original into the map.


There is no retrieval practice involved when concept maps are used this way.


A concept mapping activity would be more effective if we ask the students to:


  1. read the text or research thoroughly
  2. be able to explain the research to a friend
  3. only THEN create a concept map based upon what they understand (ideally without looking at the research article at all while creating the map)

This approach combines retrieval practice with concept mapping nicely.


So concept mapping is a fine tool to use, but the key to its success, like so many other tools, is the active involvement of the student in the building of them.




You can find much more information about how to effectively use concept maps in "Technology Integration for Meaningful Classroom Use: A Standards-Based Approach" by Cennamo, Ross and Ertmer. Log into MindTap and check it out! Login into MindTap


MindTap is included with Cengage Unlimited.