Howard Zeitz, M.D.; Angelo Pinto, Ph.D.

Rush Medical College (1); The Medical College of Pennsylvania (2)

In the last issue of the BSE, we introduced concept mapping, a tool for meaningful learning. In concept mapping, one identifies the important concepts from a subject and describes the relationship between those concepts with linking words. In this issue we discuss strategies for helping medical students acquire concept mapping skills, the experience with concept mapping at various medical schools, and the ways basic science faculty can use concept mapping.

It has been our experience that a workshop is the best way to introduce concept mapping to students. In the workshop, students are introduced to meaningful learning and concept mapping, shown examples of concept maps and given a guide on how to construct a concept map. Students are then separated into pairs (or small groups of 3-4) and given a short (2-3 paragraph) piece to concept map. The resulting maps are posted, and there is a 15 minute time for participants to view the concept maps of others. This activity has two goals: 1) it gives firsthand experience with mapping; and 2) it illustrates the idiosyncratic nature of concept mapping: each map is different because it reflects the thinking and experiences of the author(s). This “hands on” activity is followed by a debriefing where participants are asked to comment on their experience, with faculty available to answer questions.

It is important to assign students to construct 3-4 maps immediately following the workshop, as most students need time to become comfortable with the technique. Also, faculty should be available to evaluate the maps as students are acquiring skill in concept mapping.

This new skill in concept mapping can be used by students in many settings. At the Medical College of Pennsylvania concept mapping has been evaluated (on a voluntary basis) as a tool to help students organize and integrate the concepts presented in a traditional second-year Medical Microbiology and Immunology course. A similar program was recently started at the University of Florida medical school. Students believe that making a good concept map requires a thorough understanding of the material and that the maps are useful in helping to learn and understand the course material. Most students use concept maps to reinforce and understand the significance of what they are studying. Maps are also used to see how broad concepts are integrated, and as a guide for deciding what is important to understand. For traditional students, the biggest obstacle in using concept mapping is deciding what level of detail is appropriate (i.e., what are the essential concepts). Most students think that concept mapping is too time consuming if the level of detail is too specific. One common complaint from students is that they are often tested on minute detail, not on their understanding of the concepts or the relationships between concepts. Therefore, if you are planning touse concept mapping in a course, it may be important to also use it as an evaluation tool.

The technique of concept mapping also has been used in problem-based learning (PBL) programs at Rush Medical School and at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. Concept mapping lends itself beautifully to small group problem solving activities. First, students in PBL create a case specific “case model” (similar in many ways to a factual basic science concept map) to relate case data to hypotheses; each PBL group (4-6 students) will try to develop a preliminary model that relates the case data to their proposed hypotheses. This helps them to fully rationalize their hypotheses and to identify learning issues. Secondly, PBL students also use group and individual basic science concept maps to discuss basic science learning issues generated from the case. Finally, the technique is used is to revise the model for the case. This is usually a revision of the day one model and incorporates all of the case-specific data, the revised hypotheses and the most relevant basic science learning issues.

Basic science faculty also can benefit from concept mapping. As an example, a teacher can organize a lecture by making a concept map to use as a teaching guide. This will give a conceptual flow to the lecture and help the teacher pinpoint what he/she feels is important for students to understand. Such maps may be shared with students but this needs to be done cautiously; the tendency is for students to memorize the map, which does little in helping them to understand or integrate the material. The map may be given as a guide to help students see the organization and integration of the important concepts. Some students may want to build or expand on these maps. Secondly, maps can be used to obtain feedback; having students concept map a lecture you give can be an eye opening experience about what students think the important concepts in a lecture are and how they are related.


At this point, the reader may wonder: What does a typical basic science concept map look like? Figure 1 is a map summarizing key aspects concerning the concept of inflammation. Note that the map presents things in a general hierarchical structure, uses examples and has both horizontal and vertical relationships.


To date, concept mapping has been used in a variety of educational settings. It is a valuable learning tool to incorporate into medical education. Concept mapping can be used as an adjunct to other study methods, helping students organize and integrate information, gain new insights and detect areas where there are misunderstandings. Since concept maps represent the thinking and experiences of the map maker they can act as a visual mnemonic, helping one retrieve information. Finally, concept mapping can promote interaction between students who share maps or who make maps together, and between students and faculty who evaluate student maps and provide feedback.


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