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Concept Maps as Heuristic

posted: 6.19.13 by Nedra Reynolds

The best resources for writing teachers are students themselves, and learning from my students is my favorite part of teaching. I got the idea to assign concept maps to my undergraduate students after one of my graduate students developed one for his dissertation; we both realized what a huge impact the map had on his thinking process as well on as my reading experience and the reading experiences of his other committee members. 

Concept maps are time-consuming to develop but fascinating to unpack, and it’s become one of my favorite assignments for classes that read and discuss theory or big ideas.  The process of creating them—even if they aren’t graded—is worth the class time because students need to make so many decisions (content as well as presentation) and most importantly, dive into the relationships between or among ideas—relationships of different degrees or depth.  Representing those relationships to readers or viewers becomes a terrific exercise in visual rhetoric.

Here’s the concept map that Matthew Ortoleva created and introduced to readers in his 2010 dissertation–and what I shared with my WRT 490 students to get them started on their own concept maps:



What I appreciate about Matt’s document is that it conveys a lot in one page (and just over 100 words).  It means something more or different, of course, for those who are also reading the (multiple!) accompanying pages, but even as stand-alone, the main ideas of the project come through.

Students dissected this map together:  what do the rectangles mean, the broken lines, the lines without arrows?  Why are there different fonts, both in size and style?  Most importantly, what does this visual accomplish when it is part of a lengthy document characterized mostly by words?  What work does this visual representation do and how?

When we started the concept map project in my 400-level rhetoric class, we had read and discussed eight scholarly articles on audience, and their job was to create (in groups of 4 or 5) a concept map that their fellow students could use to study for the final exam. I expected these maps to be their study guides and a record of what they had learned or figured out about audience, but my delightful discovery was the concept maps became a powerful heuristic.  Rather than a reference, the concept maps allowed students to make discoveries and connections they wouldn’t have made without this task.

I distributed poster-sized sheets of paper for them to use once they were ready, but I was surprised by how much they invested in making them and how interesting some of their discussions were, like if they should include a legend or how they might use a dominant metaphor.  (And as a footnote, I was also struck by how much they relied upon pencils and pens and papers to make these maps, not a single group choosing to create it with electronic tools.)

Here’s just one of the concept maps that resulted:

In the two classes where I’ve tried concept maps, the variety has been amazing, confirming for me that there are many paths through the same material, and all of them are interesting.

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One Response to “Concept Maps as Heuristic”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    This looks like a great alternative for visual learners, Nedra. For every student who loves outlines and jotted lists, there is another student who needs this kind of visualization and mapping. Thanks for sharing it.