A concept is a thought, notion, or an abstract idea developed from a situation or particular instance experienced by the learner. Concept mapping consists of diagrams that represent an organized visualization of a concept and its associations or explanations (Novak & Gowin, 1984). The use of concept mapping as an educational tool is well established through many branches of learning, including nursing (Schanze & Grüb-Niehaus, 2008; MacNeil, 2007; Trochim, 2009). Knowledge derived from the nursing process flows remarkably well into the overall design of a concept map. Although similar to other types of knowledge mapping, concept mapping provides a unique structure to gather major concepts together with direct linkages that can be easily visualized and readily examined.
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Properly prepared concept mapping will allow the learner to venture into all the learning domains, including cognitive, affective, and psychomotor; as well as allow the educator to move from a teacher-centered learning environment to one that is learner-centered. Concept mapping is designed to promote meaningful learning by the student, and allow for an effective formative or summative evaluation method by the educator. As the map is designed, the learner can incorporate new knowledge and reject inaccurate concepts and ideas. The map can also refine knowledge with examples or events, and allow for learning rather than route memorization. For the educator, the concept map can demonstrate the depth of the learner’s knowledge, and visually depict what the educator must emphasize to complete the learning process. The educator can also rapidly develop further learning opportunities through critical thinking exercises employing proposed changes to existing concept maps.
Concept Mapping Theory
Concept mapping was developed in 1972 as part of an effort at Cornell University to study the ability of young children to obtain basic scientific concepts. The design was the result of research into the cognitive psychology of learning and the constructivist epistemology. Based on Ausubel’s theory of learning, concept mapping attempts to emphasize the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning (Novak & Cañas, 2006). Rote learning occurs when new information is added to the learner’s prior knowledge framework in a random and verbatim fashion. Thus, there is little permanent structure and the new information is rapidly forgotten. In meaningful learning, the new information is linked to the learner’s prior knowledge framework in a conscious and purposeful manner, thus producing a stable structure and substantial change in the way the learner experiences learning, in other words a conceptual change (National Institute for Science Education’s College Level One Team, University of Wisconsin, n.d.). This relationship is shown in Figure 1.
Further studies and collaboration on concept mapping use and design, including work at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Florida, led to integration of concept mapping with software tools and enabled rapid application of the concept mapping framework to numerous disciplines.
Concept Mapping Design
In concept mapping, graphical representations are arranged in two predominant manners. First, in the hierarchical fashion, the main topic or question is displayed at the top of the diagram, with inclusive and general concepts near the top and specific, less general concepts arranged in a progressively downward pattern (see Figure 2). The other most common concept map design is in a circular fashion, known as the spider method, with the core topic or idea in the center immediately surrounded by inclusive and general concepts, becoming less specific and more general the further from the core (see Figure 3).
Other less common concept mapping methods include the flow path method, where concepts are linked together in a progressively linear fashion to represent a final concept, and the systems method, where input and output concepts are related to the central concept in a production-line style of visualization. Still other methods of concept mapping may be developed to reflect the learner’s or the educator’s vision of representation.
Typically, concepts are enclosed in boxes, circles, or other geometric shapes with the relationships identified by connecting lines. There are descriptors on the connecting lines that specify the nature of the relationships. Concepts may also be cross-linked to show relationships between domains of knowledge or concepts located in different areas of the map (Cañas, 2003). Examples, events, or possible solutions can also be included, although these may not be boxed or circled, and the connecting lines can be dashed or dotted to represent an unsubstantiated relationship.
Concept Mapping Construction
Many methods can be used to construct a concept map. In general, the process will begin as follows: identify a question related to a process or problem; identify the key concepts of the process or problem; rank these concepts in order by identifying the most descriptive and broadest concept then narrowing the descriptions until the most specific concept is listed last; connect the concepts by links, using notations to represent the relationship between the concepts and enable meaning to the linkage; provide examples, including social, personal, and professional examples to clarify the concept or the relationship between concepts; and then continue to link, add examples, and promote the relationships. Some constructors may find it useful to perform this design using post-it notes or index cards, and arranging their ideas on a table or white board to allow for ease of concept ranking, as well the ability to provide easy changes of relationships and rapid visualization of data. The novice and expert alike may also use various shapes and colors to designate concepts and subconcepts to make the map clearer.
Concept Mapping Software
Although concept mapping may be performed with pen, paper, and other non-electronic methods, there are a number of software programs that can be used to provide a variety of concept maps with ranges of detail. In addition to using traditional word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, or Corel WordPerfect or Corel Draw to construct concept maps, specific concept mapping software has been developed. The IHMC, a coalition of Florida universities, has developed Cmap Tools, a robust concept map developer that is free for use (IHMC, 2009). This software also includes a search feature that allows the user to search a wide variety of public Cmap databases for sample concept maps.
Other software programs that are specific to concept map construction includes Axon Idea Processor, 3D Topicscape, Inspiration, MindGenious, MindMapper, MindView, Semantica, SmartDraw, Spinscape, and Tinderbox. Several of these software packages are available in multiple programming formats, in addition to several languages, and are free for download.
Concept Mapping Example
As an example to demonstrate concept-mapping construction, a learner is assigned to research the disease process sepsis, and make a presentation to the class. The learner studies several peer reviewed journal articles (DellaCroce, 2009; Nelson, LeMaster, Plast, & Zahner, 2009; Steen, 2009) to obtain the latest information on the disease process, and decides to develop a concept map to explain the pathophysiology, risk factors, diagnostic tests, and treatments for sepsis. The learner develops a table to highlight the ideas that will be outlined on the concept map (see Table 1). Finally, using the CmapTools Knowledge Modeling Kit, Version 5.03, the learner prepares the concept map (see Figure 4).
Preparation for Developing a Concept Map
1. Identify a question related to a process or problem
What is sepsis? How is it diagnosed? What are the signs and symptoms? How is it treated?
2. Identify the key concepts of the process or problem
Invading Microorganism, Sepsis, Inflammatory Response, Organ Failure, Systemic Inflammatory Response, Septic Shock, Treatments, Risk Factors, Infection, Death
3. Rank these concepts in order by identifying the most descriptive and broadest concept, then narrowing the descriptions until the most specific concept is listed last
1) Invading Microorganism
3) Inflammatory Response
4) Systemic Inflammatory Response
6) Septic Shock, Severe Sepsis
7) Organ Failure
8) Treatment, Risk Factors, Diagnostic Tests
4. Connect the concepts by links, using notations to represent the relationship between the concepts and enable meaning to the linkage
Links are Pathophysiology, Leads To, Plus, Can Lead To, Organ Failure
5. Provide examples, including social, personal, and professional examples to clarify the concept or the relationship between concepts
Vital Signs, Signs of Organ Failure, Criteria for Determining Sepsis
Table 1: Preparation for Developing a Concept Map
Concept Mapping Advantages
Concept maps provide several advantages over other methods of instruction and evaluation. Concept maps can provide the learners access to a “big picture” view of the topic of interest, allowing the student to advance to conceptual understanding rather than simple memorization or rote learning. This in turn can provide the student the bases for critical thinking. Concept maps are also easy to construct.
Concept maps can also be used as both an instructional strategy for the educator or a learning activity for the learner. As a learning activity, the student can acquire the desired knowledge, performance, and behaviors specified by the curriculum (Caputi & Blach, 2008).
In situations such as developing continuing education opportunities for existing nursing staff, the use of concept mapping can aid in learning new content through visualization, as many staff prefer visual or kinesthetic learning (Nursing Times, 2009).
In cases where students need a platform to reduce anxiety generated prior to testing due to a lack of surety on whether the critical aspects of a clinical lesson were studied, the use of concepts maps can help students organize data, determine complex relationships between patient data and disease processes, and provide the student with an overall picture of the care provided to their patient (Hsu, 2004).
Concept Mapping Disadvantages
Although concept mapping has many advantages, some disadvantages exist. The wide variety of possible concept map designs can lead to additional evaluation time by the educator as students use different construction techniques. Grading of the differing concept maps may also lead to difficulties unless the educator uses strict grading criteria, such as a detailed assignment rubric. The use of concept mapping may also require a paradigm shift by learners used to only the memorization method of learning. This can sometimes cause difficulty as the learner transitions to the new method of learning.
Concept Mapping Use in Learning Domains
The cognitive domain includes knowledge and skill development. As cognitive learning occurs, the learner is able to recall facts, patterns, and concepts that will result in the development of intellect. Concept mapping is primarily based on the cognitive domain, as the learner combines concepts into a framework that can develop critical conceptions and critical thinking.
The affective domain includes learning that is based on our interaction with our environment through feelings, values, motivations, and attitudes. Concept mapping draws into the affective domain through the construction of the framework, and the use of the environment to provide definition to the concept, and the use of values, attitudes, and feelings to link the concepts together to promote understanding.
The psychomotor domain includes learning in the physical domain, such as movement, coordination, and development of motor skills. Psychomotor learning is measured through speed, precision, and techniques in execution. Concept mapping lends well to learning in the psychomotor domain, as the learner physically constructs the concept map using a variety of tools and software.
Concept Mapping in Nursing Education
Concept mapping is used at several levels in nursing education. By using concept mapping as a learning process in nursing undergraduate education, the educator can develop and refine critical thinking skills in the learner through generating ideas, promoting nonlinear relationships between patient data and complex disease processes, and forcing the learner to visualize the application of nursing theory to nursing practice (Abel & Freeze, 2006; Phelps, Wallen, Cusack, Castro, Muehlbauer, et al., 2009).
One of the most common uses of concept mapping in nursing is the use of concept mapping to demonstrate the nursing process in care planning. Each component of the nursing process (assessment, diagnosis, planning, intervention, and evaluation) can be presented around a disease process; or patient problems can be identified and relationships established between the problems to develop a holistic perspective of patient care (Taylor & Wros, 2007). See Figure 5.
Concept mapping can also be used effectively in formative, as well as summative assessment. In the formative assessment, the educator can provide a baseline concept map with the major concept listed and several basic relationships identified prior to lecture. The student can use the concept map during the lecture to identify further concepts and relationships, and build upon the baseline concept map to develop their knowledge base. Once the lecture is completed, the educator can use the learner’s maps to evaluate the effectiveness of their lecture, as well as the effectiveness of the learner’s attention, by examining the completed concept maps and comparing these maps to the lecture’s objectives (MacNeil, 2007). The baseline concept map can also be developed by the learner prior to class, such as in a homework assignment, and then completed during lecture as well.
Figure 5: Sample care plan concept map (Ackley & Ladwig, 2006).
In a summative assessment, the educator can require a summative concept map at the end of the course to evaluate overall course objectives, as well as provide the learner with a valuable tool for future reference.
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Concept Mapping Function in a Learner Centered Environment
Concept mapping has been used in both undergraduate and graduate nursing as an analytical tool to organize existing knowledge, synthesize new knowledge, and prioritize information in a logical, visual sequence. Concept mapping develops nonlinear cognitive function that can promote critical thinking and clinical decision making in nurses (Wilgis & McConnell, 2008). This makes concept mapping an ideal strategy to switch the classroom from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered environment – the learner can develop, adapt, and draw their learning directly from the concept map. Concept maps can be used by learners individually, or in small groups, to simplify complex processes and engage students in the learning process (Harrelson, 2006).
As study guides, the concept maps can replace traditional question and answer study handouts with a visual map that can promote meaningful learning opposed to rote memorization (Caputi & Blach, 2008).
Concept maps represent a collaborative learning strategy developed to take advantage of the difference between rote learning and meaningful learning. Concept maps can be used in all aspects of both undergraduate and graduate nursing, and can be used to facilitate education in all learning domains. As learners begin to analyze clinical data, the learner can begin to develop their critical thinking skills and begin to plan comprehensive care for their patients. As learners begin to study disease processes, the learners can appreciate the effects of interventions directly on patient outcomes. Educators can use concept mapping as a teaching, as well as evaluation strategy.
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