Mapping Concepts from the Classroom to the Computer

By: Michael Sutphin

Instructors hope to combine concept maps and the Internet to test agriculture students

Concept Map for honeybees
A concept map of honeybees ?

In the early ’70s, Joseph Novak and his research team at Cornell University invented a graphical way for science students to show how well they understand concepts taught in the classroom. Students link graph nodes that represent concepts with arcs that show the relationship between concepts to refine their understanding of the topic at hand. Novak and his colleagues not only introduced the first concept maps but also sparked a trend in educational assessment that continues for science students today.

Not unlike his predecessors at Cornell University, Carlyle Brewster, an associate professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, sees the value of concept maps. However, he wants to take them to the Web. He is using a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to employ Web-based concepts maps as a means of teaching and assessing learning for agricultural students.

“Concept maps are not something that’s new,” Brewster says. “What is new, however, is the Web-based system that lets us automatically grade individual concept maps.”

Like essays, concept maps are notoriously difficult to grade, especially in lecture-style classes with a large number of students. Each student not only arranges his or her ideas differently on a map but often links concepts with varying levels of complexity, depending on the depth of the student’s understanding. Each concept map is different, whether on paper or on a computer terminal.

“Initially, the instructor builds a model concept map from scratch,” says Ben Cline, a systems development supervisor who developed the Web-based concept mapping tool (CMT) for the Department of Entomology. “Then, we give students a list of node labels and a list of relations. We don’t allow them to come up with original labels because unrestricted natural language presents a problem for software.”

Students might use the CMT to create a taxonomic classification of ant species or demonstrate how pheromones operate among bees. The program even pitches “distracter nodes,” or labels that do not belong on a particular concept map and are meant to distract like the wrong answers on a multiple-choice question. After a student completes his or her concept map, the CMT compares the student’s map to the instructor’s and generates a numerical grade. “You can
iteratively improve your knowledge using the hints that the
program gives after grading,” Cline adds.

The Web-based concept maps have advantages over traditional paper tests. “Because students are spending more time on the concept maps, it encourages them to broaden their understanding of the concepts and how they relate to one another,” Brewster says.“They also get immediate feedback each time they attempt
a concept map, which they would likely never have with an essay or multiple-choice test.”

An added component of the concept map system is a library system that facilitates the storing and sharing of concept maps among
instructors, whether at Virginia Tech or another institution. An instructor can obtain a concept map developed for another course by a different instructor, modify it to suit the needs of the course, and publish it as a course assignment.

The CMT is particularly beneficial for agriculture students, who study not only life systems but also people and their interactions with those systems. Although Brewster and his colleagues are only in the early phases of testing the automated grading system and integrating concept maps into the classroom, they hope to implement this exciting new technology into the agricultural curriculum at Virginia Techin the near future.

Source: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Research, Virgia Tech