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Classroom Assessment Technique:
Concept Maps


Dr. Karen Stout, an associate professor at Western Washington University, has used concept mapping and mind mapping since she was an undergraduate, and now incorporates this assessment technique to improve her teaching in her own college classroom. Students and instructors alike will find her approach to concept mapping fun, efficient, and most of all, an effective learning strategy.

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Classroom Assessment Technique: Concept Maps

Karen Stout, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Communication Department, Western Washington University


Are you looking for ways to creatively engage your students with course material? Do your students need help finding linkages between course concepts or theories? Do you need help assessing students' learning or understanding of course material? If the answer is "yes" to any of these questions, concept mapping may be an effective tool for you.

My name is Dr. Karen Rohrbauck Stout and I've used this technique extensively. As an associate professor  in the Communication Department at Western Washington University, I've used concept mapping—and more specifically, mind mapping®—to write papers, develop and give lectures, to think creatively, and to assist and assess student learning.

Types of concept mapping—that is, drawings and diagrams that show mental connections between concepts—have been used for centuries, but gained popularity with Tony Buzan's creation of mind mapping® (1990) in the early 1990s. This method is similar to the concept mapping that many of us learned in school to develop paper topics. Mind mapping®, however, uses graphics, symbols, and text to represent ideas that can help us be creative, get organized, and work quickly. It typically has a central concept from which ideas radiate and take shape in an organized and visually-memorable way. As all ideas are located on one page, it's easy for the eye to scan, make sense of, and creatively link ideas. While I whole-heartedly promote the mind mapping® technique because I've used it successfully for many years; here, however, I would like to discuss general instructional strategies for mapping concepts and then leave you to explore the many resources available  to create maps in your own style.


Mapping concepts is beneficial not only in education but for work in organizations and businesses as well. It is much easier to manage presentations that are completely contained on one page, rather than stacks of note cards or sheets of paper—acting as a reminder of all the key elements in the presentation without promoting rote delivery. Mapping concepts can help your writing through structuring ideas and innovatively constructing arguments. Recently I've begun using mapping as a means of generating class discussions and assessing student learning.

Educators Angelo and Cross (1993) provide a number of other ideas for using concept maps to assess student learning:

  • Discover what preconceptions and prior knowledge students bring to a topic;
  • Determine a change in understanding by employing it before, during, and after lessons;
  • Use maps as student feedback for shaping the direction of lessons;
  • Develop maps as a small-group assessment project; and,
  • Ask students to write explanatory essays based on their maps.
Teaching Goals

Along with other educators, I've seen how mapping concepts helps students to:

  • Learn terms, concepts, and theories of a subject;
  • Synthesize and integrate information and ideas;
  • Think holistically: seeing the whole as well as the parts, and the relationships among them;
  • Think creatively about a subject;
  • Improve long-term memory skills so that  knowledge is more accessible;
  • Develop higher-level thinking skills, strategies, and habits; and
  • Develop an openness to new ideas.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993; Buzan, 1993; Zeilik, 1999)

Generating Class Discussions

One of my favorite new methods for using concept mapping is to generate class discussion. I usually start an in-class mapping activity by writing the central topic in the middle of the classroom's chalk or white board. I start the students off with two or three main ideas, and then sit back while they write their ideas and responses on the board. During this activity, no one is allowed to talk; all ideas should be confined to writing on the board. Because mapping allows the creative and free flow of ideas, students can develop one idea or jump around, much like the way our brains think. They build upon or disagree with each other's ideas on the board. After several minutes of silent writing, I stop the activity and facilitate a discussion of what was written on the board. We clarify, expand upon, and disagree with each other's ideas. The value of this activity, rather than overt, traditional classroom discussion, is that it encourages the usually quiet or shy students to also contribute, especially as they may feel more comfortable conveying their ideas in writing. Surprisingly, however, these usually quiet students then fully engage in the discussion that follows.

Assessing Student Learning

The discussion technique I just described was used to generate ideas and conversation. However, faculty can use the same method to track students' understanding of course concepts. By placing a specific concept in the middle of the board with 2-4 main ideas (maybe taken directly from a chapter in a textbook), students can be instructed to fill in the topics by listing important characteristics or qualities of the concepts. They can then correct or expand on each other's ideas. The result is a collective map that tells the instructor what areas may need further clarification or are well understood by students. By collectively developing these ideas, students not only reveal their understanding, but can then learn from each other's ideas.

To get feedback about specific students' understanding of material, I often have students write "minute papers" where I ask them a question about the topic we're currently addressing in class. Students then have 3-5 minutes to write about their understanding of the topic and identify any questions they still have. I've modified this to include the mapping method. I ask students to label the course concept in the center of the map, and then give them 3-5 minutes to write in the subtopics, facts, or examples on lines that radiate from the center. I also ask them to indicate on the map what ideas remain unclear to them. I can then read the maps to find students' inaccuracies or questions. This helps me to know what areas need clarification or if students are ready to move onto the next course topic.

While using mapping as a feedback loop with students is quite valuable from the instructor's standpoint, using it for grade-based evaluation can be difficult. Some ideas for grading concept or mind maps include (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Zeilik, 1999):

  • Develop your own version of a map for a particular concept; extract a list of critical related concepts, and use it as a grading guide.
  • Consider emphasizing the accuracy or validity of the knowledge students represent rather than an exact replica of what you consider correct.
  • Ensure your grading technique covers key concepts and links, allowing for unexpected and creative responses.

I encourage you to try concept mapping or mind mapping® in your own classrooms or for your own personal use. A variety of sources are available to teach you the specifics of the technique. If you are resistant to the idea, I encourage you to try it first before disregarding it as a method. I, too, was resistant to this technique when I was an undergraduate until I used it to study for an exam, which I aced. I then tested it out to write a paper and found it to be an efficient and effective method for constructing my ideas. I've used it ever since. Once you see the potential uses and value of this technique, I'm sure it will be one tool you use again and again.


References and Resources

Concept Maps

Concept Maps - Assessment

Mind Mapping


  • - Free, super easy to use, on-screen tips guide development
  • iMindMap - $85 for educational use
  • Inspiration - $59
  • LucidChart - Free version has limits, $3.33/mo allows more options
  • mind42 - Free version has limits, web-based, easy
  • Mindomo - Free (for now), works online or on iPad and Android devices (view sample)
  • Prezi - Free, public, not specifically a mind-mapping program
  • Text2MindMap - Free, web-based, super easy to use, converts text in outline form to map


About the Author

Karen Rohrbauck StoutDr. Karen Rohrbauck Stout is an associate professor in the Communication Department at Western Washington University, and a proponent of concept/mind mapping® for many purposes. She has used the method to manage presentations, organize papers (assisting in the logical development or creative linkages between ideas), teach classes and facilitate meetings (as a reminder of materials needed, topics to cover, and questions to ask), take notes during lectures, develop "to do" lists, and of course, to brainstorm. When she was a student, mapping was her favorite tool to study for exams. Now, she incorporates the method into her courses as a means to engaging the class in discussion and for gaining valuable feedback on the progress of students' learning.


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