Posted by Arjendu on March 1, 2008
Towards the end of one of the comps presentations I’ve attended this year, the student said: ‘And now for a concept map, Arjendu-style’. And she laid out the ideas she’d talked about, with links showing which features of the system were crucial for which properties, and which were understood, and so on.
Once or twice a term, on one of those many occasions when I see students’ eyes beginning to glaze over in class, I call for a time-out. We take 10 – 15 mins during which the students stand at the various boards and put their heads together to sketch out the recent ideas they have encountered, while I circulate and chat with them. I do it because I think students get lost in the details and forget the big picture of what they are doing. But also to wake them up. I’ve been doing this in all sorts of classes, including quantum and stat mech. And I was pleased to see that it had at least become part of one student’s thinking style.
At the NSBP conference, Chandralekha’s presentation on cognitive issues and student learning in physics reminded me why I had started doing this. As she said, if you give the same problem to a novice and an expert and ask them to think out loud, you will see a completely different intellectual structure to the approach. For an introductory mechanics problem, for instance, a student will say things like “oh, it’s an inclined plane. I should think about which forces are involved. Wait, is there friction? What about the normal force? What axes should I choose? Oh no, this is a complicated one — there’s gravity and a spring as well.” And so on. An expert will say something like: ‘Hmm, that’s probably best done by a conservation of energy analysis. Ok, which potential energies do I have to track …” And so on. Neither approach misses the point, but the latter constrains you, and focuses you much faster. And you can see this in maps that you can get people to draw. So I figure anything I can do to help people to get from novice maps to expert maps is a good thing. And by making their conceptions explicit, I am able to do this to some extent: At the end of the exercise, I will quickly sketch my own version of the concept map which I hope helps with this transition.
I talked with a colleague about this, and a couple of days later, his wife, who actually leads workshops around the world on teaching techniques sent me an email that I thought worth sharing with the world:
‘[I heard about your conversation about] concept maps – quite a coincidence because just today I was putting together my handouts on concept maps for my upcoming faculty workshops in Taiwan. It is one of the most versatile, useful but seldom used teaching techniques.
I’ve trained faculty in active teaching techniques in Ukraine, Uganda, Oman, Cambodia and now Taiwan – it works in all cultures. I’ve trained only in schools of education and business but in Taiwan I will also be dealing with engineers. Interestingly enough, it was “invented” by a science faculty member at Cornell.
One of the business faculty I worked with in the Ukraine did a great job in combining it with collaborative learning. She had 3 groups of students create a concept map for something in business (I can’t remember what), had them put it on sheets on the walls and then present it to the rest of the class who questioned them about their concepts and they had to explain or revise. There was SO MUCH learning going on …’
And she also sent me a link:
So this post is mostly a reminder to myself to keep using this technique — it’s not just a fun way to wake up students, it seems to have some sound pedagogical theory to back it up!