Volume V Number 1-2, June 1998

Computer-based Concept Mapping: Promoting Meaningful Learning In Science For Students With Disabilities

Lynne Anderson-Inman, Ph.D.
Leslie A. Ditson, Ph.D.
University of Oregon
Mary T. Ditson

A concept map is a graphical representation of concepts and their interrelationships. In the words of Novak and Gowin (1984), a concept map is a "schematic device for representing a set of concept meanings embedded in a framework of propositions." Concept maps are comprised of nodes (concepts) and links (lines), arranged hierarchically or in some other order to reflect the information domain being represented. A concept map can be an effective tool for organizing new information and integrating it with existing knowledge. The act of constructing concept maps helps learners to recognize new relationships among concepts and refine their understanding of existing relationships (Anderson-Inman & Zeitz, 1993). Because concept maps are externalized representations of the learner's knowledge they can also be effective tools for revealing misconceptions.

The process of building a concept map is comprised of four major activities: (a) identifying the main topic or key concept of the map by enclosing it in a graphic element (usually called a node or symbol); (b) entering subordinate concepts in similar nodes that radiate from the key concept; (c) identifying the relationship between each subordinate concept and the key concept by creating and labeling a link (line) between the two; and (d) repeating this process as information is added to the map and more conceptual relationships between and among concepts are portrayed.

Relationships included on a concept map are usually of two kinds: propositions (or sentence-like statements about the relationship of one concept to another) and examples (a specific type of relationship in which one of the linked concepts is an example of the other). Because learning is often best achieved when details are organized under broader, more general categories, concept maps are usually hierarchical in form, with the most general concept (the main topic or key concept) at the top.

Figure 1 shows a simple concept map on whales that has two propositions and seven examples. The proposition "whales are not fish" consists of two concepts, "whales" and "fish," linked by a valid statement of the relationship between them. Specific examples of fish are linked to the concept "fish" with the preposition "like." For example: "fish like sharks," "fish like sting rays," and "fish like other fish." It is possible, however unlikely, that the linking word "like" was intended to be a verb, in which case the three "fish" examples would become propositions requiring further clarification concerning the fondness that fish might have for sharks, sting rays and other fish. Concept maps consistently provide excellent opportunities for teachers to discover how and what students are thinking, and to help students clarify their thinking and communication skills.

Figure 1. Example of a concept map


In science education, concept mapping has been widely recommended and used in a variety of ways. It has been used to help teachers and students build an organized knowledge base in a given discipline (Pankratius, 1990) or on a given topic (Kopec, Wood & Brody, 1990). It has been used to observe change in students' understanding of concepts over time (Caswell & Wendell, 1992; Novak & Musunda, 1991), to assess what the learner knows (Wandersee, 1987), and to reveal unique thought processes (Cohen, 1987). It has been used in the development of science curriculum (Starr & Krajcik, 1990) and the evaluation of instructional activities for promoting conceptual understanding (Kinnear, Gleeson & Comerford, 1985). It has been used to promote positive self- concepts, positive attitudes toward science (Novak & Gowin, 1984) and increased responsibility for learning (Gurley, 1982). Concept mapping has also been used to enhance the reading comprehension of elementary students (Prater & Terry, 1988) and as a study tool for synthesizing information from multiple sources (Anderson-Inman & Zeitz, 1993).

There is considerable evidence that concept mapping promotes meaningful learning in science. Meaningful learning occurs when individuals "choose to relate new knowledge to relevant concepts and propositions they already know" (Novak & Gowin, 1984, p. 7). Meaningful learning requires a commitment on the part of the learner to link new concepts with higher order and more inclusive concepts that are already understood by the learner. As such, it contrasts sharply with rote learning, where knowledge is acquired by memorization and seldom integrated with what already exists in the learner's knowledge structure. To promote meaningful learning, instructional activities must enhance learners' abilities to actively construct meaning out of what is being taught. This theory underlies the constructivist perspective on learning -- that learning is an active process in which the learner is constantly creating and revising his or her internal representation of knowledge (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). Constructivism is a major influence in current science education and an inspiration for its reform (Deboer, 1991; Driver, 1989; Duschl, 1990; Osborne & Wittrock, 1985).

Research on the use of concept mapping as a strategy to promote meaningful learning has been conducted for more than a decade. For example, Novak, Gowin & Johansen (1983) found that 7th and 8th grade science students who used concept mapping demonstrated superior problem-solving performance after six months of use. Pankratius (1990) found that mapping concepts prior to, during, and subsequent to instruction led to greater achievement for high school physics students. Importantly, the evidence suggests that concept mapping as a strategy for promoting meaningful learning may be particularly useful for students who have traditionally experienced difficulty when learning science (Abayomi, 1988; Lehman, Carter & Kahle, 1985; Okebukola & Jegede, 1988; Spaulding, 1989; Stensvold & Wilson, 1990) and for students who are at risk of failing school (Anderson-Inman, Knox-Quinn & Horney, 1996; Tenny, 1992). A meta-analysis of 19 studies on the use of concept mapping as an instructional tool revealed that concept mapping had positive effects on both student achievement and student attitude toward science (Horton, McConney, Gallo, Woods, Senn & Hamelin, 1993).

Unfortunately, integrating the use of concept mapping into the science curriculum is not without problems. These problems have prevented the learning strategy from having had a more profound impact on the quality of science instruction. As a learning strategy, concept mapping is most effective if it is conducted on an ongoing basis over the course of instruction (Pankratius, 1990; Zeitz, 1992; Zeitz & Anderson-Inman, 1992). This allows students to modify their maps as learning occurs and conceptual understanding grows. The modification process, however, is a messy and cumbersome one, often resulting in frustration even by students who feel that concept mapping enhances their learning (Allen, 1989). Like many other study strategies, concept mapping is rarely used by students on their own because it is hard to do.


Using the computer to create concept maps helps to minimize many of these construction and modification problems. The practical advantages of constructing concept maps electronically are similar to those of using a word processing program to write. There is an ease of construction, an ease of revision, and the ability to customize maps in ways that are not possible when using paper and pencil (Anderson-Inman & Zeitz, 1993; Anderson-Inman & Horney, 1996/1997). The advantages of computer-based concept mapping for learning may, however, go beyond such practical matters. The fluid environment of the computer seems to invite information manipulation activities that help students build a more coherent view of the topic they are studying (Fisher et al., 1990). It is possible that computer-based concept mapping helps to "reorganize mental functioning" in ways not possible outside the electronic medium (Pea, 1985).

Over the last decade, a number of products have emerged to support computer- based concept mapping. These include _SemNet_ (Fisher et al., 1990), _Learning Tool_ (Kozma, 1987) and _Inspiration_ (Inspiration Software, Inc., 1995). A review of computer tools for concept mapping has led educators to call for programs that give the user "flexibility of expressiveness" so that students with different learning styles and study techniques have a tools that facilitate their acquisition of information and demonstration of knowledge (Heeren & Kommers, 1992). It is therefore helpful when choosing a concept mapping tool to select one that provides maximum flexibility in its use and does not dictate a specific set of steps or require teachers and students to adopt a specific theoretical perspective toward learning.


At the Center for Electronic Studying in the College of Education at the University of Oregon we have been investigating the use of computer-based concept mapping as one of several information- organizing strategies useful for students who are struggling in school (Anderson-Inman, 1992; Anderson- Inman, Knox-Quinn & Horney, 1996; Anderson-Inman & Tenny, 1989). The overarching goal has been to improve instruction and learning for the students by introducing computer-based study strategies that help them acquire and organize information and also express what they have learned.

Computer-based concept mapping is a strategy that appeals to a number of students with learning difficulties, particularly difficulties associated with reading and writing text. In contrast to their efforts to produce text in the form of a test or report, many of these students demonstrate a high level of success when asked to draw or create a concept map of what they know. The "visual learner" is often one whose visual-spatial skills are quite refined, but whose verbal or analytical skills are less well developed (Olson, 1992). Unfortunately, students who process information visually, rather than orally, often function poorly in traditional classrooms. Furthermore, there are few instructional materials designed to capitalize on these students' strengths.

Over the past several years we have conducted two multi-year research projects that examined (among other things) the potential for computer-based concept mapping to assist student learning. The first of these was Project SUCCESS (_S_tudents _U_sing _C_ognitive-based _C_omputer _E_nhanced _S_tudy _S_trategies), a three-year model demonstration project funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. In this project, we provided laptop computers to 30 secondary students with learning disabilities. We instructed them about computer-based strategies for acquiring and manipulating information so they could use the strategies for school-related tasks.

One of the software tools on their laptop computers was Inspiration (Inspiration, Inc., 1995), an outlining and diagramming program that is ideal for concept mapping. We provided instruction on the concept mapping approach to information organization and encouraged students to use the tool when taking notes, studying for tests and preparing to write reports. In Project SUCCESS we learned that some students with learning disabilities prefer concept mapping to any other form of notetaking because of its visual nature, and therefore they reduced their emphasis on text. These students were able to use concept mapping to structure their understanding of complex material and to share that understanding with others. Concept maps helped these students focus on the conceptual relationships underlying the content of what they were studying, rather than the sentences and paragraphs used to describe the content.

The second project that investigated the use of computer-based concept mapping is Project COMPASS (_CO_ncept _M_apping _P_ower for _A_cademic _S_uccess in _S_cience), a three-year project funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), also in the U.S. Department of Education. The purpose of this project was to develop and evaluate materials for use in concept- mapping instruction in science classes at various levels of the curriculum and for various types of students. The project produced a "concept mapping companion" for teachers and students that provides step-by-step instructions for 10 approaches to using computer-based concept mapping in science (Ditson, Kessler, Anderson-Inman & Mafit, 1998).

Although Project COMPASS did not focus exclusively on students with disabilities, we worked with many teachers of inclusive classrooms in which students with various types of disabilities had been mainstreamed. Two of the our most significant findings in this project were the value of symbol- rich maps for visual learners who experience learning difficulties (Kessler, Ditson, Anderson-Inman & Windham, 1996) and the importance of concept- formation tracking as a tool for monitoring students' conceptual growth over time.

Symbol-rich maps are concept maps in which at least 70% of the nodes are something other than text (for example, a graphic element that either stands for, or augments the text). In Project COMPASS we worked with a middle school science teacher who used symbol-rich maps as a strategy for helping students organize oral reports. Students were asked to read articles in their science magazines and construct symbol-rich concept maps based on the content of the articles. Once the maps were completed, the students were asked to report to the class about what they had learned from the article, using only their concept maps as a prompts for their presentations. Comparisons of students speaking from their concept maps and the same students speaking from traditional note cards revealed that using the concept maps resulted in presentations that were superior in five areas: volume, clarity, pace, eye contact and gestures. This was especially true for students with disabilities and one student who did not speak English as her native first language (Kessler, Ditson, Anderson-Inman & Windham, 1996.).


One of the most powerful approaches for using computer-based concept mapping with students who have learning or other cognitive disabilities is that of concept-formation tracking (Ditson, Kessler, Anderson-Inman & Mafit, 1998). Using this approach, students are asked to create concept maps at various stages in the learning process - prior to instruction and after each significant instructional activity. Because the concept map is electronic, it can be easily modified to reflect changes in the student's conceptual understanding over time (concept formation), even when those changes require a total reworking of the map.

Figures 2a through 2d illustrate the process of concept-formation tracking using electronic concept mapping. Figure 2a presents a map that would be typical of a middle school student with learning disabilities when asked to brainstorm about the balance of nature. In this map, the student's baseline knowledge is revealed. The student understands nature as separate elements that have been experienced concretely. The concepts are non-propositional. There are no linking words and no relationships.

Figure 2a. Concept map typical of a middle school student with learning disabilities

Figure 2b illustrates the enhancement of the map when the student has the use of the electronic medium. The spell checker has made it easy for this student to regenerate a product with conventional spelling. Readily available graphics have allowed the student to express ideas visually to create a symbol- rich map. These activities increased the student's self-esteem and increased the motivation to do and learn more.

Figure 2b. Concept map enhanced with graphics and spell-checked

At this point, the student is ready for instruction, and the teacher presents a lesson on the balance of nature. Figure 2c depicts the students' visual interpretation of the teacher's material. The concept map shows that the student has begun to think about the balance of nature in an entirely new way. The learning is obvious. Propositions are included that show the student's evolving understanding that changes in one aspect of nature affects other aspects of nature.

Figure 2c. Concept map after instruction

A concept map such as the one presented in Figure 2c can provide a potent stimulus for a meaningful student-teacher discussions. As the teacher sees evidence of the student's thinking processes (in the map), asks questions and provides information, the student achieves an increasingly accurate and comprehensive understanding of the balance of nature.

Figure 2d shows that the student has made a conceptual leap. It is clear here that the balance of nature pertains to events that control the population of the various species within an ecosystem. Knowledge has been constructed visually and authentically. The teacher knows that the student understands what is represented.

Figure 2d. Concept map after tutoring and increased conceptual understanding

After creating such a map, there is a strong likelihood that the student will remember the pertinent concepts for an extended period of time , and be able to explain the balance of nature to others. Also, the creation of the concept map fosters the student's ability to generalize. Having achieved an understanding of how rain, plants, rabbits, and hawks are linked, the student may now be able to see relationships between logging and spotted owls.


The highly graphical nature of concept maps often makes it difficult to consolidate and evaluate all the propositions and examples that a student chooses to represent. This level of assessment is necessary, however, if a fair and accurate evaluation of the student's learning is to be made. Because of the wide variety of uses for concept maps, assessment goals will vary. To help teachers with this task, we developed and evaluated a concept mapping "Assessment Companion" as part of Project COMPASS. The Assessment Companion is a software interface that works in conjunction with Inspiration 4.1. It produces leads to an electronically produced report that assists in the evaluation of concept maps produced using the program. The Assessment Companion reads Inspiration 4.1 documents when they are saved and writes a report file that can also be printed. The Concept Mapping Companion (Ditson, Kessler, Anderson-Inman, Mafit, 1998), is available from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and includes the Assessment Companion software. It also provides suggestions for evaluating concept maps produced for a variety of purposes.

The Assessment Companion Report provides a teacher with basic information describing a student's concept map, including the number of symbols and links on the map, how many of symbols and links are unlabeled, what kinds of hierarchical groupings exist in the map, and other related information. The report then lists each proposition and example as text (symbol-link-symbol) with a five-point scale on which the teacher can rate the relative validity of each proposition or example. A pilot study has shown that this report form gives teachers an effective method for evaluating concept maps. The method yields a high degree of reliability (Kessler, Ditson, Anderson-Inman, 1996). The printed report makes it possible to systematically account for and evaluate all parts of a map, making evaluation easier and more accurate and allowing assessment to be tailored to the needs of the moment - from self- evaluation to teacher feedback to standardized assessment.


This paper has provided a general overview of computer-based concept mapping with particular emphasis on its use in science instruction for students with learning difficulties. Our research suggests that computer-based concept mapping is a wonderful tool for students who are oriented toward visual learning or who have difficulty reading and writing text. We are especially encouraged by the ease with which these students can use electronic concept mapping software to produce graphic representations of what they are learning. The fact that these graphic representations can be tracked over time make them an ideal assessment tool, giving teachers a vehicle for monitoring conceptual growth as a function of instruction and allowing teachers to identify students' misconceptions so that they can be altered at an early stage.

It is this use of concept mapping - as a link between teachers and students - that Novak envisioned when he recommended that teachers use students' concept maps as a starting point for dialogue with them about their learning(Novak & Gowin, 1984). As outward manifestations of a student's understanding, concept maps help to externalize thinking and therefore provide opportunities for discussion - as well as instruction - based on an informed sense of what the student does and does not know. The benefits for students are equally clear. As the title of their book on concept mapping so aptly suggests, concept mapping is a tool for helping students "learn how to learn" (Novak & Gowin, 1984).


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