eCoaching Tip 54 Course Wrapping with Concept Mapping — Capturing Course Content Meaningfully 

December 10, 2007

eCoaching Tip 54: cCourse Wrapping with Concept Mapping — Capturing Course Content Meaningfully

A common experience in higher education is a frantic last week or two of a term as learners complete projects and requirements and faculty complete final assessments for grading. Designing opportunities for wrap-up learning often take second place. When the frantic feelings are past; when the course is over, learners may be tempted to say, “What was that course all about and how am I and my brain different?”  Of course, I don’t recall talking to myself about my brain after finals when I returned to a cluttered, messy apartment, and wondered what new form of life might be living in the refrigerator or under all the piles of papers and books. We just generally move on to the next course, to the next required activity.

This ecoaching tip proposes a strategy that you may want to try that can assist in the pruning and focusing of core concepts. This strategy is called Concept Mapping and it can be a powerful tool for knowledge creation, capture and use.

Concept mapping requires thinking strategically about concepts. As faculty, we want learners to develop a useful set of core concepts that will make a different to them in their future lives. Learners also value acquiring a set of concepts integrated into their knowledge base.  This new knowledge and skill means they can do things they haven’t done before.  It also likely means that they can be more skilled at sharing with family and friends what their course work actually means.

The next part of this tip provides a definition of concept mapping and related key concepts. Then you will see an example of a concept map followed by a link to concept mapping software (free).  The tip concludes with a teaching strategy for using concept mapping for wrapping up your course in an interesting and summative way.

A Bit of Background on Concept Mapping

You may say — based on your generalized knowledge — “Hasn’t concept mapping been around for some time? And why hasn’t it become more generally used? “  Here are a couple of answers to these possible questions.

Yes, the development of concept mapping is generally attributed to Joseph Novak at Cornell University back in 1972 as part of a research program “seeking to follow and understand changes in children’s knowledge of science” (Novak & Canas, 2006). The strategy of concept mapping is solidly rooted in the learning theory of constructivism, going back even to Ausubel’s work in the 1960s who stressed the role of prior knowledge in learning new knowledge.”  What is important about concept mapping is that it requires deep, thoughtful work by your learners.

Concept mapping is generally considered to be a good tool for encouraging cognitive skills such as  (1) integrating old and new knowledge; (2) assessing understanding or diagnosing misunderstanding; (3) brainstorming and creative work and (4) problem-solving.  In other words, concept mapping is a tool for “meaningful learning.”  If concept mapping is used in course beginnings as well as at course wraps, it can also be used to examine how knowledge changes and evolves over time.

Core Concepts about Concept Mapping – All You Might Want to Know

Here are three basic definitions and concepts about concept mapping.

  • What is concept mapping? Concept mapping is a tool for organizing and representing knowledge graphically.  Here is a concept map of a concept map —  (Accessed November 29, 2010.) The concept map also provides characteristics of concepts, such as concepts are hierarchically structured; concepts are labeled with symbols or words; and concepts can be combined to form propositions.
  • To map concepts, a definition of a concept is useful. A concept is a “perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects” (Novak and Canas, 2006) For example, leadership is a concept and works relatively well with a simple label, but many concepts are clearer when stated as propositions containing multiple concepts.  For example, a proposition about leadership is that leadership requires vision, communication and an idea that bonds people. Think about the number of concepts in your course and how you might represent them graphically to show their relationship and connections.
  • We can talk about concepts only with words, but as the concept map shows, concepts are much more than just words. Concepts are really a cluster of related ideas. Single words are often used as labels for complex ideas, and we can readily think that students own a concept when in reality they own only the word.
  • Concept maps are organized hierarchically; however, the hierarchy of complex concepts is not always clear. The structuring of concept maps requires us to identify the following components — concepts, relationships, and dependencies. By identifying cross-links, previously unnoticed patterns and relationships among the knowledge concepts often emerge.

Integrating concept mapping into my course- What do I do?

Novak and Canas (2006) recommend starting with a “focus question” when using concept mapping.  A focus question aids in defining a particular domain of knowledge for a learner to focus on.  A focus question also encourages the use of concept mapping for solving problems, requiring learners to use their generalized available body of knowledge plus the new course knowledge that is often the focus of a course.  For example, the focus question for the example concept map is, “What is a concept?” which then leads into features and characteristics of concepts and the role of concepts in teaching and learning.

Developing a good focus question for a concept map is itself a useful collaborative instructional experience. Particularly toward the end of a course, you want the learners to think about what they knew about the course knowledge at the beginning of the course, what they think they know now, and what they wish they knew more about or how to do something. What students wish they knew can be a rich source of focus questions.

Another good end-of-course activity is to modify the concept map they may have initiated at the beginning of the course.

What Next?  Is There a Good Tool for Concept Mapping?

One of the early questions was why concept mapping hasn’t been more generally used in instruction or even in general problem-solving. One reason, I believe, is that the software to support this type of thinking and analysis has been clunky, intimidating, non-sharable, or simply not readily available. Novak and others are now offering a tool for concept mapping that is free for higher education that looks promising. The name of the software is CmapTools version 4.12, and it is freely downloadable from the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition website.  There is other concept mapping software as well, but this is a good one to consider.

Another reason for the slow adoption of concept mapping is that it can require instructors to think differently about what they know.  For example, it can require a shift from a linear approach to acquiring knowledge to a more networked and web-like approach. In some ways, concept mapping requires even more knowledge and expertise because it requires propositional knowledge and knowledge of patterns and relationships.

A Bit of More Background — Conditions for Meaningful Learning

Meaningful learning, according to Ausubel in Novak and Canas, 2006 only occurs with three conditions:  (1) conceptually clear resources; (2) a learners’ prior knowledge; and (3) the learner making an active choice to learn. (Novak and Canas, 2006). Concept mapping can be an effective strategy at many levels. It is a process that requires thinking, analysis, weighing of ideas and identifying relationships and patterns.  It’s worth a try as a way of wrapping up a course.

More Simple Reminders about Course Wraps

If you are not ready to try concept mapping, you can tap into quick reminders about wrapping up a course with e-coaching tip 29 Creating a Closing Experience — Wrapping up a Course with Styleat


Boettcher, J. V. E-Coaching Tip 29: Creating a Closing Experience — Wrapping up a Course with Style Accessed August 13, 2010 at

Boettcher, J. V.  E-Coaching Tip 25: Discussion Wraps — A Useful “Cognitive Pattern” or “Collection of Discrete Thought Threads?” Accessed August 13, 2010 at

IHMC CmapTools version 4.12 Concept Mapping Software. Free to Higher Ed. Accessed August 13, 2010at

Novak, J. D. and Canas, A. J. (2006, 2008) The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them. Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.  Accessed August 13 010 at

Plotnick, Eric. Concept Mapping: A Graphical System for Understanding the Relationship between Concepts.ERIC Digest. ERIC Identifier: ED407938. 1997-00-00 Accessed August 13 010 at

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by