Probing understanding: The use of a computer-based tool to help preservice teachers map concepts

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  • Journal of Science Teacher Education, 7(4), 283-293 0 1996 Kluwer Academic Publishers, Printed in the Netherlands

    Innovations in Action

    Probing Understanding: The Use of a Computer-Based Tool to Help Preservice Teachers Map Concepts

    Brian Ferry

    Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    The advantages of the presentation of information in the form of a network or concept map have been recognized for many years (Ausubel, 1968; Novak & Gowin, 1984; West &Pines, 1985). In recent years, science educators have begun to use concept mapping strategies with preset-vice teachers to see how they structure their subjectmatterknowledge (Lederman & Latz, 1995). Beyerbach and Smith (1990) showed that concept mapping techniques could enhance preset-vice teacher thinking about effective teaching.

    Holley and Dansereau (1984) claimed that if network representations are the most adequate model of human knowledge available, then presenting information in the form of a network will be the most adequate parallel to the knowledge presented in the text (p. 25). They identified three general strategies: (a) networking, (b) mapping, and (c) schematizing. All of these strategies overlap to some extent and, for this article, are included under the general heading of mapping strategies.

    Mapping strategies can be content dependent (e.g., the construction of flow charts that relate to specific content such as a computer program) or content independent (e.g., the strategies of matrixing, networking, or concept mapping that can be applied to a variety of subject matter content). These mapping strategies cannot be applied universally with equal success as they tend to be context specific (Holley & Dansereau, 1984). For example, concept mapping is popular with science educators, and sufficient interest was aroused for the December 1990 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Volume 27, Number 10) to be devoted to research associated with concept mapping. Yet, the less formal technique of semantic networking tends to be more popular with educators of language and literacy (Heimlich & Pittelman, 1986).


    Figure 1 shows a simple concept map. It has a formal, hierarchical structure, and the relationship among terms is inclusive, with general ones standing above specific ones. The key features of concept maps are their spatial and graphic properties that make use of labelled nodes to represent concepts and lines or arcs to represent relationships among concepts.

    Figure 1. A simple concept map (after White & Gunstone, 1992).


    Although concept mapping is a popular strategy, there is some disagreement over the long-term benefits of this strategy. White and Gunstone (1992) claimed that mapping appears to be best suited for probing understanding of a whole discipline or a substantial part of it. Armbruster (1979) asserted that mapping is limited in its application as it doesnt give a big picture. Jegede, Alaiyemola, and Okebukola (1990) maintained that concept mapping serves as a tool to help learners organize their cognitive frameworks into more powerful integrated patterns (p. 952).

    Mapping strategies are considered to be a primary support strategy that operates directly on text or visual materials on display or stored in memory (Holley & Dansereau, 1984). Secondary support strategies maintain a suitable cognitive climate, and examples are concentration and motivation strategies (Holley & Dansereau, 1984). Under this classification scheme, concept maps may be considered a primary support strategy which recognizes that the processes involved in creating concept maps activates


    both primary and secondary support strategies. Moreover, these strategies are likely to be activated in different ways with different subjects.

    It has been suggested that the structure of concept maps parallels the human cognitive structure as concept maps show how learners organize concepts (Clarke, 1991; Fisher, Faletti, Patterson, Thornton, Lipson, & Spring, 1990; Harlen, Macro, Schilling, Malvern, & Reed, 1990; Heimlich & Pittelman, 1986; Langfield-Smith, 1992; Margulies, 1991; Novak & Gowin, 1984; Tobin, Tippins, & Gallard, 1994; Wandersee, 1990; White & Gunstone, 1992). In the context of this article, concepts represent anything that can be recognized; that is, can be attributed identity (Holley & Dansereau, 1984, p. 23).

    The Innovation

    According to White & Gunstone (1992), concept maps can be used to: 1. explore understanding of a limited aspect of the topic, 2. check whether learners understand the purpose of instruction, 3. see whether learners can make links between concepts, 4. identify changes that learners make in relationships between

    concepts, 5. find out which concepts are regarded as key ones, and 6. promote learner discussion. This article describes an innovation designed to capitalize on these

    benefits and use computer software with preset-vice teachers to enable them to construct concept maps that represent their current subject matter knowledge. During the process of construction of a concept map, learners identified and defined important concepts or ideas and graphically represented the interrelationships among their selected concepts (Armbruster, 1979; Goetz & Armbruster, 1980; Holley & Dansereau, 1984; White & Gunstone, 1992). The result was a structured two-dimensional map representing the spatial organization of their knowledge structure. This structure is of little value, however, unless the links are labeled. White and Gunstone (1992) claimed that the writing of links is crucial; therefore, the learner should be encouraged to add notes and labels to their map (Holley & Dansereau, 1984). This is not an easy task, and White and Gunstone (1992) maintained that students find this the most irksome task . . . and would skip it if they could (p. 18).

    Learner Creation of Concept Maps

    Holley & Dansereau (1984) recommended that learners employ six


    steps when they create concept or network maps: 1. Select key concepts. This is a recognition process that activates

    relevant knowledge and assists in topic identification. 2. Write the key concepts. 3. Make an attribute list of the key concepts. 4. Relate key concepts in a spatial relationship. 5. Rearrange spatial representations. 6. Compare representation to the text. It is important for the instructor to model the process of concept map

    creation to students and provide assistance in the form of named links, structured hierarchies, chains, or clusters of concepts. Harlan (1992) and White and Gunstone (1992) suggested that a period of direct instruction is necessary before learners can successfully employ this process. The following instructional steps are recommended by White and Gunstone (1992):

    1. Begin with a simple topic that is familiar to students so that it is easier for them to concetrate on the learning process. Ensure that a small number of terms are involved.

    2. Model the construction of a concept map for the class. This can be done with an overhead projector or computer with projection capability.

    3. Encourage students to think of all possible links and to write down the nature of each link.

    4. It is unlikely that students will produce good maps on their first attempt. Provide constructive criticism.

    5. Provide a suggested layout the first time, but it is important to remove these prompts from subsequent maps.

    6. Tell students that there is not a single correct answer to the task. Students could use a set of cards as concept labels and pieces of string

    for links. They can arrange these on a large sheet of cardboard and attach them with tape. Then, the relations between pairs of concepts is written next to each link.

    Computer technology can be used to replace cardboard and string as concepts and links can be easily manipulated on a computer screen. The use of a computer-based conceptmap tool makes it easier forpreservice teachers to construct a concept map of subject matter knowledge. Also, the process of concept map construction provides preservice teachers an insight into their own understanding of science content knowledge associated with the science topics that they will be teaching.

    The concept map tool described in this article is considered to be a cognitive tool. Cognitive tools are defined by Jonassen (1991) as generalizable tools that can facilitate cognitive processing (p. 2). They are


    both mental and computation devices that support, guide, and extend the thinking processes of the users. Such tools are external to the learner and engage the learner in meaningful processing of information.

    The Concept Map Tool

    A HyperCardTM programming environment was used for the project because Apple MacintoshW computers were used across the campus and most preset-vice teachers had at least one session (14 two-hour classes) of experience with these computers. Figure 2 shows a concept map that was created with the concept map tool. The functions of the on-screen buttons are described below.

    Figure 2. A view of a concept map in the process of creation.


    Concept Map. When the user clicks on this button a pop-up pallet (labeled concept tools) appears in the bottom right hand comer. This pallet consists of six buttons designed to help in the process of creating a concept map. The six buttons have the following functions:

    1. The concept button allows the user to make concept labels and to move these labels in two-dimensional space.

    2. The link button allows the user to draw link arrows between concepts. Arrows indicate the direction of these links.

    3. The note button allows the user to attach explanatory notes to the links or concept labels; therefore, concepts and links can be explained.

    4. The eraser allows the user to correct mistakes or to make improvements.

    5. The help button provides access to a simple help screen. 6. The print button allows the user to print the concept map and the

    notes. Help. When a user clicks on this button, a pop-up window provides

    instructions for the use of the button that is currently activated. Save. Users can use this button to save the concept map they created to

    their own disc. Quit. When the user quits the application, the concept map is also

    automatically saved to a file server.

    Implementation of the Innovation

    Seventy-one third-year students enrolled in an undergraduate education course (Elementary Teaching) at the University of Wollongong participated in this innovation. Most of the students had prior instruction with the Apple MacintoshTM computer and with HyperCardTM presentations of learning materials. The preservice teachers were given a period of direct instruction in a lecture theater that contained computer projection facilities. The concept mapping software was demonstrated for the students, and the instructor modelled the process of concept map construction. All class periods were conducted in a computing laboratory, and each time, the instructorusedcomputerprojectionfacilities atthestartto revise procedures.

    The preservice teachers were then given the choice of working alone or in pairs to construct their first concept map. Astronomy was chosen as the topic for the first concept map because astronomy had been previously covered by the students in their science class. As an aid to memory, a brief list of key concepts was provided to the students. Complete maps were printed at the end of the class period and collected for analysis.

    After analysis, the concept maps were returned to the students, and


    during the next class period, ways of improving concept maps were discussed. Once again, the process was modelled for the students using the computer. The students then revised their maps and printed the revised versions. Again, the concept maps were collected and analyzed using the same method as before.

    During the final class period, the presetvice teachers worked alone to improve their final concept maps. Four additional hours of computer laboratory time were allocated to the students so that they could finalize their concept maps and do another one. The total amount of time for this activity was six hours in the computer room with the instructor and an additional four hours of unsupervised computer time.

    When the preservice teachers completed their concept maps, 12 preservice teachers were interviewed by the instructor abouttheirexperiences with the concept mapping process. Twelve other preservice teachers kept a reflective journal about their experiences with the process. Both groups were asked to include comments that they thought could help improve the process. These interview transcripts and written responses were analyzed for trends.


    The First Concept Maps

    Approximately half of the first concept maps showed that the presetvice teachers had limited understandings of the topic and construction of a concept map. For example, 41 concept maps contained concepts that were limited to those presented in lectures, and only nine concept maps had notes to explain the links. All maps except one had notes attached to concepts and this seemed to indicate that individual concepts may have been understood but the links among the concepts were not. Cross-links (links between pairs of concepts at the same level of hierarchy) were present in 11 maps, and concepts were arranged in three or more hierarchical levels in 18 maps.

    During the interviews, the preservice teachers suggested two things that they could do to improve their concept maps: (a) improve their content knowledge and (b) practice constructing concept maps. When they came to the second class, most presetvice teachers brought a revised concept map and support materials such as books and summaries. It appeared that many of them were keen to improve their concept maps and had made an effort to improve their knowledge and concept map construction skills between the first and second class sessions.


    Improvements in the Concept Maps

    The main improvements were more levels of hierarchy, greater use of lii notes to clearly explain links between pairs of concepts, and greater use of cross-links. Also, the revised maps contained more concepts, and 33 were organized in a hierarchy that contained four or more levels. Similar improvements were observed in the second maps.

    Use of the Software

    During initial class sessions, three independent observers (the director of the computing laboratory, a doctoral student, and an instructor) each spent 30 minutes observing the preset-vice teachers construct their concept maps and talking to them informally about their maps. The observers reported that few of the teachers met with any problems when they used the software. Indeed, they felt that the concept map tools quickly became transparent, and this enabled the teachers to focus...