Enough With the Essays! – A Brief Manifesto for Concept Maps

By Keerati, via freedigitalphotos.net
By Keerati, via freedigitalphotos.net

People tend to teach the way they have been taught. So when I wanted to “encourage” my students to read, I would have them submit a brief essay on an assigned text. That was dumb!

The vast majority of student essays are acts of violence against logic and style. I love my students, but most of them are terrible writers. Even back when I would teach divinity students at Vanderbilt, I regularly received essays that showed few signs they had been written by grownups with college degrees. (I blame the “Three Point Paragraph.“) Maybe I’m just overly picky and judgmental. … Okay, I probably am overly picky and judgmental, but that only makes these automasochistic assignments all the more psychotic.

Essays are not good for students either. I realized this very quickly at O’More, where I teach philosophy to design students. (Yes, really!) Visual and tactile learners get little benefit from writing. How I think is not how most people think, which makes essays, for me at least, an expression of my own prideful tendency to mold others in my own image. I guess that makes essays an act of violence against students, too.

Essays are useful if you want summaries of Wikipedia and Sparknotes. The more difficult a text is, the more students take shortcuts. If we want students to learn, then we have to make them think, and there is no better inoculation against thinking than the Internet. Sure, I could blame students. In fact, I do! Let me be clear: Students, stop taking shortcuts! I could also blame the Internet. Maybe I could start an online petition demanding Sparknotes to replace their website with a scrolling message that says, “Read the book!” That would work, right?

Personally, I think the more sensible thing is to address what I can control. So if an assignment is not doing its job, change it! A bad teacher blames. A good teacher adjusts. For me, that adjustment was a concept map.

David Dunn. Concept Map. Chair.
Doing a concept map for Vanderbilt’s “SAVY” program.

Some of you might have heard about “thought webs” or “mind maps,” but concept maps are a bit more formal. Developed by Joseph Novak, and backed up with a whole lot of research, a concept map is cartography of the mind. By using propositions to connect concepts in an ordered, hierarchical way, they show not only what students know, but how they organize that information in their minds. With a concept map, you can see how deep a student’s knowledge of a subject goes (analytical thinking), how well students use one concept to explain another (synthetic thinking), and how well you – the teacher – are helping them put those ideas together.

You do have to teach students how to do a concept map, and not all of them will do it well. But most eventually get the hang of it. It is a simple two-step process.

  1. Begin with a central concept, like the topic of the course, reading, or that week’s discussion. Then you branch out from there with words and short phrases that give more information about the core idea. So the concept map increases in depth, complexity, and detail as they expand.
  2. Connect concepts with “propositions.” Use arrows! Thought webs show you a jumble of ideas. Arrows show you progression of ideas. Over the arrows, write words or very short phrases (usually verbs or adverbs) to connect concepts to each other. Thus, as you move away from the central concept, you can follow an line of thinking. I mean that literally. Follow the line, and you should be able to form a sensible statement or statements about that idea. See Novak’s example. I have included one of my own (it is how I introduce the idea of a concept map to my students).
Concept Map
Click to Enlarge

I know you may be thinking, “How can I grade this?” It may seem a bit too subjective, and it is! But only for the students. Concept maps are unique to their authors (more unique than essays), and they can be scored. We use concept maps where I work to assess how our students are learning. While there are formal, statistically verified ways of evaluating concept maps, they are not essential, especially if instructors grade essays with something like a “check,” “check-plus,” and “check-minus” system. It may also help to know that concept maps strongly correlate to student achievement on more traditional measures, like exams.

So, if you are a humanities instructor, here is why you should drop the essays and require concept maps instead.

  1. They are easier to grade. – My days of plodding through mediocre rewordings of the Internet are over! With a little practice, you can look at a concept map and very quickly see how well students are learning.
  2. They cannot be faked. – Concept maps really do show how a student understands a particular topic. If they only know what they read online, you can tell!
  3. They are more effective. – It is also a lot harder for students to fudge a concept map. Scanning Wikipedia and trying to make sense of that in a visual way becomes more difficult than just reading the text. That’s right! Concept maps disincentivize Wikipedia. Mission accomplished!

The downside to concept maps is that they take some practice for students to get the hang of, but a little bit of grace on the first few assignments generally takes care of that problem. Students certainly learn to do concept maps more quickly than they master topic sentences and independent clauses.

The purpose of an essay is to encourage students to read closely and to wrestle with the ideas of a text, but most of the time it just does not work, especially for students who do not write well, think analytically, or have little practice reading difficult texts. In other words, most of them.

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