This is a guest post from Leanne Powner, Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Christopher Newport University. Leanne is also the author of the Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide.
One of the more challenging parts of preparing students for an exam – especially a comprehensive one like most finals – is helping them to see connections between class topics. Most of us construct our lectures as self-contained units, perhaps one chapter of the textbook at a time; students’ study habits invariably follow this pattern as well unless we find a way to help them break out of it. I’ve begun teaching concept mapping (sometimes called concept webbing) as a tool for making connections across class sessions.
Concept maps consist of three elements:
terms, which form the nodes of the map, linking lines, and relationships. I begin by giving small groups of students a single core term from the course material; in my introductory Comparative and International Politics class, these were power, globalization, economic development, bargaining, and conflict. Students then identified related concepts or terms and placed them around the central term, connecting them to the center with linking lines. The process then repeats, with the newly added related concepts becoming nodes with additional ideas branching off of them.
The most important component of the mapping process, however, is specifying the relationships between the terms: Each linking line needs a word or phrase specifying how the terms at either end are related. Component? Cause? Effect? Theory of? Anything is fair game as a relationship term. Negotiating these labels and what linkages will appear on the map requires students engage with both the material and each other in a very different manner than they’re accustomed to. Deciding how to link the concepts, both in terms of where the lines go and what relationships are listed there, forces students to negotiate their knowledge.
The true value of mapping appears in the final step of the process. As the maps grow, students begin to identify connections between terms in different parts of their maps. Lines will arc all over the map as students find ties between items that they initially group elsewhere. Students might have initially linked “citizen preferences” to “democracy,” but it also connects to “leader preferences,” “policy choices,” “winners and losers,” and any number of other terms that might be on their map. As one might imagine, mapping is an iterative process rather than a linear one; the ‘final step’ phase occurs throughout the mapping process. One of my favorite parts of this activity is watching these lightbulb moments occur.
Good initial terms for this exercise are relatively broad and can be interpreted in different ways. Is “power” bargaining power, military power, economic power, or political power? Conflict could be international, civil, or social. This activity works best with students having a section of whiteboard or chalkboard, a transparency, or other easily-erasable surface to work on along with at least two colors of writing implement. (Markers on paper does not erase, so much of the negotiation stage is omitted since crossing stuff out is ugly and messy.) In a pinch, I’ve used individual-sized student dry erase boards (often available at your neighborhood dollar store, especially around back-to-school season), took a photo of the completed map, and then displayed the photo on the projector screen. Digital slides could also work if students are comfortable using them in pen mode rather than click-and-drag-to-insert-shapes-and-text-boxes mode; the latter is too slow.