Using Concept Mapping as an Assessment Method

Concept mapping is a powerful tool for linking knowledge and could be a key to developing strong performance assessments that ought to be designed to generate both an assessment of how students are applying concepts and to assess the deep understanding that students are gaining.

According to Plotnick (1997), researchers began to study the concept-mapping technique in the 1960s based on the theories of Ausubel (1968), who stressed the important role of prior knowledge in learning about new concepts. Since then, concept mapping has been gaining inroads as a tool to enhance problem solving in education.

Mintzes, Wandersee, and Novak (2000) define concept maps as "tools for organizing and representing knowledge." Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser (2001) identify concept mapping as a method for arranging conceptual nodes—and labels of nodes and links—to show relationships among multiple concepts in a domain . An important benefit of using concept mapping as an assessment method is its ability to detect or illustrate students' deep content understandings as well as their misconceptions when they create a personal explanation of content matter (Novak, Gowin, & Johansen, 1983; Novak, 1993).

In 1989, the American Association for the Advancement of Science began Project 2061 and issued a set of recommendations for mathematics, science, and technology through its 1990 publication of Science for All Americans and 1993 publication of Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Project 2061 is the group's long-term initiative to reform K–12 science, mathematics, and technology education nationwide. The team of Project 2061 and the National Science Teachers Association copublished Atlas of Science Literacy, a collection of conceptual strand maps that show how students' understanding of the ideas and skills that lead to literacy in science, mathematics, and technology might grow over time. Each map depicts how K–12 learning goals for a particular topic relate to each other and progress from one grade level to the next.

According to research cited by Novak (n.d.), besides being a learning tool, concept mapping is also one of the most powerful evaluation tools, "encouraging students to use meaningful-mode learning patterns" (Novak & Gowin, 1984; Novak, 1990; Mintzes, Wandersee, & Novak, 2000). According to Plotnick (1997), one-way, two-way, or nondirectional links can be established between the concepts, which may be categorized along with the links and may show temporal or causal relationships between concepts.

Specifications for concept-mapping assessments usually include (1) defining the task demands in terms of a given set of concepts or terms within a content area and electronic information links that are provided to the student in a finite database and (2) scoring the concept maps using the Herl metric for scoring semantic content, organizational structure, number of links used in the map, and comparison with expert teacher maps that serve as criterion maps (Herl, Baker, & Niemi, 1996; O'Neil & Schacter, 1997). Several computer software programs allow users the flexibility of moving concepts together with linking statements or moving concept groups and links on a specific concept map (Novak, n.d.). Printing capability of these software programs gives students an opportunity to produce a product and share it with classmates or the teacher.

Inspiration® and Kidspiration® are currently among the most popular concept mapping software programs. Zeitz and Anderson-Inman (1992) conducted a hallmark study of classroom use of Inspiration and found that it encourages students to reflect and revise their understanding of conceptual relationships representations, more than when compared to students' maps drawn with paper and pencil. In follow-up studies, Zeitz and Anderson-Inman (1993) found that Inspiration is useful in stimulating students' prior knowledge at the start of a unit of study and that teachers used "the concept maps and outlines generated by the students to assess the level of student comprehension and to correct misconceptions that became apparent as the students entered and linked new concepts as they learned" (Kight, 1998).

Anderson-Inman, Ditson, and Ditson (1999) cite considerable evidence that concept mapping promotes meaningful learning in science. In science education, concept mapping has been widely recommended and used in a variety of ways to observe change in students' understanding of concepts over time, to assess what the learner knows, and to reveal their unique thought processes. It has been used in evaluation of science curriculum and instructional activities for promoting conceptual understanding and positive learner attitudes toward science. When Anderson-Inman, Ditson, and Ditson (1999) investigated the use of concept mapping as an accommodation strategy for students with learning difficulties, they found that computer-based concept mapping assists students who are oriented toward visual learning (or who have difficulty reading and writing text) to graphically represent what they are learning. Students' graphic representation of science concepts can be tracked over time, which provides teachers with a method for monitoring conceptual growth as a function of instruction.



Anderson-Inman, L., Ditson, L. A., & Ditson, M. T. (1998, June). Computer-based concept mapping: Promoting meaningful learning in science for students with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities, 5(1–2). Retrieved September 6, 2005, from

Ausubel, D. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York : Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Herl, H. E., Baker, E. L., & Niemi, D. (1996). Construct validation of an approach to modeling cognitive science structure of U.S. history knowledge. Journal of Educational Research, 89, 206–218.

Kight, K. S. (1998). Using Inspiration to organize reading and writing. Retrieved September 6, 2005, from

Mintzes, J., Wandersee, J., & Novak, J. (Eds.). (1999). Assessing science understanding. San Diego: Academic Press.

Novak, J. D. (n.d.). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct them. Retrieved September 6, 2005, from

Novak, J. D. (1990). Concept maps and Vee diagrams: Two metacognitive tools for science and mathematics education. Instructional Science, 19, 29-52.

Novak, J. D. (1993, March). How do we learn our lesson?: Taking students through the process. The Science Teacher, 60(3), 51–55.

Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Novak, J. D., Gowin, D. B., & Johansen, G. T. (1983). The use of concept mapping and knowledge: Vee mapping with junior high school science students. Science Education, 67(5), 625–645.

O'Neil, H., Jr., & Schacter, J. (1997). Test specifications for problem-solving assessment. CSE Technical Report 463. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. Retrieved September 6, 2005, from

Pellegrino, J. W., Naomi Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (Eds.). (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Committee on the Foundations of Assessment, Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved on September 6, 2005, from

Plotnick, E. (1997, June). Concept mapping: A graphical system for understanding the relationship between concepts. ERIC Digest. Syracuse , NY : ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED407938). Retrieved September 6, 2005, from

Zeitz, L., & Anderson-Inman, L. (1992). The effects of computer-based formative concept mapping on learning high school science. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco , CA .

Zeitz, L., & Anderson-Inman, L. (1993). Computer-based concept mapping in a high school biology class: Effects of student characteristics. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta , GA.


Return to "Multiple Dimensions of Assessment That Support Student Progress in Science and Mathematics."
Copyright © North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer and copyright information.