Faculty Club / Assessment / Beyond Flashcards: Introduce New College Students to Concept Maps

Beyond Flashcards: Introduce New College Students to Concept Maps

To get students to move beyond memorizing terms to connecting concepts, Naomi Wernick, PhD, blows their minds with some creative diagramming.

To get students to move beyond memorizing terms to connecting concepts, Naomi Wernick, PhD, blows their minds with some creative diagramming.

Naomi Wernick, PhD


Associate Teaching Professor of Biology,
University of Massachusetts Lowell

PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology, BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Many students are accustomed to using flashcards to quiz themselves on key terms. But this type of fragmented study can cause students to lose sight of the bigger picture, says Naomi Wernick, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Being able to define amino acid and peptide bond does not mean you know how the two relate—which is of vital importance when studying macromolecules.

For help in addressing this challenge, Wernick turned to the former Dean of UMass Lowell’s College of Education, who helped guide her in the best ways to use a type of graphic organizer called concept maps. Wernick describes the maps—pioneered in the 1970s by Joseph Novak and colleagues at Cornell University—as a “web of connections between ideas.” This is because concept maps typically involve lots of lines and arrows that link key words and phrases, which are scattered across a sheet of white paper.

While many students are nervous to try concept maps (as with anything new), most end up loving them because they are so visual and easy to use. “I’ve had students who will go crazy—they’ll find a white board in their dorm, make a giant concept map, take a picture of it, and then send it to me,” she says. “That happens every semester.”

Below, Wernick shares her example of a macromolecule concept map, along with her best practices for introducing and using this tool.

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“My goal is for students to connect concepts rather than memorize vocabulary. Concept maps help students make broad connections among concepts. They challenge students to think outside of the box.”
-Naomi Wernick, PhD

Course: BIOL 1110 Principles of Biology I

Course description: Introduces topics such as the chemical and physical basis of life, its evolution, diversity, distribution, and interrelationships of life forms. The central theme of genetic replication, translation, expression, and selection will be emphasized as a unifying principle which determines and integrates structure and function at the cellular, individual population, and community levels of organization. Designed for those students who intend to pursue career options in the biological sciences, biotechnology or related areas such as medicine, biomedical research, radiological sciences or environmental sciences.

Wernick’s tips for helping students connect with concept maps

Because most students have never created a concept map, they are skeptical at first. So Wernick begins with an explanation of why they are useful. “I always tell students that I know it’s really easy for them to memorize words, but what’s harder is to think about how the words connect,” she says. Creating the maps, she says, will help them learn the material more deeply, and the more they do it, the easier mapmaking will become. This, in turn, will likely help their grade in the course. “On an exam, I’m never going to ask for a definition,” she asserts. “I’m going to ask, ‘How do these things relate to each other?’ Concept maps help them see those relationships.”

Here is how she sparks student interest, explains the process, and stokes the fires of their concept-map passion.

Explain the concepts behind concept maps

Understandably, students want to turn to familiar practices when making their first concept maps. “They want to form long sentences that connect many concepts,” she says. “So I explain that a concept map, instead, should just focus on connecting only two terms at a time with a short phrase.”

She also has students use colored pencils or pens for connecting lines, which helps with organization. “You’re going to have a spiderweb of lines, and it gets really hard to figure out which line goes where if they aren’t color matched,” Wernick notes. (See the example below.)

Introduce fill-in-the-blank concept maps

Wernick recommends easing students into making concept maps. “If I were to say, ‘Here’s 20 words; organize them and make connections,’ they’d freeze,” she says. To get them started, she provides a fill-in-the-blank concept map like the one shown below.

Naomi Wernick
Do a concept map demo at the head of the class

Another way that Wernick eases students into making concept maps is by creating one in real time, in front of the class, while students create their own copy simultaneously. Typically, she chooses 15 words, then starts by connecting two related words together—say, between phenotype and genotype. Then she explains that they should use a line, labeled with a short phrase, to connect the two and explain their relationship. For example, the phrase between phenotype and genotype might be “The phenotype is based on the genotype.” This is a way to help students practice together before working on their own blank copy for the first time.

Provide them with terms, but make them draw connections

Sometimes Wernick provides students with the words, but not the arrows. While she has an idea in mind for the correct phrase connecting each pair of words, she is receptive to new ideas from students.

“I tell them that there is no right way to do this. My answer sheet might look a little different from theirs. Maybe they found a connection that I didn’t find, or they used another phrase. But as long as the phrase they wrote makes sense, that’s OK,” she says. “I try to get away from right and wrong, unless they’re connecting concepts that just shouldn’t be connected, or if they connect concepts in an incorrect way.” If she senses that students cannot come up with the correct phrase at all, she will jump in and offer help.

Naomi Wernick
Naomi Wernick
Have them map a new chapter, in small groups

Wernick says that after students have practiced with fill-in-the-blank maps and with preformed maps that only need arrow connections, they should have a grasp of what she is looking for in a concept map. At this point, she has them work in small groups in class to create one from scratch. (For this, everyone in the group gets the same grade, based on effort rather than accuracy.) After completing a section of content, students begin by brainstorming about 10 to 15 important concepts. Students are then asked to spread the words on the page and begin connecting the concepts in the form of a concept map.

Provide an answer key and encourage repetition

After students finish creating their maps, she provides an answer key and reviews her own version with the class. “I then always post a blank copy in addition to the answer key,” she adds. “Practicing on the blank—over and over—can be useful. The more you rewrite it, the more that those connections sort of sink in. I play piano, and it’s the same thing: You can’t get better without practice!”

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