All 2 entries tagged Concepts

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November 11, 2005

Teaching Techniques: concept maps developing critical and investigative skills in presentations

Follow-up to Session Report: Introduction to concept mapping for PhD and staff from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

How do students think they are assessed for their seminar presentations and essays? Do some of them have a simplistic "check-list" attitude to writing? Do they aim to simply ensure that they have all of the facts and topics on the check-list covered? Is this necessarily counter to the development and demonstration of critical investigative skills and discursive argumentative presentation and writing? Can the concept mapping techniques that I discussed in my recent Graduate Skills Programme session help to overcome this problem?

I just overheard a discussion that some undergraduates were having. They were planning a seminar presentation. The discussion seemed to consist of:

  1. guessing what topics the tutor would expect them to cover;
  2. analysing the available information (text books) to identify which of the topics they could cover;
  3. identifying facts for some of the topics that would justify their claims to coverage.

If this were the sole scope of the resulting presentation, they would certainly not justify a claim to honours degree level performance, or even undergraduate certificate performance (see the QQA descriptors for details of what that means). But I guess (hope) that this actually represents just the first stage of the process, in which the students assure themselves of some self-confidence in the subject domain by getting a sense that they have at least a minimal degree of coverage. However, I have observed many undergraduate seminars in which the students have come prepared only with a check-list of facts, and the tutor has subsequently had to drag investigative and critical thought out of them.

Note that my argument is not that this kind of activity is wrong for undergraduates, but rather that it only represents a small aspect of what they should be doing. And more significantly, it is the aspect of the process that they focus upon. My guess is that this is the case because it gives them confidence in preparation for the presentation. A check-list of topics and facts is simply more tangible and less subject to challenge than "a critical and investigative processes".

This is where I think technology can make a significant contribution. If we could identify ways of making the critical and investigative process more concrete, more controlled for the student in the presentation, then we might be able to give them more confidence. Of course they may still lack confidence in the arguments that they produce, but we should expect that a more concrete representation of the arguments (in relation to the underlying knowledge base) has the benefit of making it easy to rehearse the investigative and critical discourse.

And that is exactly what is offered by some of the concept mapping techniques that I described.

A concept map is a simple and efficient way of recording facts and ideas. Each node in a map refers to a fact or idea, which may be documented elsewhere (to which the node can be linked), or which may exist in the memory of the map author[s]. Nodes are linked and arranged in some kind of order. This order may represent an assumed order of things in the world, or it may represent the order in which they can be investigated and understood (philosophically these amount to the same thing). Thus in creating and using a concept map, critical and investigative issues are automatically raised. Of course it is still possible to naively build a map as a simple check-list. However, in transferring from the map (non-sequential) to a presentation (sequential to a great extent), questions are raised:

  • where do I start?
  • does the audience need a high level overview?
  • does the audience need to connect with their own detailed and specific perspective?
  • what path do I follow?
  • which nodes are most important?
  • what are the possible links?
  • where are the gaps?
  • what detail is required?
  • at what points should I consider making the path contingent?
  • how will I modify the map as it is used?

The available technologies, such as the FreeMind and MindManager applications, have features that support and indeed encourage this behaviour. There are also well developed presentation and writing techniques that take advantage of these features to create presentations that are both investigative/critical and to a great extent predictable and confident.

I'm going to investigate this further, and am looking for opportunities to use these techniques with students.

Any volunteers? If so then contact me

November 04, 2005

Session Report: Introduction to concept mapping for PhD and staff

Writing about web page

Yesterday afternoon I taught a session on concept mapping to staff and PhD students as part of the ITS Training programme. This seemed to be a great success, both in the ideas that I presented, and in the use of the FreeMind open source Java based concept mapping tool.

Rather than a text based hand-out and lesson plan, I now always just use a concept map. This is given to the students in both an electronic format and on paper. The paper based handout contains several pages, each with a different set of nodes visible or hidden (following the planned path through the map). I start with a top level view, with all of the detail hidden. At this point I can check with the audience to see if the session matches their expectations, and if there are any sections they would like me to focus on. This approach is repeated as I drill down into detail through the rest of the session. Here's the top level for the concept mapping session:

Instead of immediately pliunging into the detail of node 1, we did a little exercise. Firstly, I introduced myself using a concept map that details interesting information about me (requires FreeMind to view) my work and my research. I made this available to the students, so that they could practice navigating and extending (adding to and annotating) a map. I then gave them an amusing scenario to play out in pairs, that would require them to create and use (in a discussion) a similar map about themselves.

This exercise illustrated some of the ways in which concept maps can be useful in planning, recording, and presenting to an unfamiliar audience. The students seemed to really enjoy it, and in fact several of them continued working on their maps after the session ended. Following up on the lessons learned from the exercise, we looked in detail at the second node of the presentation map "Why Concept Map" (after checking with the class, I skipped over the first node, which seemed un-necessary).

The first node is shown below:

And the second:

Out of these ideas for how to use maps, the nodes on "pattern discovery", "direct communication of ideas" and "frameworking writing" were of particular interest. I demonstrated a quite sophisticated map that I use for my philosophy research. I therefore focussed on these in the next two sections of the session, starting with node 3, "elements of a concept map", which covered the different types of element that must or can be used:

Next we moved onto the most important part of the session, node 4 "how to read or present a map". The first of the suggested techniques, "drilling down" was already obvious, as I had been using it throughout the session. This involves starting at the centre of the map, at the general level, and then moving down through increasing levels of detail as required (I check with the students to see if they need more detail). This is particularly good if you are presenting or writing to an audience that is unfamilar.

The second technique is "expanding out", which involves starting with a specific detail familiar to the audience, and then moving upwards to give that detail context, and across to connect it to other nodes. This is good if you have a specialised audience or audiences, and you want to show them the bigger picture.

These techniques are very powerful as means for frameworking presentations and writing. In particular, I recomended that when trying to create a document from a map, one should work out a path through the map (drilling down or expanding out), and rehearse it with someone. Make a commentary (written or recorded) as you go along.

Unfortunately we were now running out of time, so the coverage of the technical topics was limited. However, my message is fairly straightforwards:

  1. don't overlook pen and paper, or the use of whiteboards;
  2. MindJet MindManager is the best software for serious research work, with its fast intuitive approach and interoperability with Office;
  3. MindManager has limtations (no Mac or Linux version, too much functionality, and its expensive);
  4. the free alternative (almost a clone) is FreeMind which is open source, java based, has Mac and Linux versions, as well as a web applet, is interoperable with MindManager, and is entirely free and easy to download and install.

In fact, my recomendation was to use FreeMind until you really need some of the sophisticated functionality of MindManager. We used FreeMind during the session, and it was great. The ease with which nodes can be inserted and extended, using enter and insert, makes it the perfect tool for supporting fast thinking and planning. It's abilities with icons are a little limited. Moving nodes around isn't as slick as MindManager. But this not necessarily a blocker. Printing is also quite poor, but with a little investigation, I think I will be able to work it out.

If you like the sound of this session, then contact me a I am considering repeating it.

UPDATE: we now have a site licence for the very slick MindManager software. This is available to all staff and students.