Concept Maps Used to Rehearse & Assess Students’ Synthesis of Course Content

9.01, 9.00
Brain & Cognitive Sciences (Course 9)
Left side showing a student's concept map; Right side showing headshot of Laura Frawley
Laura Frawley
Mark Bear
John Gabrieli
Digital Innovations & Tools
Active Learning
Online Assessments & Rapid Feedback
Simulations & Visualizations

Students deepen their learning when they engage with course content in meaningful ways. To better understand how different pieces of information are connected, students can engage in concept mapping. The mapping process enables them to rehearse the skill of finding relationships and commonalities across concepts and organize their knowledge in creative ways. Brain and Cognitive Sciences Senior Lecturer Laura Frawley embeds opportunities for students to engage in these learning processes by having them submit concept maps via Canvas.

Laura Frawley decided to experiment with using concept maps during Fall 2022, to address student feedback about lacking opportunities to express their own understanding. Concept maps are now part of the quizzes in both 9.01 (Introduction to Neuroscience) with Mark Bear and 9.00 (Introduction to Psychological Science) with John Gabrieli, and additionally part of the final assessment in 9.01.

The concept maps make students’ thinking process visible or shareable for feedback, while at the same time enable a more effective grading process to be carried out by the course team. Even though concept mapping may be known as a study tool or information-sharing medium, Laura Frawley finds that concept maps can indeed be an end-product of assessment. Instructors can more easily identify potential cheating and establish criteria to make feedback brief and streamlined relative to what other short-answer questions would require. Students are creating and organizing the maps, making them unique to each learner, while also expressing the interconnectedness and relationships between concepts as well as sharing the big picture understandings—two important learning goals for 9.00 and 9.01. Since students are asked to make a map during each quiz (which are distributed across the term), they are also regularly practicing their ability to synthesize content as they progress through the course.

Using concept maps across different assessment structures

Both 9.01 and 9.00 incorporate concept maps. In 9.01, eight quizzes are distributed throughout the term, worth ~6.9% each for a total of 55% of the cumulative grade. The quizzes are untimed, open-book, with a 2–3-day window for completion, and consist of 18 questions (including multiple choice, multiple answer, matching, and fill-in-the-blank) and one concept map. Similarly, 9.00 has six quizzes worth a total of 40% of the course grade, with 18 multiple-choice-like questions and one concept map as well.

9.01 additionally includes a final written assessment, worth 25% of the student’s grade and consisting of five questions that require students to integrate material from across course units. The final assessment is open notes to resources used in the course, and is available for 10-14 days with the last day of class as the deadline. Students are asked to write a maximum of one page per question. Incorporated into one of the questions is a larger concept map that requires students to integrate multiple topics across the curriculum. The concept map is excluded from the one-page limit.

The bullets below are example concept map instructions provided to students as part of the quizzes. Students are also given a list of the main topic, subtopics (when applicable), and ~25 or so key terms.

  • Generate a SINGLE concept map about the topic listed below. Be sure to include the Topic as a central part of your concept map.
  • Each of the terms listed below must be used in your concept map as non-linking words/phrases.
  • Use linking words/phrases to connect these terms together. Be sure to include linking words for ALL connections.
  • Make sure your connections have directionality (-->, <-->, <--)
  • Please BOX each of the terms.
  • You are welcome to add additional terms if needed to complete the concept map, the terms listed below are the minimum.
  • You may hand write/draw these or create your concept map in a document. If you choose to write it by hand, PLEASE make sure your handwriting is legible. If we cannot read your handwriting, points will be deducted.
  • The criteria we will use for grading include:
    • Interconnectedness of terms and ideas
    • Organization and accuracy of content
    • Presence of linking words/phrases, terms, and directional connections

Example concept map showing main topic, subtopics, and key terms interconnected with arrows

A student’s concept map for a 9.01 quiz, showing relationships between the main topic (neural systems), subtopics (somatic sensation and motor system), and key terms (full list here)

Another example concept map showing main topic, subtopics, and key terms interconnected with arrows

A student’s concept map for a 9.00 quiz, showing relationships between the main topic (learning) and key terms (full list here)

Grading the concept map on Canvas

In large courses like 9.01 (with 100+ students) and 9.00 (with 300+ students), reviewing and providing feedback on student work can be facilitated via Canvas. Laura Frawley has students upload their maps as a file in the Canvas quiz. Then, Laura and the teaching assistants follow a repeatable process for feedback. Grading criteria and examples of what distinguishes big mistakes from small ones are shared during the regular teaching team meetings. The course team determined that being nit-picky about every single item on the map was not as helpful as clear and detailed feedback on the links and connections across terms. So, feedback on the concept maps is primarily given when students lose points, along with an explanation of the error (see supplemental material). The feedback is given via the comment and annotation tools available on Canvas SpeedGrader.

To help students meet expectations and make improvements, Laura Frawley also identifies an exceptional concept map and obtains the student’s permission to share it with the class. The example concept map is then reviewed in recitation.

Adapting to meet students’ needs

9.01 and 9.00 used to rely on a high-stakes assessment structure, which nowadays has been replaced with distributed low-stakes quizzes, participation requirements, MITx modules, and a final written assessment. Driven initially by the pandemic, the changes continue to highlight the importance of obtaining and responding to student feedback. The concept maps have been used because of students’ desire to creatively express their learning and the instructors’ need for an effective grading/feedback process. The way that teaching assistants review and grade the concept maps have also been informed by student feedback. So far, students are responding positively to the use of concept mapping (see supplemental material). Majority of students in recent surveys agreed that the concept maps helped them see the big picture (83% in 9.01, 72% in 9.01). Most students also agreed that concept mapping helped them to visualize connections between concepts/terms (83% in 9.01, 74% in 9.00).

Laura Frawley continues to include concept mapping in 9.01 and 9.00 quizzes and well as the 9.01 final assessment, though she also emphasizes the importance of iterating based on student input, being transparent with students about what is being tried and why, and modeling what it means to learn from mistakes.


Want to use Canvas or integrated tools for concept mapping but need help? Email for a consultation.

Related resource:
-Video on Canvas SpeedGrader

More from Laura Frawley:
-Supplemental info on concept mapping in 9.01/9.00
-Video on re-thinking assessment
-Article about Canvas Question Bank for frequent quizzes