Concept Maps and Meaningful Learning in Biology

Meaningful learning occurs when the learner interprets new information by relating it to and incorporating it with existing knowledge and then applies the new information to solve novel problems. Each concept does not stand on its own, but instead has a relationship with many others for meaning. It is for this reason that a concept map can be used to enhance meaningful learning (Briscoe & LaMaster, 1991; DiCarlo, 2006). A concept map is a non-linear diagrammatic representation of meaningful relationships between concepts. The concepts are linked by words that describe the relationships or connections between the concepts (DiCarlo, 2006). Such a form of learning is especially important in a scenario of expanding knowledge as we have today in Biology, so that new concepts must be linked to existing ones for any meaningful learning to take place. A student who tackles the new concepts without linking will of course not get the big idea and be lost at some point naturally. A poignant example is the topic of evolution. Evolution in the past was taught in two broad conceptual frameworks and these were the Darwinian and neoDarwinian concepts. The first dealt with natural selection and speciation, while the latter incorporated concepts in Mendelian genetics. The two were then linked by the Hardy-Weinberg theory. In contemporary evolutionary studies, the expanding fields of phylogenetics and molecular evolution have become significant in the topic and have revolutionised our understanding of both the organisation of life and how it has changed over time. On top of that, a student has to assimilate an understanding of biogeography and the study of fossil records into an understanding of how life evolved. The relationships between traditional classification and modern phylogenetics, natural selection versus neutral theory, natural selection, fossil records and biogeography have made the study of evolution one of the more challenging topics in the “A” levels. On the whole, students’ understanding is enhanced when they realise that as a theory, the theory of evolution is made up of many concepts, old ones linked to new ones and all linked to how life on earth has changed. A concept map approach to this study has been found to be the most suitable, as it explores the connections rather than an approach that is focused on discrete facts and rote learning.

Besides the forthright use of concept maps, conceptual learning can be advocated for demonstrating the genuine usefulness of the topic. This creates meaning and ensures that learning is interest-driven. Hence, Herron, Parr, Davis and Nelson (2010) designed a theme-based instruction for sickle-cell anaemia that connected diverse concepts such as genetics, biogeography and cell biology into a thematic unit. Sickle-cell anaemia is a topic personally relevant to students in the United States as 80,000 Americans suffer from the disease, and African Americans show an 8 % gene frequency of the allele. However, the way this disease is presented to learners tends to be oversimplified and often obsolete. Generally, Herron et al. (2010) postulated that teachers would agree that students would respond positively to topics that demonstrate genuine usefulness. They went on to write the unit with connections to various other concepts such as evolution, biochemistry, ethics and epistemology. What was interesting in this study was that such a conceptual way of teaching Biology actually enhanced the teachers’ own understanding of the links between the concepts further.

As was mentioned earlier, at the heart of concept-based learning is conceptual change. Biology educators Tanner and Allen (2005) point out that due to the stepwise nature of testing and checking competing conceptualisations, the learning becomes personal and well integrated into students’ own frameworks for understanding. In fact, conceptual change is very much the way that a scientist learns in the laboratory, which is a far cry from the way teachers approach classroom science. One way of checking on learners’ conceptual understanding has been put forth by Anderson, Fisher and Norman (2002), who developed a Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection (CINS) that employs known alternative conceptions as “wrong answers” in a multiple-choice assessment tool. Such assessment tools can be useful for instructors to understand which misconceptions are prevalent, why students had the wrong concept, and how instructors can be allowed to facilitate conceptual change.

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