Insights from Learning as a Generative Activity part 4: Learning by Mapping

You can find the first three posts in this series here: one, two, three.

Learning by mapping involves students transforming text based information into ‘a spatial arrangement’ and while there are many different types and sub-types of graphic organisers (there is a good poster looking at 12 types here) that can be used, Fiorella and Mayer focus on just three: concept maps, knowledge maps and matrix graphic organisers.

Mapping is seen as a generative learning activity because students engage in all three cognitive processes. Firstly, they need to select which concepts to focus on; secondly, they need to organise the information into a spatial arrangement, paying attention to positioning and the links between ideas; thirdly, students integrate the information with their prior knowledge by transforming it from one mode of representation into another as well as connecting it with logical principles from their long term memory like compare and contrast.

Like summarisation, mapping can be used as a form of structured retrieval practice-very much like Extended Quizzing. Teachers can also help learners by supplementing text based materials with mapped information, helping to simplify complex information and demonstrating relationships, connections, differences and hierarchies. This blog, however, will focus solely on student generated mapping when they have full access to the materials that they are learning from.

General Boundary Conditions for Learning by Mapping

Mapping is most effective with low ability students. Some of the studies into mapping report negligible or even negative effects when this strategy is used with high ability students. But why is this? Perhaps it can be explained through the lens of cognitive load theory. The ‘redundancy effect’ predicts that ‘when multiple sources of information can be understood separately without the need for mental integration’ then this may be ‘detrimental to learning by imposing an extraneous cognitive load’. Presenting information via text as well as a supplementary spatial arrangement of some kind may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning as one of the mediums may well be superfluous. There is, however, an important distinction to be made here. While the ‘redundancy effect’ looks at how information is presented in learning resources, learning by mapping is a strategy used by students in order to make sense of information. Learning by mapping involves students creating the supplementary spatial arrangement themselves. Despite this difference, it may be that for higher ability students, the creation of a concept map of some kind yields a similar kind of redundancy effect: if they can already make sense of a text without the need for mapping it, then once they have completed their map, could it be that they then feel the need to mentally integrate two representations of the same information, thereby increasing their cognitive load? Perhaps this goes someway to explain the negative effects seen with higher ability students?

For lower ability students, concept maps may be a crucial strategy to help them make sense of complicated texts. With higher ability students however, it may be that creating concept maps is unnecessary. If a student is spending time thinking about creating an unnecessary concept map, they will have less time to think about what they are reading or to devote to crafting a sophisticated written response. Curriculum time is finite and we should ensure that our students use it as efficiently as possible: poor instructional choices result in inefficient learning.

Fiorella and Mayer maintain that as long as students are sufficiently trained in mapping, it can be a really effective learning strategy. The authors suggest that several hours of training should be enough. Like with all instructional choices, one of the concerns with using mapping as a learning strategy is that it can be a time consuming process.

They call for further research into exactly which conditions make mapping most effective, pointing out that it would be useful to be clearer as to how much training is required for students as well as how much of this training then transfers to reading new texts with students.

Concept Maps and Knowledge Maps

Concept maps are visual representations that consist of nodes (shapes that contain a concept or idea) and lines that signify connections and relationships that are often labelled. Here are two examples taken from Learning as a Generative Activity:

Knowledge maps are a subset of concept maps although they are more prescriptive: the relationship between nodes are predetermined and follow common organisational principles like hierarchy and exemplification.

Graphic Organisers

Out of the three types of mapping that are explored, graphic organisers demonstrate the strongest average effect size in the studies that are referenced. While there are lots of different types of graphic organisers that use predetermined spatial structures, the studies referenced in Fiorella and Mayer focus on matrix style organisers that involved a compare and contrast type structure. Here is an example taken from Learning as A Generative Activity:

In a 2014 study involving a historical passage about steamboats, students who filled in a matrix style organiser like the one above performed better on a subsequent comprehension test than those students who merely took notes or simply read the passage. The theoretical explanation for this superior performance is that students who filled in the matrix engaged in the processes of selecting, organising and integrating the information which allowed them to make greater sense of the material.

How can Mapping be used in English?

All three types of mapping are best suited to lower ability students, helping them to make sense of dense or more complex texts. For lower ability students, completing a mapping task can be a useful preparatory stage before writing in response to a text. With higher ability students, I tend to avoid using them as a sense making process, instead asking students to either annotate, discuss or write in response to material that they have read.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine at the end of a Jekyll and Hyde unit, you are reading a non-fiction article about the conventions of Gothic fiction and you want students to understand how Stevenson uses, adapts or rejects them in The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde so that they can write a response to this question:

‘Jekyll and Hyde is the archetypal Gothic text’ How far would you agree with this statement?

Each student has a copy of the article, the teacher has a visualizer and projector and everyone follows when someone is reading.

With a higher ability class, you could probably just read the text together, stopping whenever a gothic convention is explored in order to help students make the links between gothic element and the novella.

With a class who are struggling, you could do something like this:

  1. Read the non-fiction article, adding annotations (all students do the same on their copy) to explain vocabulary and asking lots of questions to check for understanding.
  2. Ask them to reread the article and underline the conventions of the Gothic that are mentioned
  3. Ask a student for feedback and underline your text under the visualizer, allowing students who did not find the answer to find it on theirs.
  4. Ask lots of questions about the answer to check for understanding and give further annotations and elaborations about what is being underlined.
  5. Ask all students to check that they have the same underlined answer and annotations as you.

At this point, the whole class will have selected the relevant conventions that they will be discussing in their extended writing.

6. The teacher can then draw a matrix graphic organiser like this:

When we teach a literature text, we carefully choose a set of high utility quotations that we want students to use, apply and memorise. You can see our knowledge organiser for Jekyll and Hyde here. By the end of the Jekyll and Hyde unit, through a combination of repeated usage, manipulation and low stakes quizzing, students will already have memorised many of these quotations meaning that this task is asking them to apply what they already know rather than searching for quotations using the book or an extract. Filling in this table should hopefully be about organising the two sources of information-gothic conventions from the article and knowledge of the text itself-into a spatial representation so that connections and links are made more apparent.

7. The teacher should then demonstrate exactly how to fill in the table, perhaps by completing two rows themselves under the camera:

8. Students can then fill in their table, firstly copying the teachers example rows, then continuing individually.

Like most other learning tasks, feedback to the teacher here can be really useful. Because the table asks students to organise information into columns, it can be easier for the teacher to draw inferences about areas of weakness. If students are struggling with ‘uses in the novella’, then perhaps they would benefit from more work on plot. If students cannot fill in the ‘quotation’ column, then it seems likely that they need to do more work on memorising and applying textual evidence. Asking students to break down a complex task into sequential steps like this not only makes it more manageable for students but it also makes it easier for teachers to diagnose problems, gaps or misconceptions.

9. The teacher should then ask students for feedback, filling in their table under the visualiser, asking lots of questions to check for understanding and adding additional ideas, examples and elaborations.

10. Students can now use their matrix graphic organiser to write their answer to the question.

Next Post: Insights from Learning as Generative Activity part 5

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