Using Online Concept Maps to Increase Student Collaboration

Many different online concept mapping services can help students build connections between research topics.

The start of a new semester comes a flurry of one-shot library instruction sessions. Many of these instruction sessions occur in general education classes, focused on first- and second-year students, who are often from diverse backgrounds. While some courses still use traditional brainstorming keyword worksheets, at our library we have shifted to more collaborative and interactive approaches, like concept maps. For instance, students may work in groups to brainstorm keywords on a concept and share them on an oversized sticky note or use Google Jamboard to create slides and sticky notes on a topic. The shift to more collaborative and interactive approaches increases student engagement and helps improve problem-solving and communication skills.

An illustration of a concept map about US-Mexico border immigration using Google Jamboards.
This is an example of a Jamboard that was used by breakout rooms over Zoom in an online Social Sciences 200 course. Students collaborated on potential keyword searches they could conduct in a research database based on their topic.

When we work with students within the research databases and discovery service, we instruct them to scan the subject terms listed in an item record to get ideas for other subjects to search, or to use the subject facet to limit their search. These terms are typically vocabulary words that students are unfamiliar with, especially if they are just starting to research a topic. While all of these tools and techniques each have their own benefits, they lack the ability for students to understand context and visualize the connections between and definitions of vocabulary terms. These types of exercises can be especially frustrating for international students and first-generation students. One way we can make instruction more accessible and inclusive is to use concept maps. 

Concept maps, which were first developed in the 1970s, are a way to visually represent information and relationships. One study described concept maps as an “Instagram” of the creator’s brain on a specific subject. In search and discovery, concept maps can be used similarly: to showcase and analyze the relationships between terms and assist in solving research questions. There are many types of concept mapping and visualization tools available that can be integrated into library instruction.

Concept mapping in EBSCO Discovery Service

An example of a concept map using EBSCO Discovery Service
The new EBSCO Discovery Service provides a Concept Map feature. When you click on a keyword, a definition will appear. There is a search builder on the right sidebar to add keywords from the Concept Map, allowing you to conduct a search and preview article results.

Within the new EBSCO Discovery Service, the Concept Map improves some of the ongoing issues with linear, text-based subject searching. Most students are unfamiliar with controlled vocabularies, and subject headings do not typically line up with how they might think about subjects. This new visual subject mapping works with natural language while also providing a breadcrumb or information trail so students can gain a 360-look at their search and easily see how subjects are linked. You can add selected subjects to a Boolean search without leaving the site. Definitions and images of subject terms are available, which can reduce reading comprehension demands and language barriers. 

For example, if a student were doing a search on “java,” they might be thinking of an island, a programming language, or coffee. A concept map easily provides this context and the definitions of its subjects.

Using Visuwords to concept map

An example of a concept map on sex, gender, and sexuality using VisuWords
Enter a keyword on Visuwords to visualize the term and then hover over the term to view the definition.

If you are not a subscriber to EBSCO Discovery Service, you can incorporate other free and open source tools into instruction. Visuwords is a graphical dictionary and thesaurus that uses an open source database built by Princeton University students and language researchers. In an instruction session, students can enter their subject terms into Visuwords as a way to broaden or expand their search and then list additional subject terms or interconnected terms they could also search for in a database. Students can also create their own online concept maps using tools like MindMup, Mural, or Figma

As we continue to think of ways to engage students in critical thinking, students can use online concept maps as a tool for exploration and analysis within the library instruction setting. 

Choice and LibTech Insights gratefully acknowledge our launch sponsor, Dimensions, a part of Digital Science.  Dimensions, is the largest linked research database available and provides a unique view across the whole research ecosystem from idea to impact.

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