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Editor’s Note
: Constructivism is a widely accepted philosophy for learning, especially in online classes. Brent Muirhead examines how building concept maps can facilitate research, interpretation, product development, collaboration and assessment of conceptual materials using a graduate education course as an example. He uses this opportunity to show how these procedures incorporate research and best practices in teaching and learning, and how environmental factors may affect the outcomes.

Creating Concept Maps:
Integrating Constructivism Principles into Online Classes

Brent Muirhead


The author will describe a lesson plan for creating concept maps using the constructivism learning environment for an online class. Students will be challenged to create a definition of good character by developing mental models using Inspiration software. A description of a six step constructivism learning environment for a graduate education online class (EDD520 Critical Issues in Education) will be discussed. Students will create definitions by conducting research from the Internet, utilizing course resources, and collaborating with classmates with assistance from their teacher. The final phase of the assignment will involve producing individual concept maps based on the student’s description of good character by using Inspiration software.


The constructivist educational model is based on rigorous academic standards and expectations, and requires educators who are capable of equipping students to be independent learners. Teachers are considered to be knowledge experts who have a clear understanding of their subject matter and their role is to promote self-directed learning activities to cultivate acquisition of knowledge through individual and group studies. Teachers are challenged to carefully design instructional activities that guide their students into relevant learning situations that promote personal acquisition of knowledge. Teachers strive to encourage positive learning habits that foster both self-directed learning styles and genuine collaboration with other classmates. It requires planning creative instructional assignments that intellectually stretch their students but do not confuse or overwhelm them (Sorden, 2005).

Constructivism is a student-centered approach that places responsibility on students to take charge of their learning experiences. Teachers create activities and assignments that foster the creation of knowledge. Students are challenged to produce reality based products such as portfolios and papers. The constructivist educational philosophy operates on a basis of four major assumptions:

  1. Knowledge depends on past constructions. We know the world through our mental framework and we transform and interpret new information through this framework.

  2. Constructions come through systems of assimilation and accommodation into our existing mental framework. If information is incongruent with that framework, it cannot be assimilated. But we can develop a higher-level of cognition to accommodate this new information and zones of new development.

  3. Learning is an organic process of invention, not mechanical. Knowledge is more than facts or information. Learners must be able to hypothesize, predict, manipulate, and construct knowledge

  4. Meaningful learning occurs through reflection and scaffolding of new knowledge upon existing framework of knowledge. Cognitive developmental abilities play a key role in all four premises and the ability and evolution of each student's ability to learn and assimilate knowledge. (Constructivist Model, nd, para 3)

It should be recognized that researchers and writers have raised academic issues involving the application of constructivism in today’s classes. Educators are concerned about students having to teach themselves vital knowledge content areas and whether students are truly understanding basic subject concepts. Assessment of constructivism activities can be more difficult due to the qualitative nature of the activities which could increase the level of subjectivity during evaluation and grading of student work. (Constructivist Model, Criticisms, nd,)

Educators should be selective in choosing a topic for using constructivist methods because the key is to implement the method that most effectively meets the learning objectives. Often, the emphasis is on developing reflective thinking skills and less on learning specific factual material. Roblyer (2004) raises four concerns about constructivist teaching methods:

  • It is difficult for teachers to certify individual’s skill learning.

  • Prerequisite skills may be lacking.

  • Students may not choose the most effective instruction.

  • Skills may not transfer to practical situations (p. 72).

Advocates of the constructivist model are aware of these criticisms and educators are continually striving to improve their use of this innovative paradigm. It has grown more popular among educators who appreciate the emphasis on student creation of knowledge and the opportunity to develop rich instructional activities. Teachers are producing creative assignments that utilize textbooks, computer software programs (i.e. electronic portfolios) and the Internet. Students can learn a variety of new skills such as how to scaffold knowledge and cultivate problem solving skills (Constructivist Model, nd). “Constructivism represents a paradigm shift from education based on behaviorism to education based on cognitive theory” (Gagnon & Collay, nd, para 3).

Educators who are seeking to develop constructivist instructional plans should consider reading research studies on those who have tried to implement it into their classes. Black and McClintock (1995) have created an educational paradigm based on the principles of constructivism. The model, called the Interpretation Construction (ICON) Design Model, reflects how cognitive psychology, technology and constructivism can be integrated into instructional activities. There are seven steps to the ICON model (Black & McClintock, 1995, para 2).

  • observation: Students make observations of authentic artifacts anchored in authentic situations.

  • interpretation construction: Students construct interpretations of observations and construct arguments for the validity of their interpretations.

  • contextualization: Students access background and contextual materials of various sorts to aid interpretation and argumentation.

  • cognitive apprenticeship: Students serve as apprentices to teachers to master observation, interpretation and contextualization.

  • multiple interpretations: Students gain cognitive flexibility by being exposed to multiple interpretations.

  • multiple manifestations: Students gain transferability by seeing multiple manifestations of the same interpretations.

The ICON model is appropriate for larger instructional projects which contain the level of complexity and the necessary time to adequately engage in each of the steps. Smaller assignments would probably require deleting the cognitive apprenticeship step due to time constraints.

The author has created an instructional model to describe a constructivist learning environment for an online graduate education class. Students will study character education as part of their course work for EDD520 Critical Issues in Education. The assignment will involve students creating a definition of good character by creating a concept mind using Inspiration software. Royer and Royer (2004) conducted a research project with two high school biology classes using Inspiration software. The investigation affirmed that students who designed maps with the computer software were able to generate more complex maps than those who used paper and pencil for their work.

What Students Will Learn

The author will create an instructional activity based on constructivist principles for an online graduate education class at the University of Phoenix. Students will study character education as part of their course work for EDD520 Critical Issues in Education. The class is a required for individuals who are pursuing a master’s degree in education. Usually, the online education classes are approximately 12-15 students in size and the courses are six weeks in length (UOP Fact Book, 2005).

The assignment will involve studying character education and the moral theories associated with this educational issue. Contemporary writers have heavily criticized Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory. Woolfolk (1990) notes that his stage theory fails to show how people make moral choices. Frequently, people will operate within several stages within a moral episode. Additionally, the sequence of stages reflects a bias for Western values such as individualism. Some cultures place a greater emphasis on family or group oriented decision-making. Feldman (1997) raises concerns that his theory does a better job of describing moral judgments and struggles when predicting actual behavior. For instance, one experiment revealed that students who were considered to be operating in the post-conventional stage (highest moral category), 70% of them were found cheating on a task. The study reveals that knowing what is right or wrong does not always translate into positive moral behavior. Woolfolk (1990) cites a research study of 1,100 high school students who gave three reasons for cheating: “too lazy to study, fear of failure, and parental pressure for good grades” (p. 108). Every moral developmental theory must deal with the reality that individuals can have ethical knowledge but choose to ignore it.

The studies cited demonstrated various dimensions of investigating moral theories. A valid and logical question for researchers is how can they evaluate moral development theories before encouraging others to use them in schools and business settings? Moral developmental literature contains an advocacy element that sometimes complicates the reader’s ability to evaluate the educational merit of every theory. Individuals need to devote time and energy into studying the validity of moral development theories. Thomas (1997) has done extensive investigations into analyzing moral theories by asking specific questions and here are several that are quite relevant:

  1. Moral versus immoral: from what kinds of evidence and modes of investigation does the theory draw its substance?

  2. Sources of evidence: what guidelines do the theory offer for deciding whether a thought or act is moral or immoral?

  3. Moral development reality: what is the theories conception of reality?

  4. Length of development: how is the length of a person’s moral development calculated, and is such development more intense at one time of life than at another?

  5. Personality structure: what components of personality are important for moral development, and how do these components function?

  6. Directions, processes, and stages: how is the development defined in terms of directions, processes and /or stages of growth?

  7. Individual differences: what sorts of differences between individuals are regarded as significant, and what are the causes of those differences?

  8. Nomenclature: what terminology used in the theory is especially important?

  9. Popularity: who subscribes to the theory and why? (pp. 3-4)

This brief overview of moral development theories reveals some of the intellectual complexity associated with character education. The author will create a meaningful instructional activity to help students become better acquainted with the literature. Students will be given the following learning objectives for their assignment: create a definition of good character that involves three areas: moral knowing, moral feeling and moral action and create a concept map of their definition for good character using Inspiration software. The assignment is designed to help students become more familiar with the issue of character education and consider the practical implications of implementing aspects of character education in today’s K-12 schools. Additionally, students will be encouraged to carefully examine their personal philosophy of education during the course to see whether they need to make any refinements on issues such as classroom management and integrating character education into their daily class routines.

Constructivist Design Model

The assignment will involve students conducting research into character education. Then, the students will develop definitions of good character and translate their definition into a concept mind map by using Inspiration software. The constructivist model has six steps: student instructions/explain situation, research, interpretation, create relevant product, collaboration and assessment.

Student Instructions/Explain Situation

Prior to this assignment, students had already read lecture notes on character education and chapter six of the course textbook (Noll, 2003) that highlighted opposing viewpoints on this issue. Additionally, students will be given notes on the value of concept maps that highlight that they are useful learning tools that can do the following:

  • Generate ideas (brain storming, etc.);

  • Design a complex structure (long texts, hypermedia, large web sites, etc.);

  • Communicate complex ideas;

  • Aid learning by explicitly integrating new and old knowledge;

  • Assess understanding or diagnose misunderstanding. (Lanzing, 1997, para 1)

The teacher will provide detailed instructions to provide a framework for students to plan and allocate adequate time to complete the work. The assignment has two primary goals is to have students develop a definition and create a mind map of their definition. Students are to produce a definition of good character that addresses three elements: moral knowing, moral feeling, moral action and share three traits for each of these elements. Students will have access to the following resources: class textbook, lecture notes, University of Phoenix online library which contains 20 million full text articles (UOP Fact Book, 2005) and Internet search engines such as Google. This will require doing reading and research to gather definitions and related information.

The second portion of the assignment will involve using Inspiration software to produce a mental map of their definition of character and their maps should include graphics, clear and readable text and they will have one week to complete the project. Additionally, students will write a preliminary definition of good character prior to starting the assignment and email it to their teacher. The pre-assignment exercise will be used to identify the student’s knowledge of character education prior to reading the chapter six of the course textbook (Noll, 2003), article readings and participating in online discussions on this topic. The initial definition can be a reference point of information that will be compared to their assignment definition that will be translated into a concept map.

1. Building concept maps

Building concept maps will involve developing from the key concept which is good character and creating links to three elements (moral knowing, moral feeling and moral action). Individuals should start with the key concept (good character) in the center or top of the screen of the Inspiration software program and create links to three elements (moral knowing, moral feeling and moral action). The links serve as a visual way to identify relationships between concepts. Students can utilize their research findings (i.e. articles) and reading of course materials as resources to identify relevant character concepts that can be aligned with moral knowing, moral feeling and moral action. Teachers should remind students that concept maps should be viewed as works in progress. Students should be prepared to make a number of revisions to their maps such as adding, deleting or changing to more descriptive terms.

2. Research

The second constructivist stage involves students investigating materials on character education. Students are encouraged to be active learners who explore textbook readings, Internet sites and article databases in the University of Phoenix online library. The research process has a built in problem solving issues such as locating relevant information and selecting appropriate terms for Internet search engines. There will a need to experiment with different search strategies which will challenge individuals to be patient because certain Internet links might not work and articles will vary in their usefulness. Yet, these are authentic learning situations which “…foster motivation, because students have an opportunity to experience the pleasure and satisfaction inherent in problem solving” (Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005, p. 19).

Constructivist activities are designed to promote cognitive skills and learning the importance of being persistent when participating in problem solving situations. It is an exploratory stage that empowers learners to use a variety of investigative methodologies such as trial and error to become more sophisticated researchers (Karagiorgi & Symeou, 2005). Students must be challenged to suspend making any permanent judgments on the quality of ideas found in the articles and materials that they have gathered for their mental maps. Teachers operate as facilitators who foster an environment where students work with the minimum of assistance but are available by email or telephone if a student encounters major problems in their initial research efforts. The assignment has been designed to provide adequate time and flexibility for students to effectively complete the assignment and demonstrate creativity in their work.

3. Interpretation

The third constructivist stage is interpretation which involves translating knowledge sources into useable units of information. Students will sift through the information that they have gathered and discern what will help them in defining good character. They will need to examine their Internet articles and check to see if they are reliable and relevant. Individuals will be encouraged to use Kapoun’s (1998) five criteria in their evaluations of information resources: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage.

This stage requires implementing higher ordering thinking skills to sort through materials as students begin to organize their ideas. Students will compare articles and start making decisions on the usefulness of the information. Teachers should remind students to avoid having articles that are only one dimensional and fail to provide multiple perspectives on character education definitions.

Online learning activities can take longer than the traditional classes with face-to-face interaction. Teachers should consider increasing the amount of time they think is necessary to complete the project if the work is going slower than expected. It is vital that teachers be sensitive to their students needs and demonstrates flexibility in their plans. Instructors can underestimate the difficulty in assisting students to change how they learn and acquire knowledge (Roblyer, 2004).

4. Create Relevant Products

The fourth constructivist stage will require students to create a definition of good character and a mental map of their definition by using Inspiration software. A major benefit of educational software is providing a framework to help students learn more complex tasks through a scaffolding approach. Golan et al (2001) relates that designers have used a range of design approaches to make complex tasks more visible and tractable for learners (para 2).” Students who are new to the software can use a Learning Inspiration (nd) tutorial which provides a solid review for beginners. The teacher can provide coaching, respond to email requests for assistance and offer tips to help students with construction of their mind maps.

Cognitive psychology describes this phase of the learning process as procedural knowledge because it offers students guidance on how to complete tasks. Students will be given some background information on the nature of concept maps and how they can richly represent relationships between ideas through semantic networks (Chan, 2005). Inspiration software helps individuals to operate as designers of their own work and use technology to represent knowledge relationships (Jonassen, Carr & Yeuh, 1998).

Students will be given a grading rubric (see Figure 2) and the following handout which describes how to create a concept map.

  • Make a plan and ask yourself the following questions:

o      What are you representing?

o      What points do you want to make?

o      What kind of information is needed to make the points?

o      What assignment goals are you working toward?

  • Identify the important concepts.

o      List important concepts.

o      Highlight single words or short phrases that are important for understanding the content which can be obtained through research on good character.

  • Create, define and elaborate nodes.

o      Create and label a node for each concept.

o      Add pictures, descriptive text and synonyms to each node when appropriate.

  • Construct links and link concepts.

o      Create a link between two concepts and describe precisely the relationship between the two ideas.

o      Be sure to interlink existing concepts as much as possible.

o      The more interconnected your map is the more meaningful your understanding of concepts will be.

  • Continue to expand the map.

o      The process continues until the individual believes the concept of good character is clearly explained.

  • Make final revisions and reflect on process

o      Reflections on the quality of the work should be ongoing during the entire process of building a concept map.

o      Review your work, check for spelling errors and asking yourself the following questions:

o      Am I achieving my goal of writing a clear definition of good character?

o      What changes should I make to improve my concept map?

o      What will others learn by seeing my concept map?
(adapted from Learning Inspiration, nd, para 4)

5. Collaboration

The fifth stage is collaboration. Students will be given opportunities online to share openly their initial definitions and mental models with their online colleagues and teacher. Collaboration fosters multiple perspectives and contextualization of knowledge. Teachers should be aware that graduate students establish convictions, beliefs and ideas from years of previous experiences and education. The student’s world view will filter information and influence their observations and interpretation of knowledge. The key is “allowing and creating opportunities for all to have a voice promotes the construction of new ideas” (Dougiamas, 1998, Conclusions, para 4).

Students want intellectually and emotionally engaging dialogs which have connections to their current and future jobs. Integrating cognitive activities into the online setting is a practical way to promote relevant interactivity while effectively meeting course objectives. The mind mapping assignment offers excellent opportunities for students to share their insights and perspectives on character education. Students will post their completed work online which helps them see how others have designed their concept maps.

There might some concerns raised about the possibility of students making negative comments about the work of others. Research studies reveal that when classmates appear to offer more intelligent discussion comments can discourage others from wanting to make comments. It can have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of their discussion postings. If students start to devalue their personal knowledge and life experiences, their online contributions can become more driven by an obligation to get through the experience. Therefore, the teacher must be proactive and remind students in an online note that they should help celebrate the work of others when discussing each others projects. The author’s teaching experiences reveals that a short note helps students to share constructive and complimentary online remarks about their classmates work. Students appreciate those who excel in their assignments because it provides examples for them to consider possible ways to improve their school work (Black & McClintock, 1995).

Collaboration will involve the teacher actively interacting with students. The student-centered learning model challenges teachers to carefully use descriptive language in their written and verbal comments to students. Teachers must develop dialogues with their students that foster personal and professional growth. Unfortunately, some professors, through their verbal and written comments, treat their students as subordinates. Obviously, the instructor's language must be caring and honest while providing constructive feedback that helps the student to have a clear picture of their academic work.

The student-centered model of learning encourages teachers to view their students as academic partners who work together to produce relevant and meaningful learning experiences. It requires educators who are willing to change their standard teaching methods. The author will share a concept map on good character (see Figure 1) as point of comparison and example for students. The graphics were left off the author’s map to help stimulate dialog on the use of graphics and explore ways to enhance the communication of ideas. For instance, there could be subjects or topics which could be more effective without graphics. Constructivism favors interaction between students and teachers to foster skill and knowledge development. This assignment is too brief to use cognitive apprenticeships (Black & McClintock, 1995) but they could be used in the University of Phoenix’s doctoral programs for dissertation mentoring of doctoral students to assist them in designing and implementing their research plan.

Research studies on constructivism and interactivity point to some interesting preliminary results. Leelawong et al (2001) noted several studies on “…collaborative learning have also shown that students learn more effectively when they work in groups that encourage questioning, explaining and justifying opinions” (p. 73). Taylor and Maor (2000) studied a graduate online class at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia. The research project created a questionnaire known as the Constructivist On-Line Learning Survey (COLLES) to measure both teacher and student perceptions in the following six categories:

  1. professional relevance - the extent to which engagement in the on-line classroom environment is relevant to student’s professional worldviews and related practices;

  2. reflective thinking - the extent to which critical reflective thinking is occurring in association with online peer discussion;

  3. interactivity - the extent to which communicative interactivity is occurring on-line between students and between students and tutors;

  4. cognitive demand - the extent to which communicative interactivity is occurring on-line between students and tutors;

  5. support - the extent to which sensitive and encouraging support is provided by tutors;

  6. interpretation of meaning - the extent to which students and tutor co-construct meaning in a congruent and connected manner (Taylor and Maor, 2000, paragraph 4).

Student expectations were met in five of the six categories except in the area of interactivity. A revealing finding was the absence of dynamic dialogue in the class which had structured small group activities that included a systematic change of student leaders and topics. Student online remarks were one-dimensional commentaries that failed to address comments made by their colleagues. The study indicated teachers must create a learning climate that stimulates reflective conversations. Teachers can use comments to shape the type of reflections and collaboration toward consensus building or seek to keep the dialog more open-ended (Raiser et al, 2001). The author utilizes a variety of techniques such as using a thought provoking quote to promote deeper interaction.

Figure 1. Concept Map.

It is helpful to develop topical handouts to increase student understanding of the subject matter. The author has created a handout and a concept map (figure 1) on good character that fosters discussion about on educational issues such as the various approaches that schools have taken to implement moral instruction into their schools. Students appreciate having a variety of ways to engage in learning about a topic which makes their experiences more meaningful. It is essential that teacher education instructors should model best practices to affirm practical applications of learning theories.

6. Assessment

Students must assume responsibility for their educational experiences, but online independent study has limitations. Individuals vary in their knowledge of the subject matter and their level of cognitive maturity. Also, the quality of online instruction is an additional factor which can influence the learning environment. If learners do not receive adequate teacher feedback and reinforcement, students will not always know whether they possess an accurate knowledge of the subject matter. A primary goal of education is to promote self-directed attitudes and skills while discouraging excessive dependency upon the instructor. Constructivism stresses student creation of knowledge, developing higher order thinking skills and working on meaningful projects (Sorden, 2005). Students are to be “… an active learner interacting with a variety of resources, developing his or her understanding through a mixture of experimentation, experience, and expert guidance” (Edelson, Pea & Gomez, 1995, para 2). The author has selected the concept map assignment to assist students who are either currently teachers or plan to be teachers in the near future. Teachers will feel much more comfortable integrating software and technology oriented activities into their classrooms if they have had opportunities to use software themselves (Leelawong et al, 2001)

Students will be required to create a definition of good character that involves addressing three ethical aspects: moral knowing, moral feeling and moral action. The initial definition can be a reference point of information that will be compared to their assignment definition that will be translated into a concept map. A grading rubric will be used to evaluate the concept maps.

The grading rubric represents an affirmation of learner-centered education. It is a public statement that strives to establish a greater level of trust between the teacher and student. It rejects the notion that grading is a special secret activity that only some of the learners can understand the instructor’s actual grading procedures. Secondly, it is designed to establish a set of instructional expectations and standards for individual projects. A rubric provides an instrument for student feedback that promotes assessment of learning. A good rubric will reveal valuable data on how the student’s work compares to the learning objectives. Rubrics are valuable because of their capacity to clearly reveal vital information to students that enable them to improve their knowledge and skill levels (Huba & Freed 2000).

Franker’s (2005) rubric will be used to assess and grade the concept maps in the following categories: arrangement of concepts, links and linking lines, graphics, content, text and design. The rubric will utilize a basic scale: exemplary 9-10 points, proficient 7-8 points and developing 6 and below. Instructors should consider when it is more beneficial or appropriate to use their concept map projects as exercises without grades to help students focus more skill or knowledge development.

The author is concerned by the strong emphasis on grades and standardized testing which permeates the American educational system which can undermine a student’s love for learning. Kohn (2004) argues that “grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself, preference for challenging tasks and … the quality of student’s thinking” (pp. 75-76). There is growing evidence that the stress on student achievement measured according scores on standardized tests is having a negative impact on the teaching profession. Sadly, a growing number of educators are leaving the k-12 schools because the teaching and learning process has been diminished by an excessive focus on testing. The concerns about grade inflation in higher education often miss the real issue about the purposes of education. Is the purpose of education is to sort students for future employers or help individuals improve on their skills and knowledge? It is time to start asking deeper questions about the quality of student learning experiences. The author has been involved in eight graduate degree programs and sometimes professors believe in the motto that harder is better and brag about how difficult it is to earn a high grade in their class. Yet, these teachers often fail to examine the intellectual depth and relevance of their course work. Research studies on course difficulty reveal that the long term learning benefits are negligible and minority students experienced negative results (Kohn, 2004).


Computer-mediated classes offer unique risks and opportunities for teachers and students as part of a new educational frontier. Teachers have to demonstrate courage in experimenting with new instructional activities that might require refinement. Students must overcome their fears when trying something new and unfamiliar to them. Concept maps offer opportunities for teachers to promote the deeper learning of ideas through research, and foster creativity and online dialog between students (White & Gunstone, 1992). Teachers can benefit from students who share with them. “In studying constructivism through my recent course, it has become apparent that one of the most important processes in developing my knowledge has been by explaining and exploring my ideas in conversation with fellow students” (Dougiamas, 1998, Constructivism, para 1). The concept map assignment has a variety of instructional uses such as stimulating class discussions and identifying gaps in student knowledge of subject content. Anderson’s (2005) research on cognitive tasks indicates that procedural and declarative knowledge can be strengthened through practice. Therefore, it would be wise to follow up this project with another concept map activity to help students build upon their learning experiences.


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About the Author

Brent Muirhead Ph.D.

Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.). He is currently taking graduate classes in cognition and technology at The Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Muirhead is the Lead Faculty and Area Chair for GBAM Business Communications at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

He may be reached via email at: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.


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