Penn State Lehigh Valley is a tight-knit community of less than 1,000 undergraduate students. The school offers introductory biology courses, but students who plan to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology eventually transfer to the main campus at University Park, which offers a full 4-year program. The school found that many students were having difficulty grasping critical concepts in their introductory courses.
Students are presented with many different facts in these courses—in fact, Dr. Karen Kackley-Dutt has heard that students in their first year of biology are presented with a greater vocabulary than students in their first year of Spanish. She has found that many students rely on rote memorization to simply pass the tests, but rote memorization doesn't prepare them for future studies. They need a firm understanding of the concepts and connections being taught in order to be successful.
So Dr. Kackley-Dutt teamed up with Media Commons Coordinator Eileen Grodziak, who was working on her Master’s degree in education, to come up with a solution.
Learning with concept maps
In conducting research, Eileen found many recommending concept maps for learning and modeling domain knowledge. She explained how concept maps work the way your brain works when you’ve lost your keys: you think back to the last time you had your keys and retrace your steps.
“According to educational theorists, concept maps build knowledge by connecting old and new knowledge. We were trying to get students to make those connections on their own and build upon their knowledge. And when Dr. Kackley-Dutt saw the first student concept map, she realized that it only takes one glance for the educator to gauge a student’s level of understanding.”
As part of her research, Eileen had non-major students in a biology class use a diagramming application to create a concept mind map of cell division or another scientific concept. Upon submission of their map, they were presented with a model map that served as a benchmark for their work. They could then revise their maps as needed.
Dr. Kackley-Dutt reports the success of this diagramming exercise:
“After using these concept maps, I didn’t even need to analyze the data—I saw an immediate and marked improvement on their exam scores. After controlling for prior knowledge, we determined that students who used concept mapping scored significantly higher on the unit test than students who worked individually without concept maps.”
Concept mapping with Lucidchart
When they saw the success of concept maps in the non-major class, Dr. Kackley-Dutt and Eileen decided to incorporate this activity into Biology 110, 220, and 003—the latter of which is a peer teaching course. However, there was one glitch: the diagramming program used for the first activity wasn’t suitable for large-scale application. The tool lacked real-time collaboration functions, limited students to five free documents, and presented a serious budget constraint.
Eileen recommended Lucidchart as a replacement. As soon as the biology department registered for free Lucidchart accounts, they discovered an entirely new layer of collaboration. Students could now use Lucidchart in their collaborative classrooms, which are outfitted with monitors, cables, and special oblong tables for the optimum group environment. Eileen says:
"It’s wonderful with Lucidchart because now students don’t have to individually pull other students to their laptop in order to show their work. If they’re demonstrating individual work, or if they’re collaborating on one document, that monitor can be projected and all the students can see it on the screen and on their laptops."
One of Dr. Kackley-Dutt’s students reports on their experience with Lucidchart, saying, "It really gives you that hands-on type of learning. It really helped me visualize and see the interconnectedness of the concepts we were learning about.”
Students recognize the benefits of collaboration, which have helped them understand and remember concepts.
Lucidchart has worked so well for Dr. Kackley-Dutt and her students that she has used it for three years and counting.
To learn more about Eileen's research project, please see the video below or visit the symposium info page.