Penn State Lehigh Valley

This small campus of the Penn State system is providing its students with collaborative learning spaces and tools. In the process, instructors discovered that concept mapping with Lucidchart led to better grades and improved comprehension.

SCHOOL: Penn State Lehigh Valley

DEPARTMENTAL GOALS: To develop rigorous analytical reasoning and problem solving abilities, and to hone discipline-specific skills for both interpersonal and technical tasks.

NEED: Penn State Lehigh Valley is a commonwealth campus of Penn State. As a smaller school, their associate biology program feeds into the 4-year program at the flagship campus. To accommodate their students’ learning, Penn State Lehigh Valley needed a collaborative, intuitive diagramming tool suitable for both group and individual work.

SOLUTION: Free educational Lucidchart accounts for Dr. Karen Kackley-Dutt’s biology students.


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 problem with this approach is that—whether because of their youth or the short-term nature of Lehigh Valley’s program—many students don’t grasp critical concepts in their introductory courses. Dr. Karen Kackley-Dutt said,

In our classes, students are presented with many different facts. In fact, I’ve heard that students in their first year of biology are presented with a greater vocabulary than students in their first year of Spanish. So we’ve got lots of facts and figures that need to be understood. Because it’s very complex, many students focus on rote memorization to simply pass the tests. The problem is that rote memorization doesn’t prepare them for their future studies. We felt that they really need a firm understanding of these concepts and connections, or they won’t be successful.

Dr. Kackley-Dutt teamed up with Media Commons Coordinator Eileen Grodziak, who was working on her Master’s degree in Education, to implement an innovative solution.


Based on a review of existing literature, concept mapping mind tools have been recommended for learning and modeling domain knowledge (Jonassen 2006). Ms. Grodziak explained,

Imagine that you’ve lost your car keys and you want to find them. What do you do? You think back to the last time you had them and retrace your steps. “So I came in the house and had the keys in my hand. I went in the kitchen and put everything down. And then I went to the next place.”

Concept maps work in the same way. According to educational theorists, they 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 Ms. Grodziak’s research, non-major students in a biology class used 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. Then, they could revise their maps as needed.


Dr. Kackley-Dutt said, “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.”

When they saw the success of concept maps in the non-major class, Dr. Kackley-Dutt and Ms. Grodziak decided to incorporate this activity into Biology 110, 220, and 003—the latter of which is a peer teaching course. There was one glitch, however: the diagramming program used for the first activity wasn’t suitable for large-scale application. It lacked real-time collaboration functions, it limited students to 5 free documents, and its price represented a serious budget constraint.

It was at this point that Ms. Grodziak 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. Ms. Grodziak said, "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."

Of Lucidchart, one student said, “It gives you that hands-on type of learning. It really helped me visualize and see the interconnectedness of the concepts we were learning about.” Another student is a tutor as well as a teacher in the peer-led classroom. He explained, “In a collaborative classroom, students can work in groups, which generates a discussion and eventually helps them figure out the right answer. By the end of class, they all had a better understanding of the concepts. It’s a good feeling to know that what you’re doing is helping them and after the test, they actually remember it.”

To learn more about Ms. Grodziak’s research project, please see the video below or visit the symposium info page.


Lucidchart has worked so well for Dr. Kackley-Dutt that she’s used it for 3 years and counting. Our software is simple for students to learn and easy for professors to manage. Your students will love the ease of group projects with Lucidchart, and you’ll appreciate the classroom hours returned to you—no need to troubleshoot when you’d rather be teaching.

See for yourself why Penn State and other top universities are making the switch to Lucidchart.