Mapping What They Know: Concept Maps as an Effective Tool for Assessing Students’ Systems Thinking


In 2006 anew biology curriculum called “Human Biology: Emphasizing the Role of Homeostasis” was introduced into the Israeli high school system. Complex systems like those that make up the human body have become increasingly important as a focus of high school education. This study examines the effectiveness of the concept map as a assessment tool for students’ systems thinking, a tool that provides researchers with a detailed picture of the systems thinking development taking place within individual students. The content of the students’ concept maps was translated into information about students’ system thinking using the Systems Thinking Hierarchy (STH) model, a model in which system thinking is categorized according to eight hierarchical characteristics or abilities. The goal was to use the maps to characterize Israeli high school students’ understanding of the body’s systemic nature. To do this, we identified the extent to which the students understand three central elements of systems, namely hierarchy, homeostasis, and dynamism, and then analyzed this understanding according to its place within the hierarchical stages of the STH model. The extensive qualitative data analysis of 48 concept maps made by 11th grade biology majors suggest that the strength of the concept map is in its ability to describe the first two levels of system thinking (analysis and synthesis). However, it proved less successful in eliciting evidence of the third and highest level, particularly of students’ understanding of patterns, of homeostasis and their capacity for temporal thinking.

Share and Cite:

J. Tripto, O. Assaraf and M. Amit, "Mapping What They Know: Concept Maps as an Effective Tool for Assessing Students’ Systems Thinking," American Journal of Operations Research, Vol. 3 No. 1A, 2013, pp. 245-258. doi: 10.4236/ajor.2013.31A022.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] H. Kitano, “Systems Biology: A Brief Overview,” Science, Vol. 295, No. 5560, 2002, pp. 1662-1664. doi:10.1126/science.1069492
[2] M, J. Jacobson and U. Wilensky, “Complex Systems in Education: Scientific and Educational Importance and Implications for the Learning Sciences,” Learning Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2006, pp. 11-34. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1501_4
[3] R. Lesh, “Modeling Students Modeling Abilities: the Teaching and Learning of Complex Systems in Education,” Learning Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2006, pp. 45-52. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1501_6
[4] R. P. Verhoeff, A. J. Waarlo and K. T. Boersma, “Systems Modelling and the Development of Coherent Understanding of Cell Biology,” Science Education, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2008, pp. 543-568. doi:10.1080/09500690701237780
[5] Y. Kali, N. Orion and B. Eylon, “The Effect of Knowledge Integration Activities on Students’ Perception of the Earth’s Crust as a Cyclic System,” Science Teaching, Vol. 40, No. 6, 2003, pp. 545-565. doi:10.1002/tea.10096
[6] L. Tran, “Children and Adults’ Understanding of Ocean and Climate Sciences,” 2009.
[7] M. Chi, “Commonsense Conceptions of Emergent Processes: Why Some Misconceptions Are Robust”, Learning Sciences, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2005, pp. 161-199. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1402_1
[8] R. L. Goldstone and U. Wilensky, “Promoting Transfer by Grounding Complex Systems Principles,” Learning Sciences, Vol. 17, No.4, 2008, pp. 465-516. doi:10.1080/10508400802394898
[9] O. Ben-Zvi Assaraf and N. Orion, “Development of System Thinking Skills in the Context of Earth System Education,” Science Teaching, Vol. 42, No. 5, 2005, pp. 518-560. doi:10.1002/tea.20061
[10] M. C. P. J. Knipples, “Coping with the Abstract and Complex Nature of Genetics in Biology Education: The Yo-Yo Teaching and Learning Strategy,” CD-[beta] Press, Utrecht, 2002.
[11] R. G. Duncan and B. J. Reiser, “Reasoning across Ontologically Distinct Levels: Students’ Understandings of Molecular Genetics,” Science Teaching, Vol. 44, No. 7, 2007, pp. 938-959. doi:10.1002/tea.20186
[12] D. A. Penner, “Explaining Systems Investigating Middle School Students’ Understanding of Emergent Phenomena,” Science Teaching, Vol. 37, No. 8, 2000, pp. 784-806. doi:10.1002/1098-2736(200010)37:8<784::AID-TEA3>3.0.CO;2-E
[13] C. E. Hmelo-Silver, D. L. Holton and J. L. Kolodner, “Designing Learning about Complex Systems,” Learning Science, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2000, pp. 247-298.
[14] J. Y. Kresh, “Integrative Systems View of Life: Perspectives from General Systems Thinking,” In: S. Thomas Deisboeck and J. Yasha Kresh, Eds., Topics in Biomedical Engineering International Book Series, 2006, pp. 3-29.
[15] S. Westbrook and E. A. Marek, “A Cross Age Study of Student Understanding of the Concept Homeostasis,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1992, pp. 51-61.
[16] E. Jungwirth and A. Dreyfus, “After This, Therefore Because of This: One Way of Jumping to Conclusions,” Biological Education, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1992, pp. 139-142. doi:10.1080/00219266.1992.9655260
[17] J. Budding, “Working with Personal Knowledge in Biology Classrooms on the Theme of Regulation and Homeostasis in Living Systems,” Nato ASI Series of Computer and Systems Sciences, Vol. 148, 1996, pp.126-134.
[18] P. A. Whitner, “Gestalt Therapy and General System Theory,” University of Toledo, Ohio, 1985.
[19] C. D. Wilson, C. W. Anderson, M. Heidemann, J. E. Merrill, B. W. Merritt, G. Richmond, D. F. Sibley and J. M. Parker, “Assessing Students’ Ability to Trace Matter in Dynamic Systems in Cell Biology,” Cell Biology Education, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2006, pp. 323-331. doi:10.1187/cbe.06-02-0142
[20] M. H. Brown and R. S. Schwartz, “Connecting Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration Preservice Teachers’ Conceptions,” Science Teaching, Vol. 46, No. 7, 2009, pp. 791-812. doi:10.1002/tea.20287
[21] C. E. Hmelo-Silver and M. G. Pfeffer, “Comparing Expert and Novice Understanding of a Complex System from the Perspective of Structures, Behaviors, and Functions,” Cognitive Science, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2004, pp. 127-138. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog2801_7
[22] K. Thompson and P. Reiman, “Patterns of Use of an Agent-Based Model and a System Dynamics Model: The Application of Patterns of Use and the Impacts on Learning Outcomes,” Computers and Education, Vol. 54, No. 2, 2010, pp. 392-403. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.08.020
[23] U. Wilensky and M. Resnick, “Thinking in Levels: A Dynamic Systems Approach to Making Sense of the World,” Science Education and Technology, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999, pp. 3-19. doi:10.1023/A:1009421303064
[24] M. Evagorou, K. Korfiatis, C. Nicolaou and C. Constantinou, “An Investigation of the Potential of Interactive Simulations for Developing System Thinking Skills in Elementary School: A Case Study with Fifth-Graders and Sixth-Graders,” Science Education, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2009, pp. 655-674. doi:10.1080/09500690701749313
[25] T. H. Shore, L. M. F. Shore and I. G. C. Thornton, “Construct Validity of Self-and Peer Evaluations of Performance Dimensions in an Assessment Center,” Applied Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 1, 1992, pp. 42-54. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.77.1.42
[26] B. Richmond and S. P. Stella, “High Performance Systems,” Hanover, New Hampshire, 1990.
[27] N. Roberts, “Teaching Dynamic Feedback Systems Thinking: An Elementary View,” Management Science, Vol. 24, No. 8, 1978, pp. 836-843. doi:10.1287/mnsc.24.8.836
[28] L. B. Resnick, “From Protoquantities to Operators: Building Mathematical Competence on a Foundation of Everyday Knowledge,” In: G. Leinhardt, R. Putnam and R. A. Hattrup, Eds., Analysis of Arithmetic for Mathematics Teaching, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1992, pp. 373-429.
[29] U. J. Wilensky, “Connected Mathematics: Building Concrete Relationships with Mathematical Knowledge,” 1993.
[30] A. Repenning, “Agentsheets: A Tool for Building Domain-Oriented Dynamic Visual Environments,” Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Amsterdam, 24-29 April 1993, pp. 142-143.
[31] D. C. Smith, A. Cypher and J. Spohrer, “Kidsim: Programming Agents without a Programming Language,” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 37, No. 7, 1994, pp. 54-67. doi:10.1145/176789.176795
[32] U. Wilensky, “GasLab: An Extensible Modeling Toolkit for Exploring Micro-and Macro-Views of Gases,” In: N. Roberts, W. Feurzeig and B. Hunter, Eds., Computer Modeling and Simulation in Science Education, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1999. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-1414-4_7
[33] D. Ardac and S. Akaygun, “Effectiveness of Multimedia Based Instruction That Emphasizes Molecular Representations on Students’ Understanding of Chemical Change,” Science Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 4, 2004, pp. 317-337. doi:10.1002/tea.20005
[34] R. Kozma, “Students Collaborating with Computer Models and Physical Experiments”, In: C. Hoadley, Ed., Computer Support For Collaborative Learning Mahwah, Erlbaum, Mahwah, 2000, pp. 314-322.
[35] J. W. Russell, R. B. Kozma, T. Jones, J. Wykoff, N. Marx and J. Davis, “Use of Simultaneous-Synchronized Macroscopic, Microscopic, and Symbolic Representations to Enhance the Teaching and Learning of Chemical Concepts,” Chemical Education, Vol. 74, No. 3, 1997, pp. 330-334. doi:10.1021/ed074p330
[36] J. Snir, C. L.Smith and G. Raz, “Linking Phenomena with Competing Underlying Models: A Software Tool for Introducing Students to the Particulate Model of Matter,” Science Education, Vol. 87, No. 6, 2003, pp. 794-830. doi:10.1002/sce.10069
[37] M. J. Van and J. T. de, “Supporting Students’ Learning with Multiple Representations in a Dynamic Simulation-Based Learning Environment,” Learning and Instruction, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2006, pp. 199-212. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2006.03.007
[38] National Research Council, NRC, “National Science Education Standards,” National Academy, Washington, 1996.
[39] J. D. Novak and D. Musonda, “A Twelve-Year Longitudinal Study of Science Concept Learning,” American Educational, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1991, pp. 117-153.
[40] J. D. Novak and D. B. Gowin, “Learning How to Learn,” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139173469
[41] M. A. Ruiz-Primo, R. J., Li, M. Shavelson and S. E. Schultz, “On the Validity of Cognitive-Interpretations of Scores from Alternative Concept-Mapping Techniques,” Educational Assessment, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2001, pp. 99-141. doi:10.1207/S15326977EA0702_2
[42] C. E. Hmelo-Silver and R. Azevedo, “Understanding Complex Systems: Some Core Challenges,” Learning Sciences, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2006, pp. 53-61. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1501_7
[43] O. Ben-Zvi Assaraf and N. Orion, “Four Case Studies, Six Years Later: Developing System Thinking Skills in Junior High School and Sustaining Them over Time,” Science Teaching, Vol. 47, No. 10, 2010, pp. 1253-1280. doi:10.1002/tea.20383
[44] B. L. Martin, J. J. Mintzes and I. E. Clavijo, “Restructuring Knowledge in Biology: Cognitive Processes and Metacognitive Reflections,” Science Education, Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000, pp. 303-323. doi:10.1080/095006900289895
[45] C. L. Mason, “Concept Mapping: A Tool to Develop Reflective Science Instruction,” Science Education, Vol. 76, No. 1, 1992, pp. 51-63. doi:10.1002/sce.3730760105
[46] W. M. Roth, “Students Views of Collaborative Concept Mapping,” An Emancipator Research Project, Science Education, Vol. 78, No. 1, 1994, pp. 1-34. doi:10.1002/sce.3730780102
[47] R. White and R. Gunstone, “Probing Understanding,” Falmer, London, 1992.
[48] E. C. Zele, “Improving the Usefulness of Concept Maps as a Research Tool for Science Education,” Science Education, Vol. 26, No. 9, 2004, pp. 1043-1064. doi:10.1080/1468181032000158336
[49] R. Davis, H. Shrobe and P. Szolovits, “What is a Knowledge Representation?” Al Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1993, pp. 17-33.
[50] L. R. Novick and C. E. Hmelo, “Transferring Symbolic Representations across Nonisomorphic Problems,” Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 20, No. 6, 1994, pp. 1296-1321. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.20.6.1296
[51] J. A. Rye and P. A. Rubba, “An Exploration of the Concept Map as an Interview Tool to Facilitate the externalization of Students’ Understandings about Global Atmospheric Change,” Science Teaching, Vo. 35, No. 5, 1998, pp. 521-546. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199805)35:5<521::AID-TEA4>3.0.CO;2-R
[52] C. J. Songer and J. J. Mintzes, “Understanding Cellular Respiration: An Analysis of Conceptual Change in College Biology,” Science Teaching, Vol. 31, No. 6, 1994, pp. 621-637. doi:10.1002/tea.3660310605
[53] S. N. Chang and M. H. Chiu, “Probing Students’ Conceptions Concerning Homeostasis of Blood Sugar via Concept Mapping,” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Vancouver/Canada, 1-4 April 2004.
[54] O. Ben-Zvi Assaraf, J. Dodick and J. Tripto, “High School Students’ Understanding of the Human Body System,” Research Science Education, Vol. 43, 2013, pp. 33-56.
[55] O. Ben-Zvi Assaraf and I. Orpaz, “The Life at the Poles; Study Unit Developing Junior High School Students’ Ability to Recognize the Relations between Earth Systems,” Science Education, Vol. 40, No. 4, 2010, pp. 525-549.
[56] A. L. Odom and P. V. Kelly, “Integrating Concept Mapping and the Learning Cycle to Teach Diffusion and Osmosis Concepts to High School Biology Students,” Science Education, Vol. 85, No. 6, 2000, pp. 615-635.
[57] P. G. Markow and R. A. Lonning, “Usefulness of Concept Maps in College Chemistry Laboratories: Students’ Perceptions and Effects on Achievement,” Science Teaching, Vol. 35, No. 9, 1998, pp. 1015-1029. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-2736(199811)35:9<1015::AID-TEA4>3.0.CO;2-G
[58] L. Liu and C. E. Hmelo-Silver, “Promoting Complex Systems Learning through the Use of Conceptual Representations in Hypermedia,” Science Teaching, Vol. 46, No. 9, 2009, pp. 1023-1040. doi:10.1002/tea.20297
[59] R. P. Verhoeff, “Towards Systems Thinking in Cell Biology Education,” Ph.D. Science and Mathematics Education, Universiteit Utrecht, Utrecht, 2003.
[60] L. Stern and J. E. Roseman, “Can Middle-School Science Textbooks Help Students Learn Important Ideas?” Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 6, 2004, pp. 538-568. doi:10.1002/tea.20019
[61] F. Safayeni, N. Derbentseva and A. J. Canas, “A Theo retical Note on Concepts and the Need for Cyclic Concept Maps,” Science Teaching, Vol. 42, No. 7, 2005, pp. 741-766. doi:10.1002/tea.20074
[62] R. Davis, H. Shrobe and P. Szolovits, “What is a Knowledge Representation?” Al Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1993, pp. 17-33.
[63] W. D. Simpson and E. A. Marek, “Understandings and Misconceptions of Biology Concepts Held by Students Attending Small High Schools and Students Attending Large High Schools,” Science Teaching, Vol. 25, No. 5, 1988, pp. 361-374. doi:10.1002/tea.3660250504
[64] U. Wilensky and K. Reisman, “Thinking like a Wolf, a Sheep or a Firefly: Learning Biology through Constructing and Testing Computational Theories—An Embodied Modeling Approach,” Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2006, pp. 171-209. doi:10.1207/s1532690xci2402_1

Copyright © 2023 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.