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Ian Kinchin

Complexity of representation or simplicity of thought

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By Ian Kinchin

Typically, concept maps that are more complex are scored more highly than those that appear simpler. This has been the basic principle that has guided the analysis of concept maps in numerous publications. Consequently, maps that include more stuff have been seen as a better indicator of understanding than those that contain less stuff. I have always had a problem with this and have been aware that some high-flying students who clearly have an excellent understanding of a subject (along with some subject experts), have been observed to construct smaller maps (that score less) than many of their less expert colleagues who score more simply by including more stuff.  I don’t think this is because geniuses are lazy, I think it represents the different ways in which people see the same content. This is one reason why I have avoided using any of the available scoring rubrics for concept maps (whatever the claims for validity and reliability) in recent years as I feel they mask the underlying story.

Dowd et al., (2015), provide a helpful paper, concluding that “sometimes students simplify their understanding as they develop more expert-like thinking“. This is not the first time that it has been suggested in the concept mapping literature – that bigger is not necessarily better (e.g. Johnstone and Otis, 2006; Kinchin, 2014),

I feel this observation is linked to observations of expert teachers who are able to make the most complex information accessible to their students, not by ‘dumbing down’ as some less expert teachers would have us believe, but by simplifying. It is not the same thing. So when a teacher says, “it’s just too complicated for the students to understand”, this translates as, “I lack the skills to simplify it for my students – possibly because I have never thought about it deeply enough to clarify it in my own mind.” Perhaps that us a harsh generalisation, but so often students can be heard to say, ” she’s such a good teacher, she makes it seem so simple”.

The ability to summarise an underlying knowledge structure is, I think, a really important skill, and one that demonstrates mastery of the content. This is why Cañas et al (2015) have included the ability to be concise as one of the factors in determining expertise in concept mapping.

The ability to synthesise content into a masterful summary also makes it more likely that alternative perspectives may come into view. when a map us so cluttered that no clear patterns are visible, it is difficult to see the relationships in the information. When it comes to science writing, I don’t think a journal reviewer has ever praised any of my manuscripts for helping to make something sound really complicated, but they have commented on clarity and simplicity where I have managed to achieve it.  Perhaps these are things that we should pay attention to more?

Professor Ian Kinchin is Head of the Department of Higher Education at the University of Surrey, and is also a member of the SRHE Governing Council. This post was first published on Ian’s personal blog, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


Cañas , A.J., Novak, J.D. and Reiska, P. (2015) How good is my concept map? Am I a good cmapper? Knowledge Management & E-Learning, 7(1): 6  – 19.

Dowd, J.E., Duncan, T. and Reynolds, J.A. (2015) Concept maps for improved science reasoning and writing: Complexity isn’t everything. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 14: 1 – 6.

Johnstone, A.H. and Otis, K.H. (2006) Concept mapping in problem based learning: a cautionary tale. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 7: 84 – 95.

Kinchin, I.M. (2014) Concept mapping as a learning tool in higher education: A critical analysis of recent reviews. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 62: 39 – 49.

Author: SRHE News Blog

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