Concept mapping and why I don’t like to teach it

I wouldn’t say that everything I teach students about research is lies, but there is admittedly a lot that I teach them that I don’t necessarily practice myself. In my own course, I’m open with students about that fact. For example, students in my classes know that I, like them, rarely create my own citations from scratch. Not because I don’t understand how to construct a citation, but because a lot of the scholarly articles I write have dozens of citations in them and frankly who has time for that? Instead, I use whatever citation is generated by the database where I found the source and then edit it to match the quirky preferences of the journal I’m hoping to submit to. The rest is the work of diligent copyeditors.

Other supposed sins I commit: I use Wikipedia all the time and generally trust the information I find there. I almost never go past the first page or two of search results on Google. And I rarely do all (or even most) of my research before I start to write something.

Arguably, the difference between me committing these sins and students doing the same thing is that I have the experience and expertise to understand (and hopefully avoid or at least make peace with) the potential pitfalls of what I’m doing. Students are still developing the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to do that.

But really my main message to students is that there’s no one right way to do research. Everyone has their own approach and just because that approach doesn’t match the rigid ideas they learned about from some librarian (like me) or some professor, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

That’s what I do in my own course. When I teach one-shot sessions, things are different in part because I’m constrained by the course instructor’s expectations about what they want students to learn as part of the instruction I’m giving them. Since the instructor is the expert on their students and the assignment they’ll be working on, I tend not to push back too much. Even when I think what they want me to teach is stupid.

Like concept maps. I think concept maps are stupid.

Okay, that’s not quite true. They’re not stupid. For some people, they are a helpful way to explore all the different aspects of a topic and locate a specific area to focus on for their research. They can also be a good tool for identifying keywords for searching databases. I guess. At least, that’s often what course instructors ask me to tell students.

So I can see that there’s value in teaching students about concept maps as a strategy they can use to help shape their topic at the beginning of the research process. I still hate teaching about them for a couple of reasons.

First, I don’t use them myself. The reason I don’t use them is because I don’t understand them. I mean, I get the basic idea but drawing a diagram like this is just not how my brain works.(1) Because of that, I have a lot of trouble coming up with examples or demonstrating how to create a concept map in front of a class. The last time I was asked to teach concept maps, I found a video on YouTube and quietly prayed the instructor wouldn’t ask me to do some kind of live example in class after the video was over. She did, but I got out of it by having students work on their own maps and then pretending to give them advice on their creations.

Second, I honestly feel like this is not how “real” research actually works most of the time. I could be wrong—as I said, everyone has their own approach. But I think my suspicion is supported by Jennifer E. Nutefall and Phyllis Mentzell in their 2010 study “On the Timing of the Research Question”(2) which showed that librarians have very different ideas about when in the research process students should know their topics versus course instructors’ ideas about the same thing. The librarians seemed to believe that students should know their exact topic and have their keywords picked out before they even started searching. Meanwhile, course instructors who participated in the study believed that a research topic will generally evolve throughout the search process.

Nutefall and Mentzell attributed this difference to the different ways librarians approach their own research versus how non-library faculty do it but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the rigid ideas librarians tend to promote about research are more a reflection of the instruction models we’re forced to teach in. Given the limited time we have to teach students information literacy, we have no choice but to boil research down into a set of unrealistically neat steps.

So I think the course instructors in the study are right. Or at least their views reflect my own approach to research more closely than those expressed by the librarians. When I do research, I start with a very general search using keywords that I honestly don’t put much thought into but seem right. Sometimes, I find out the keywords aren’t right at all and I have to go back and change them. But most of the time I scroll through the results until I find something that seems relevant. I look at the subject descriptors and keywords associated with that item and I use those to adjust my search. For the most part, I don’t look at the sources I’m finding too closely. I just create a list of whatever seems vaguely relevant and interesting and then whittle that list down later, often as I’m writing.

Would this be a good strategy for students to use? Probably not. For one thing, it takes too long. It’s also a hard strategy to teach, especially since it requires some existing expertise with searching for and evaluating information.

But it does reflect a way of doing research that I think is more realistic than teaching students that they need to know their exact topic and have the correct keywords before they even start searching. Searching for information should be about exploration, not knowing what the “right” answer is before you even begin.

To that end, concept mapping is a good way for more visual thinkers to explore their curiosity and make connections between ideas. Instead, it’s taught as a mechanical strategy for identifying a manageable research topic. I’ll teach it if I have to, but if I’m being honest, most of the time I hope I don’t have to.


(1) Yeah, yeah, I know. Growth mindset and all that. Honestly, I just hate drawing stuff when writing is so much faster for me. Then again, musicians will sometimes write a song on an instrument they’re less comfortable with as a way to slow themselves down and get out of a creative rut. Shrug emoji.

(2) Nutefall, Jennifer E., and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10, no. 4 (2010): 437-449. doi:10.1353/pla.2010.0009.

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