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Concept Maps can Facilitate Active Learning and Effective Justification of Complex Ideas

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

When a considerable portion of your idea is formed intuitively, it can be difficult to clarify your rationale for prescribing a specific exercise even with academic knowledge of human movement. If you are a Kinesiologist, a Strength Conditioning Coach, or a Personal Trainer, you might have experienced the following situation: You instinctively came up with an exercise that seemed to be perfect for your client or athlete, but it is challenging to put it into words how exactly that exercise would benefit them.


Drawing a concept map can help us untangle abstract thoughts and communicate complex ideas. I have witnessed such benefit of concept maps while guiding undergraduate kinesiology students for 3 years on how to justify their ideas about exercise strategies for improving sensorimotor function. Here, I will briefly share what the concept map is and how it helped students organize their thoughts. Please understand that the examples provided below are specific to sensorimotor control because the original intention of using the concept map was to facilitate problem-based learning in a course on human sensorimotor systems. Below is an example of the concept map.

To draw a concept map of how nervous system controls our movements, students first choose a detailed example of daily movement; for example, stepping over a tree trunk on the corner of a slippery trail while avoiding collision with other people. As they are asked to provide such detailed description, students are primed to recognize environmental constraints for the movement. This leads them to expand on how our sensory systems allow perception of behaviourally relevant environmental factors and how multi-sensory information is integrated in the central nervous system (CNS). Then, they describe how higher brain centres prepare a motor plan and how feedback control systems allow timely modification of the pre-planned movement. Ultimately, constructing such a detailed concept map leads the students reflect on real-life examples, which help them actively relearn the concept they did not completely understand in the first place.

How does the concept map help us organize our thoughts? To explain how the concept map helped students clearly communicate their thoughts, I will first share my observation regarding why they struggle when providing rationales underlying their ideas. The following statement is an example that students typically wrote in their first draft when required to design exercise strategies to improve stability functions of older adults:

  • "Tai-Chi can help older adults improve their balance, because these exercises can train proprioception. Proprioception is important for perceiving joint position."

This student probably had general understanding of how age-related sensorimotor deficits can affect postural instability. However, the exercise strategy was not convincing, because it is not clear why Tai-chi was specifically chosen for improving proprioception.

When further challenged to justify their exercise strategies, most of the students could not clarify which specific components of the proposed exercises address what kind of sensorimotor deficits. How did they choose a certain exercise without understanding how it works? After guiding students on the same issue for three years, I realized that students can intuitively pick some exercises that emphasize sensorimotor function, but they cannot identify how such intuition was established. This problem seems to be related to their overly simplified learning strategies. For example, while memorizing Power Point-based lecture slides, students create simplified formula to complex concepts: i.e., balance = vision + proprioception + vestibular information. While storing memory of such oversimplified formula, they overlook the important fact that the CNS has to integrate and reprioritize information from different sensory receptors based on task goals and environmental demands. Without recognizing this important adaptability of CNS, it is impossible to clarify which specific movement components of the proposed exercises can reinforce the role of proprioception.

Concept maps can be an effective remedy for the fragmented knowledge, because reflecting on a real-life scenario forces students to analyze complex relationships among interrelated concepts. For example, when stepping over a tree trunk at the corner of a curvy mountain trail, our visual attention is usually focused on identifying the sudden appearance of other people coming from the opposite side to avoid potential collision. This will minimize the visual input of our joint position, which leads CNS to rely more on unconscious awareness of the joint position for maintaining dynamic stability. Understanding such relationship among environmental and task demands to the CNS helps students appreciate why age-related sensorimotor deficits in proprioception challenges balance of older adults. Importantly, by recognizing that the CNS utilizes sensory information in a context-dependent manner, they can begin to realize that environmental situation and task instructions are critical components of the exercise intervention.

When guided to re-focus on the concept map, students started to find reasonable ways to justify their ideas. Here is an example of the final draft from the student who followed the concept map strategy.

  • “When the major reason for age-related postural instability is proprioceptive deficit, the exercise strategies should help older adults practice utilizing proprioceptive information. Tai-chi can be a good exercise to begin with, because it requires them to maintain balance throughout continuous movement on a small base of support with minimal visual input of their joint position (performers are encouraged to look up). By having limited visual information of the joint position, the CNS can be trained to focus on body awareness such as joint position or movement of body mass. In addition, Tai-chi also facilitates the capability of maintaining the focus on body awareness while engaging in cognitive activities, because performers need to constantly remember the next sequential movements while maintaining balance for the ongoing movement.”

This statement sounds much more reasonable than the first draft, because the student successfully clarified what specific components of Tai-chi are expected to improve proprioception and attention.

I am becoming more and more convinced about the benefit of using concept maps. Although the aforementioned example focused only on proprioception for the simplicity of the explanation, concept maps have also been helpful for communicating more complex ideas including multi-sensory reprioritization, dual task exercises, and etc.

More information about how to construct a concept map can be found in this link.

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