CONCEPT MAPS – A USEFUL TOOL FOR IDENTIFYING STUDENTS’ PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF A SUBJECT AREA

C. Bonello

University of Malta (MALTA)
Students’ prior knowledge is a useful starting point of any learning experience [Ausubel, 1963]. This prior knowledge can be considered from two different viewpoints. One can probe into students’ understanding of specific science concepts or one can opt for a more holistic approach and focus on students’ knowledge structure of a particular subject area.
In concrete terms, if one considers the subject area of ‘Field Theory’, one can consider students’ understanding of the properties of various types of fields such as magnetic fields, electric fields, gravitational fields and time-dependent fields or one can probe into students’ knowledge structure of ‘Field Theory’ and study how this reflects the students’ overall understanding of the theory.
The former type of study would be researched through tasks such as multiple choice questions or True-False statements but the latter would require a task that encourages students to present a general picture of the subject area under consideration. Eliciting from students their overall knowledge structure about a topic would necessitate the use of tools such as concept maps.
In this study, university science student teachers were asked to present on an A3 sheet their knowledge structure of ‘Field Theory’ using a concept map. This was done prior to their participation in a course on the theory. These maps were then compared to two maps provided by two physics teachers who each had around thirty years of teaching experience. Both teachers and students were allowed to consult the Maltese Advanced Matric [AM] syllabus, books and other material they deemed necessary.
This paper presents the findings that resulted from the analysis of the concept maps. Analysis of these maps indicated that students’ understanding of the theory was still rather fragmented and lacked a strong knowledge structure. As a consequence of this students were not in a position to view these fields as closely related or to compare and contrast the characteristics of the different types of fields. Furthermore, subsumption of concepts into their existing knowledge structure was, to some extent hindered.