Tools to SEE student learning
C-TOOLS: Concept-Connector Tools for Online Learning in Science
Fellow Instructors*: How many of us have walked away from a wonderfully engaging class feeling confident our students understood the material we presented, to later be disappointed with the exam? We have observed brilliant students that could teach their peers the intricacies of DNA replication but were stumped by the ‘easy’ question on the exam that required them to explain the relationship between a gene, DNA and a chromosome. Students often seem to understand the details, but do not see the big picture or the connections between a new concept and the last.
Fellow Scientists: In our own learning as scientists, we use visual models to understand complex systems, to communicate our ideas to our peers, and to deduce testable hypotheses. Models are one of the common themes in science; they are “the main vehicle by which science actually produces its explanations and predictions” (Casti, 1990). Students and scientists alike can use models to describe, evaluate and learn science. In our own quest to find modeling approaches that could help our students reflect on the big picture, we discovered a cornucopia of educational tools. Vee diagrams, venn diagrams, concept maps, flow charts, and storyboards were all developed by experts to resolve this dilemma. But what does the research say about the effectiveness of each tool? And is there an online version?
Visual Modeling: In our research we found that many tools showed potential, but the concept mapping approach developed by Novak et al (1984, 1998) is the best studied and validated visual tool for student learning. It forces students to confront and grapple with the conceptions and misconceptions they bring to their learning.
Twenty years of research and numerous studies show concept maps can succeed as both an effective instruction and formative assessment tool for higher-level learning. Currently, online formative assessment tools are rare and web-based concept mapping software is either not readily available or does not exist. Therefore, we became interesting in creating software that delivers online concept mapping capability with automated feedback.
C-TOOLS Project: The C-TOOLS research project at the MSU Lyman Briggs Residential College is focused on creating and studying a web-based, concept mapping Java applet with automatic scoring, called the Concept Connector. The Concept Connector is designed to enable students in large introductory science classes at the university level to visualize their thinking online and receive immediate formative feedback. The Concept Connector's flexible scoring system is based on tested scoring schemes as well as instructor input, and has enabled automatic and immediate online scoring of a student’s concept map homework. The C-TOOLS project supports the use of the Concept Connector Java applet embedded within a courseware management system streamlined for the creation, editing and management of concept map assignments in a classroom setting.
*Learn more about this research project and try concept maps in your course with this handout and online software (
C-TOOLS@Lyman Briggs