Concept mapping is a teaching and learning tool that uses a visual representation of various connections within an idea or topic. In medical school, it is used to form connections between a disease, the symptoms and any related pathologies. The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine added concept mapping to its already robust curricular components three years ago as a way of preparing students for their clerkships, also known as clinical rotations, in years three and four of medical school.

Learn to learn

Each concept map starts with a prompt such as: “Explain why this patient with pulmonary fibrosis was severely out of breath.” Small groups of students then start the mapping process. They are given a list of concepts that they must connect in their map using logic, understanding, and their own intermediate concepts. In this example, given concepts might be dyspnea, reduced lung compliance, and reduced gas exchange, and medical students are expected to use their map to describe how these concepts arise and interconnect.

As the students continue mapping what they know and don’t know about the case and connecting concepts that are related, the map takes the form of an atlas with its intricate representation of cities, towns, and streets.

“Concept mapping is a tool that is really foundational,” said Renée LeClair, associate professor of basic science education. “It’s an illustration of how you’re making these mental connections.”

Concept mapping is just one of the tools the medical school uses in the classroom, and it’s one of the more difficult ones for both the teacher and the learner.

“Initially, it’s difficult for the students to wrestle with the material. It’s a matter of learning how to learn this way,” said Andrew Binks, associate professor of basic science education. He and LeClair were the first to start using concept mapping at the medical school to help generate a deeper understanding of core medical concepts.

Man and woman sitting at table looking at a screen with intricate lines and concepts
Students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine work together on a concept map. Photo by Ryan Anderson for Virginia Tech.

Think like a doctor

In traditional didactic medical school teaching, subjects such as biochemistry and physiology are taught separately.

“Concept mapping takes away those discipline silos,” Binks said. “Integration of concepts is really key because that is how the students will eventually understand and treat their patients.”

When the USMLE Step 1 exam, the most critical licensing exam of a medical student’s education, switched from objective assessment to pass/fail, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine shifted the delivery focus to include aspects of clinical decision making, with the intent to better prepare learners for their clerkship years.

“The goal is to start medical students thinking like a doctor, rather than just thinking about the exam,” Binks said. “Concept mapping builds that cognitive network they will need as a physician. We’re watching clerkship performance scores to measure the impact concept mapping has had.”

The benefits

Concept mapping is difficult, but students can call upon the collective strengths of their group, which is helpful. Binks and LeClair said it’s often later that students reflect on the experience and can see how it benefited them.

“I find the small group learning is a more active model, and concept mapping helps me identify my areas of weakness,” said Hannah Karp, a member of the Class of 2026. “It’s a great opportunity to explore and visualize the interplay between multiple disease processes that are occurring.”

Concept mapping is a more robust form of studying something than passively reading and taking notes. It also has much higher engagement. Another advantage is that physicians and basic science faculty members are on hand for every mapping session to assess the students’ level of understanding and assist if they are too far off course.

“Concept mapping helps build a framework that emphasizes the connections between clinical and basic science,” Karp said. “I look forward to applying the mechanistic reasoning that concept mapping helps to develop to real patients once I’m on clinical rotations.”


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