Sunday, December 13, 2009

Teaching of Biological concepts

                 Biology is a rich mine of concepts, theories, hypotheses and laws. The explosive growth of biological data created an excellent opportunity for the development of concepts. The concepts are crucial for understanding inferences from experimental data. Concepts are the structural elements of the growing body of knowledge. A concept is a basic unit of information that represents a category. The data remains as a pile of incoherent informational items before it is ordered into concepts. Biology teaching is moving away from the emphasis on the mastery of contents/ facts and is now concentrating more on concepts and scientific thinking.
Meaning of concept
A concept is a set of specific objects, symbols or events which are grouped together on the basis of shared characteristics and which can be referenced by a particular name or symbol. A concept is thus a class of objects, rather than individual example, each member of the class sharing one or more common characteristics. The word ‘cell’ represents a concept , in that it stands for a class of things that possess a number of common qualities or attributes such as a cell membrane, cytoplasm, nucleus and so on. The common characteristics that members of a concept share can be either structural or functional attributes or both. In order to qualify as a member of a particular concept group an individual example must possess certain key characteristics called critical attributes. Concepts that can be observed are termed ‘concrete’ concepts, whereas those that are not observable are termed ‘defined’ or ‘abstract’ concepts. Liver is an example of a concrete observable concept, whereas ‘health’ is an abstract one. Abstract concepts tend to be more difficult to learn than concrete concepts.
Concepts form hierarchies, with the most inclusive ones, at the top and more specific ones below and they also cluster together with other related concepts.

Concept components

1. Name : for e.g. Noun is the name or label of a concept. The name is more effective and understandable than a lengthy definition.
2. Definition: A definition is a statement about the concept characteristics e.g. ‘ a noun is a person, place or thing’.
3. Characteristics: Characteristics are qualities that must be present for the concept to apply for e.g. the characteristics of a noun are ‘person, place or thing’.
4. Examples : Examples are members of a class of things that show a concept’s essential characteristics.
5. Place in a hierarchy : Most concepts are part of a content hierarchy that gives meaning to the concept and makes it easier to learn.
How to define a Concept
The process of concept definition involves 3 steps
1. Identify the concept name – that will be used to identify the general class.
2. Identify the attributes or characteristics that are used for identification of the class.
3. Write a concise definition for the concept.

Concept Mapping

In the 1960s, Joseph D. Novak (1993) at Cornell University developed the technique of concept mapping( Novak and Godwin 1984). This technique was based on the theory of meaning learning by David P. Ausubel et al (1978). A concept map is a visual illustration of displaying the organization concepts/ideas and outlining the relationships among or between this concepts.(Hoffman and Novak 2003).

Criteria of concept maps

Concept maps are composed of interrelated items: nodes, lines, labels.
Nodes represent concepts.
Lines represent relations among concepts.
Labels in the lines describe the nature of those relations.
Arrow heads indicates the direction of the relationships.
The combination of a pair of concepts and a line constitutes the fundamental unit of a concept map, a proposition or meaningful statement.
Linking concepts is the most important aspect of concept mapping. The concept arrangement and linking line orientation determine the structure of the concept map.(e.g. hierarchical or non-hierarchical).

Objectives of concept mapping

Concept maps are used to generate ideas (brain storming ) and to design complex structures (long texts, hypermedia, large web sites). They are utilized to communicate complex ideas. It's an aid in  learning by connecting new and old knowledge and to assess understanding and diagnose misunderstanding.

How to construct concept maps

  1. Read the passage.
  2. Select the most important idea in the passage.
  3. Reread the passage and identify the key concepts.
  4. Rank the concept words hierarchically from the most inclusive to the least inclusive.
  5. Arrange not only according to hierarchy but also according to relationships.
  6. Link draw lines between and among concepts. Label the lines with a word or phrase that explain the relationship.
  7. Review your concept map.
  8. Write a paragraph summarizing the concept.
Advantages of concept mapping
Visual representation has several advantages:
-visual symbols are quickly and easily recognized
-minimum use of text makes it easy to scan for a word, phrase or the general ideas and
- visual representation allows for development of a holistic understanding.

Educational uses of concept map 

The concept is placed in the centre and the attributes are radiating out from the central concept.
Concept maps are often referred to as a ‘map’ because they help teachers and students ‘map out’ their ideas in a visual manner. Teachers may use a concept map to attempt, to provide structure for the presentation of new material while indicating the relations between concepts. They can illustrate patterns and relationships among concepts. Students also can build concept maps on scientific ideas which provide more interconnected understanding of scientific principles and abstract concepts. Students can easily memorize information contained in a picture.

Kinds of concept maps

Linear concept maps are like flow charts that show how one concept or event leads to another.
Hierarchical concept maps represent information in a descending order of importance. The key concept is on top and subordinate concepts fall below.
Spider concept maps have a central or unifying theme in the centre of the map. Outwardly radiating sub themes surround the main theme.
Spider concept maps are useful for brainstorming or at other times when relationships between the themes need to be left open-ended.
It is used to explore a topic and identify main ideas and details.
Cross-linked concept maps use a descriptive word or phrase and identify the relationships with a labeled arrow.
Key characteristics of concept maps
  1. Concept maps have structure. More general concepts are presented at the top with more specific concepts at the bottom.
  2. Concept maps are based on propositions – Two concepts form a proposition.
  3. Concept maps have context – Understanding of a particular domain of knowledge.

Applications of Concept mapping

1. Creativity tool / mind tool – to ‘show-case what I know’. New ideas leads to new associations ..
2. Hypertext tool- to navigate a web site
3. Communication tool-to discuss concepts and the relationships between the concepts.
4. Student learning tool-to learn course material or to integrate course content or to integrate material across different courses.
5. Assessment tool – to evaluate student learning or to obtain learner feedback.
6. Instructional tool / knowledge representation tool– to organize course content or to prepare specific lessons or to present material to students.
7. Program planning tool- to display order of a programme
I gratefully acknowledge my daughter V.Joanna for the help in preparing this presentation.


 Novak J D 1991 Clarify with Concept maps: A tool for students and teachers alike. The Science Teacher 58(7) 45-49
 Novak J D and D B Gowin 1986 Learning How to learn, Cambridge University Press, London
 Moreira M A 1979 Concept maps as tools for teaching, Journal of Science Teaching VIII(5):283-286
 Ausubel D.P 1968 Educational psychology: a cognitive view, Rinehart and Winston New York.
 Novak J D 1986 Introduction to concept mapping : A handbook for educators Cornell University, Department of Education, Ithaca, New York.
 Novak J D 1990 Concept Mapping : A useful tool for Science Education. Journal of research in science teaching 27(10) : 937-949.
About the presenter
I , Dr.B.Victor am a highly experienced post graduate professor of Biotechnology  recently retired from a reputed higher educational institution, St.Xaviers College Palayamkottai , India.
I was the dean of sciences ,internal quality assessment coordinator and assistant controller of examinations of the institution. I have more than 32 years of teaching and research experience. I have guided 12 Ph.d scholars in the field of reproductive biology, invertebrate haematology and environmental toxicology. I have taught a diversity of courses ranging from graduate level to research levels in biology.
My goal as a teacher is not only to teach the subject matter of a particular course, but to help to students improve their ability to think and communicate as a researcher. I focus on the incredible complexity and interrelationships among biological concepts.

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