Visual thinking tools: what the research says

A  Liu, P. L. (2011). A study on the use of computerized concept mapping to assist ESL learners’ writing. Computers & Education, 57(4), 2548-2558.

This experimental research study, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, examined the effect of using computerized concept maps during the prewriting phase on writing performance. The research questions were:

  1. What are the impacts of different computerized concept mapping treatments (no-mapping, individual-mapping, and cooperative-mapping) on writing performance for learners of different writing proficiencies (high-level, middle-level, and low-level)?
  2. Does the quality of the concept maps constructed cooperatively exceed the quality of the concept maps constructed individually?
  3. Does the map quality correlate to the learner’s writing performance?

Inspiration software was used. Software training was provided. The participants included 94 freshman university students enrolled in an English course. All participants went through all three treatments for accomplishing three writing assignments.

RESULTS: The results indicate that the application of the computerized concept map as a prewriting planning strategy had distinctly more influence on the writing performance of all levels of learners than did the no-mapping treatment. It was found that both computerized mapping treatments had equally positive effects on low-level and middle-level learners compared with the no-mapping treatment. However, high-level learners performed significantly better with the individual-mapping treatment than with the other two treatments. The quality of the concept maps constructed cooperatively exceeded the quality of those constructed individually. The quality of the maps was also correlated to the learners’ writing performance.


Kwon, S. Y., & Cifuentes, L. (2009). The comparative effect of individually-constructed vs. collaboratively-constructed computer-based concept maps. Computers & Education, 52(2), 365-375.

This quasi-experimental research study, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, investigated the comparative effects of individually-constructed and collaboratively-constructed computer-based concept mapping on middle school science concept learning. The research questions were:

  1. Do middle school students who collaboratively or individually construct computer-based concept maps perform better on a comprehension test than those who do not construct computer-based concept maps?
  2. Do middle school students who collaboratively construct computer-based concept maps perform better on a comprehension test than those who individually construct computer-based concept maps?
  3. Does the quality of concept maps constructed collaboratively exceed the quality of concept maps constructed individually?

The participants included 161 eighth grade students, 74 boys and 87 girls. Inspiration software was used. Software and concept mapping training was provided, 59 students trained to individually construct concept maps on computers and 62 students (31 pairs) trained to collaboratively construct concept maps on computers. Both the individual and collaborative pairs groups of students attended a three-day workshop conducted by their teachers on computer-based concept mapping in their computer laboratory. The control group spent the same amount of time as the experimental groups with their teacher but rather than learning how to create concept maps, they watched a video.

RESULTS: Statistical analysis of the results indicates that both the individually and collaboratively constructed concept maps groups significantly outscored the group that did not construct concept maps (control group). Therefore, training students to individually or collaboratively create concept maps on the computer and then encouraging them to construct concept maps while studying had positive effects on the middle school students’ science concept learning. Interestingly, the group that collaboratively constructed concepts maps (collaborative pairs group) did not significantly outscore the group that individually constructed concept maps (individual group) in its performance. However, a significant difference in the quality of the concept maps existed between the individual group and the collaborative group. The students who created concept maps with a partner consistently made more complex maps that included concepts, sub-concepts, linkages, and propositions.


Lorenz, Green & Brown (2009) Using Multimedia Graphic Organizer Software in the Prewriting Activities of Primary School Students – What Are the Benefits?

This research study investigated the use of multimedia graphic organizer software and how it influenced the prewriting process of primary school children. The participants included 24 second grade students, 13 boys and 11 girls. Kidspiration software was used. The teacher modelled the prewriting step using an organizer included in the software. Two writing samples were evaluated for organization, language usage, use of a main topic, and use of detail sentences supporting the main topic.

RESULTS: The results from the observations and work samples data are mixed. As a group, the high-achieving students demonstrated little notable benefit from using the computer for prewriting. Students rated in the mid-range of reading scores, viewed by their teachers as more developing writers, demonstrated the strongest benefit after using the computer for prewriting. Students in the low-range of reading scores, viewed by their teachers as struggling readers and writers, demonstrated the least amount of change dependent on the prewriting method. At least one conclusion, however, can be suggested: Using computing tools to teach prewriting skills does no harm.