Use of Concept Mapping in an Undergraduate Exercise Physiology Course

Physiology is often considered a challenging course. Some of the aspects of physiology that make it difficult include the large volume of information typically covered, its integrative nature, and the need for good causal thinking skills to truly understand the material (Joel Michael, 2007). One of the most common complaints heard from students is that there is too much to remember. Students usually make the mistake of trying to memorize hundreds of individual pieces of information, causing them to become overwhelmed and discouraged. One of our roles as instructors is to help the students learn. One way to do this is to explicitly teach students that physiology actually involves just a few repeating general models (Modell, 2000). More specific physiological concepts can be placed within most of these general models. The existence of these general models should be taken advantage of and used to reduce the perceived volume and help students remember and understand more. Placing physiological concepts into models is a way to organize and chunk the information. Chunking is a well-established memory strategy that helps make large amounts of information more manageable and meaningful. Another way to chunk information is with a concept map. A concept map is a useful active learning tool that can be used to graphically organize, structure, and represent information and knowledge in a more meaningful format than text alone (Novak & Canas, 2008).Henige Blog Image

In the process of creating a concept map, students put pieces of information together to create and illustrate the big picture, something students often fail to see. As a result, instructors can use concept maps as tools to guide students into being able to visualize the integrative nature of physiology, rather than viewing it as dozens of independent concepts in different organ systems. Construction of concept maps employs higher-order thinking and requires students to identify relationships between concepts that they may not otherwise recognize (Novak & Canas, 2008). An exhaustive meta-analysis of studies involving learning with concept maps has revealed that concept mapping is more effective for promoting knowledge retention and transfer than reading text, attending lecture, or class discussion (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). These differences were attributed to greater learner engagement with concept mapping than with reading or listening.

I have been assigning concept maps to the students in my Exercise Physiology course for several years. I find that it helps encourage them to actively process and organize information into manageable and meaningful chunks, and to teach them to recognize the patterns and regularities of physiology. If created thoughtfully, concept map assignments provide an opportunity for students to practice their reasoning skills and the application of some of the general models and core concepts of physiology. It is this type of practice and subsequent feedback that fosters the very skills that students tend to lack and that contributes to their difficulties with physiology. Concept map assignments often reveal student misunderstandings and misconceptions and therefore stimulate extra teachable moments. By assigning, grading, and returning concept maps prior to the exams, students have more opportunities for accurate organization of the information. It is unlikely that students will process the information this deeply while studying on their own.


  1. Henige K. Use of concept mapping in an undergraduate introductory exercise physiology course. Advan Physiol Educ 36: 197-206, 2012.
  2. Michael J. What makes physiology hard for students to learn? Results of a faculty survey. Advan Physiol Educ 31: 34-40, 2007.
  3. Modell HI. How to help students understand physiology? Emphasize general models. Advan Physiol Educ 23: 101-107, 2000.
  4. Nesbit JC, Adesope, OO. Learning with concept and knowledge maps: A meta-analysis. Rev Educ Res 76: 413-448, 2006.
  5. Novak JD, Canas AJ. The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them (Technical Report IHMC Cmap Tools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008). Florida: Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2008.

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Kim Henige received her Ed.D. in Education (emphasis: Science Education) from the University of Southern California and her M.A. in Physical Education (emphasis: Exercise Physiology) from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Kim is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at CSUN where she teaches exercise physiology and applied exercise physiology courses. In addition, she directs the CSUN Kinesiology Peer Learning Facilitator program  and CSUN staff and faculty on-campus fitness program called Commit to be Fit. Kim’s scholarship is focused on improving student enjoyment and success through active learning and peer mentoring.


2 thoughts on “Use of Concept Mapping in an Undergraduate Exercise Physiology Course”


Do you hve your students create their concept maps using software? I like Inspiration the most but since it is not free, I don’t require my students to use it. I have also used Cmaps( and VUE (Visual Understanding Environment)( but neither one of them are as user-friendly as Inspiration and I don’t want to spend too much time trouble-shooting with students when they have technical difficulties. I also want the files that are created to be able to be opened on both a Windows and Macintosh computers so that files can be exchanged between me md the students.

What are your recommendations?


Hi Jerry,
I tell my students about Cmap and some use PowerPoint. However, I think there is a lot of value in doing it by hand because the act of writing forces them to process the information more deeply. It can take more time if they make mistakes and have to redraw it, but I also see the value in drawing it multiple times. Kim

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