AbstractAlthough concept mapping has been shown to help students in meaningful learning, particularly when done as a collaborative activity, little has been done to understand the microprocesses during the activity itself. However, in order to be able to improve the activity as a teaching and learning heuristic, we have to know more about the microprocesses that constitute concept mapping as process and as product. This study was designed to investigate concept mapping as a means of assessing the quality of student understanding from two perspectives: the analysis of the process of constructing meaning and the analysis of the products of this cognitive activity. An interpretive research methodology was adopted for the construction of meaning from the data. Twenty‐nine students from two sections of a senior level high school physics course participated in the study. The data sources included videotapes, their transcripts, and all concept maps produced. Students worked in collaborative groups during all of the concept mapping sessions. Individual concept mapping was assessed twice, once delayed by a week, another time delayed by 6 weeks. To assess what happened to the cognitive achievement as the context of concept mapping changed from collaborative to individual activity, we used a tracer. A tracer is some bit of knowledge, procedure, or action that allows the researcher to follow a task through various settings. The concept maps as products differed in their hierarchical organization, the number of links, and the benefit to the individual students. Three major processes emerged, which students used to arrive at suitable propositions. Students mediated propositions verbally and nonverbally, they took adversarial positions and appealed to authority, and they formed temporary alliances based on presumed expertise. Both product and process hold promise but also show some limitations. On the positive side, concept mapping led to sustained discourse on the topic and improved the declarative knowledge of several students both in terms of the hierarchical organization and “local” configuration of the concepts. In contrast, concept mapping also let unintended and scientifically incorrect notions become ingrained and go unchallenged. On the basis of the outcomes of our study we formulated specific recommendations for the use of concept maps in the classroom. These include continued instruction in establishing proper hierarchies and cross‐links to increase the quality of the concept maps' structure and the number of high quality links. Then, instruction should facilitate students' attempts to reflect on the nature of the relationships expressed in their maps. And finally, specific roles could be assigned to individual students to improve the overall quality of the process of constructing the map and, thus, of the final product.

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