• Christian Moore Anderson

Making systemic interactions explicit in biology lessons: diagrammatic representations

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Biological systems are highly complex and non-linear. Students will struggle to see the wood for the trees unless the multitude of interactions are broken down and made explicit. This can be achieved via the sequencing of content in the curriculum and planned explanations, but can be supported by diagrammatic representations. Indeed, it is not just students who require the support of visual aids: Mechanistic explanations are ubiquitous in biology, and biologists ‘often rely on diagrammatic representations’ (Bechtel, 2013, p.508).

After reading Ian Kinchin's book on the use of concept maps to visualise student expertise I became interested in the idea of modifying the concept map to show systemic interactions across levels of organisation in biology.

Concept maps are often used for assessment in classrooms and in research on systems-thinking, they are often used to promote the linking of concepts, and sometimes they are used to summarise concepts. They can be helpful for explicitly showing a concept because 'the cognitive load has already been done by someone else’ (Kinchin, 2016), and that they 'make the macrostructure of a body of information more salient’ (O’Donnell et al. 2002).

Their use is supported in the literature: construction of concept maps, and the study of ready-made maps, were found to have effect sizes of g=0.72, and g=0.43 respectively, in a meta-analysis (Schroeder et al., 2018), in comparison with a variety of other activities.

I wanted to explore how the Novakian concept map (Novak, 1990; Novak & Cañas, 2008), could be modified to present the levels of organisation in a biological system more explicity, and specifically, how components and mechanisms interact across the levels.

For my Year 7 topic of cells to systems I came up with a simple template that could be drawn on any board: just two horizontal lines that separate the board into thirds. On the left I could label the levels of organisation: Organismal, Cellular, Molecular. I could then add the components to their respective level, and link components with an arrow and description of the mechanism that links them. Here is an example:

Image by Christian Moore Anderson

I have typically made new concept maps for every lesson of the topic, but maintained certain mechanisms and components constant (but possibly represented slightly differently) so that students could link between the concept maps and construct links incrementally.

The benefit of this modified concept map is that it makes the levels of organisation more explicit, and students become more accustomed to visualising the non-linear nature biological mechanisms.

Nevertheless, they can sometimes limit what you can represent easily and neatly due to the necessity of the components appearing in their respective level. However, it can be more flexible if you include certain parts, such a molecules, within the mechanisms on the green lines (such as number 3 in the example above).

Image by Christian Moore Anderson

Through my experience with making these representations with my Year 7 class, I have generally found that they should not include too many linking interactions, seven maximum. Even when they include some interactions that have appeared in previous lessons, students can become overwhelmed by the number of lines and non-linear connections. Secondly, I have found, due to the restrictive nature of the levels of organisation, that the best results emerge from planned concept maps. When students do become overwhelmed it helps to ask them to start at a single point and work bit by bit through the interactions.

Typically, I have used them for two things: explicit teaching, and for student retrieval practice. The latter can be done by including the arrows between components but not the description of the mechanism (the purple text in the examples above), which the students can attempt to complete themselves.

Kinchin (2016) suggests that concept maps should not be a tool for rote learning, but for helping students construct links with their knowledge. By varying the concept maps over time, students can see several different representations of a mix of prior knowledge and new information, rather than continually presenting the same format.

It is also possible for them to be used in a more open fashion for retrieval practice and elaboration, in which students can be just given a limited number of components and asked to form the links before a review as a class.

Post-sixteen-level diagrams for systems-thinking

As the level increases, and so does student knowledge of biological components, I have explored other ways for teaching and for practicing non-linear systems thinking. With my IB biology classes I have been using a similar concept map idea that was influenced by an assessment I saw in a study of systems-thinking of cell biology (Verhoeff et al., 2008). In this case, I want students to visualise the parallel activity and mechanisms occurring at several levels of organisation, but all of which converge on producing a specific (organismal level) phenomenon. Here is an example from a learning sequence on blood glucose homeostasis:

Image by Christian Moore Anderson

For practice students can be given the levels of organisation, and the components that you would like them to include at each level, leaving their organisation to the students.

Here is another example from a learning sequence on digestion:

These post-sixteen level examples are slightly messier due to the increase in content that is represented. It is often better for the students to have large paper to carry out practice of them, plus the use of a pencil and rubber.

Over time I hope to keep improving, and working on producing highly visual diagrammatic representations of biological systems. In the mean time I'm interested in hearing what other biology teachers have been using.

Christian Moore Anderson

@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)

Other posts you may enjoy:

Classroom questioning for explicit networked-thinking in biology

How typical biology curricula get it wrong: The need to contextualise components

Developing a biologist’s gaze: the organism in its environment


Bechtel, W., 2013. Understanding biological mechanisms: Using illustrations from circadian rhythm research. In K. Kampourakis, ed. The philosophy of biology. London: Springer, pp.487-510.

Kinchin, I., 2016. Visualising powerful knowledge to develop the expert student. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Novak, J., 1990. Concept mapping: a useful tool for science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 10, pp.937–949.

Novak, J., Cañas, A., 2008, The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01, Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.

O'Donnell, A., Dansereau, D., Hall, R., 2002. Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14(1), pp.71–87.

Schroeder, N., Nesbit, J., Anguiano, C., Adesope, O., 2018. Studying and Constructing Concept Maps: A Meta-Analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), pp.431–455.

Verhoeff, R., Waarlo, A., Boersma, K., 2008. Systems Modelling and the Development of Coherent Understanding of Cell Biology. International Journal of Science Education, 30(4), pp.543–569.

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