The Effect of Explicit Teaching of Concept Mapping in Expository Writing on EFL Students’ Self-regulation

April 2007. Volume 2 Issue 1

The Effect of Explicit Teaching of Concept Mapping in Expository Writing on EFL Students’ Self-regulation

Mohammad Reza Talebinezhad,
Isfahan University, Iran

Bio Data:
Mohammad Reza Talebinezhad is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Isfahan University, Iran. He received his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics (Sheffield, 1994, U. K.). His research interests are interlanguage development and second language acquisition; transfer in second language acquisition; conceptual fluency; and metaphorical competence.

Giti Mousapour Negari is an Assistant Professor at Sistan & Baluchestan University, Iran. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics (Isfahan University, 2006, Iran). Her research interests are learning strategies; second language acquisition; Cognition and Second language acquisition; and conceptual competence.

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This paper has investigated the effectiveness of concept mapping as a learning strategy on students’ self-regulation (metacognitive self-regulation, time and study environment, effort regulation, peer learning, and help seeking). Sixty university students, who were randomly selected, participated in the study and were randomly assigned to one control group and one experimental group, each including thirty students. They were at the intermediate level of English proficiency and studying English either as Translation or Literature. Their language proficiency was determined by the Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency. The instrument to collect data on students’ self-regulation was Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Printrich et al., 1991), the findings revealing that students gained higher self-regulation as the result of concept mapping strategy teaching. These findings have implications for pedagogy as well as for research.

Keywords: concept mapping, self-regulation, learning strategies, strategy teaching

1. Introduction
Writing is a very complex process in which numerous cognitive and metacognitive activities take place, for instance, brainstorming, planning, outlining, organizing, drafting, revising, and so on. Cognitive aspects have received particular attention, as investigators have attempted to understand the thought processes underlying the compositions of students (Flower & Hayes, 1981). Writing also involves composing, which implies the ability either to tell or retell pieces of information in the form of narratives or description, or to transform information into new texts, as in expository or argumentative writing. Perhaps it is best viewed as a continuum of activities that range from the more mechanical or formal aspects of writing down on the one end to the more complex act of composing on the other end (Omaggio Hadley, 1993 p.23).
Learning to write is difficult especially for those writing in a second or foreign language in academic contexts. As Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987, p.12) stated, by putting together concepts and solving problems, the writer engages in “a two-way interaction between continuously developing knowledge and continuously developing text”. Composing is an advanced academic task which may not be developed without instruction and teacher’s assistance. Instruction in strategy use is an effective means for promoting writing. There are a number of learning strategies which can help students become better learners. The strategies include meaningful learning, organizing, note taking, identifying important information, and summarizing (Pressley, 1982). Strategies such as concept mapping help students attend to task, focus on important textures, organize material, and maintain a productive psychological climate for learning (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986).
The aim of the present study is to investigate the effect of the use of concept mapping strategy in writing tasks on university students’ self-regulation.

1.1. Concept mapping
A concept map, as a learning strategy, is defined as a visual representation of an individual’s knowledge structure on a particular topic as constructed by the individual (Zimmaro & Cawley, 1998). Concept maps represent the relationships among concepts (Novak, 1981). With the visual representation of key words, students can identify main issues of a text and organize these key issues in a meaningful way. Learning strategies, according to Stern (1992, p.261), “are based on assumptions that learners consciously engage in activities to achieve certain goals, that they exercise a choice of procedure, and that they undertake some form of long-term planning”. It is assumed that concept mapping may have positive effects on students’ self-regulation, too.
Literature reports on the benefits of concept mapping for organizing information, assessing in learning, comprehension of particularly complex communications, refining literacy framework, and successful understanding of the text (Ruddell & Boyle, 1989).

1.2. Self-regulation
Self-regulation refers tothe degree to which individuals become metacognitively, motivationally, and behaviorally active participants in their own learning process (Zimmerman, 1986). It refers to students’ ability to control their learning. The students can become better learners if they become more aware of their learning and then choose to act on that awareness. As Livingston (1997, p.3) stated, “Although most individuals of normal intelligence engage in metacognitive regulation when confronted with an effortful cognitive task, some are better than others are. Those with greater metacognitive abilities tend to be more successful in their cognitive endeavors. The good news is that individuals can learn how to regulate their cognitive activities”. Self-regulation is neither a measure of mental intelligence that is unchangeable after a certain point in life nor a personal characteristic that is genetically based or formed early in life. Students learn self-regulation through experience (Pintrich, 1995). Teachers can teach in ways that help students become self-regulating learners (Coppola, 1995). Since self-regulation is not a personality trait, students can control their behaviors and affect in order to improve their academic learning and performance. In addition, self-regulated learning is particularly appropriate for college students, as they have great control over their own time schedule, and how they approach their studying and learning (Pintrich, 1995).

1.3. Strategy Teaching
An ex mination of the literature reveals a wide range of terminology associated with learner training, which is also referred to as strategy teaching (Richards et al, 1992) or strategies-based instruction (SBI) (Brown, 2000). Since the 1970s, there has been growing interest in the concept of the ‘good’ language learner and the importance of learning styles and learner preferences (Oxford, 1990). This has marked a continued investigation into learning processes and support for the communicative philosophy of teaching learners how to learn, and thus become independent and autonomous learners through the use of learning strategies (Wenden, 1991); together with increasing learners’ language awareness through inductive learning approaches and activities, such as consciousness-raising (Sharwood Smith, 1981).
Wenden (1991, p.163) offers a detailed definition of learner training: “ the learning activities organized to help language learners improve their skills as learners; includes learning to use strategies; knowledge about the language learning process; and attitude and development to support autonomous use of the strategies and knowledge; learner education”.
Comparably, Richards et al (1992, p. 355)present a specific definition of strategy training and outline three different approaches: “[It is] training in the use of learning strategies in order to improve a learner’s effectiveness. A number of approaches to strategy training are used, including: 1) Explicit or direct training: learners are given information about the value and purpose of particular strategies, taught how to use them and how to monitor their own use of the strategies. 2) Embedded strategy training: the strategies to be taught are not taught explicitly but are embedded in the regular content of an academic subject area, such as reading, math or science. 3) Combination strategy training: explicit strategy training is followed by embedded training.”
Brown (2000, p.130) acknowledges work on the effectiveness of learning strategies for various learners in a variety of contexts. He then states “…we probe its implications for your teaching methodology in the classroom, specifically, how your language classroom techniques can encourage, build, and sustain effective language-learning strategies in your students”.
Learner training can therefore be summarized as teaching learners how to learn, with a view to becoming independent and autonomous learners.

1.4. Cognitive aspects of writing skill
Historically, researchers in the field of composition have focused on the processes in which writers engage as they compose a text (Hairston, 1990). During the past decade, researchers have attempted to address this complexity by the affective factors that influence writing. Beach (1989) suggested that students’ self-perceptions of their own writing competence offer a particularly promising avenue of research for informing writing instruction.

Flower and Hayes (1980, p.40) conceptualized writing as a “strategic action where writers employ strategies to juggle with the constraints of composing”. They stated that composing strategies are decisions taken to cope with the problems (both linguistic and rhetorical) posed by the writing task as perceived by the writers. Hays and Flower (1980) presented a model of skilled writers. The model comprised three major components. The first component, task environment, included factors that were external to the writer, but influenced the writing task. These included both social and physical factors. The second component, cognitive processes, provided a description of the mental operations involved in writing. These included three basic processes: planning what to say and how to say it; translating plans into written text; and reviewing to improve existing text. Planning, in turn, was composed of three ingredients: setting goals, generating ideas, and organizing ideas into a writing plan; whereas reviewing included reading and editing text. The execution of these cognitive processes was thought to be under the writer’s direct control, and it was proposed that virtually any subprocess could interrupt or incorporate any other subprocess. The third component, writer’s long-term memory, included the author’s knowledge about the topic, the intended audience, and general plans or formulas for accomplishing various writing tasks. Concept mapping could be used as a learning tool. Smith (1987) found concept mapping a worthwhile heuristic for helping experts make their own understanding more evident to learners and for helping learners better understand the structure of knowledge.
Graham and Harris (2000) believed that writing required extensive self-regulation and attention control. Research showed that adolescents who used different types of self-regulatory processes wrote more effectively; they produced more information in their papers; they wrote more organized pieces; and they received higher grades in writing (Zimmerman & Risemberg, 1997).
Many teachers attempted to influence the course of this development in a relatively straightforward and direct fashion. They might model and explicitly teach the types of strategies and self-control procedures used by more skilled writers, or might establish predictable routines where writing processes such as planning and revising were expected and reinforced (Graham & Harris, 1996).
Strategy instruction is a teaching approach that assists students in developing strategies for all phases of the writing process and teaches self-regulation of performance of the strategies. Strategy instruction assists student writers by breaking down writing tasks and making the subprocesses and skills much more explicit (Sturm & Rankin- Erickson, 2002).

2. Methodology
2.1. Restatement of the problem
There has been growing interest in learning processes and support for teaching learners how to learn, and thus become independent and autonomous learners through the use of learning strategies. Some researchers as Hacker, Dunlosky, and Graesser (1998) suggested that instructional strategies that teach students to practice cognitive skills can increase learners’ performance in academic subjects. The principal aim of this study was to investigate the effectiveness of the strategy of concept mapping in students’ self-regulation in expository writing at the intermediate level of language proficiency.

2.2. Design
The study had a pretest-posttest control group design. Both control group and experimental group participated in pretest and posttest self-regulation questionnaire, but only the experimental group received the treatment.

2.3. Participants
Ninety university students volunteered to participate in the study. They were studying English either as translation or literature. They were mostly from six and seven semesters. All the students were administered Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency to determine their level of English proficiency. Sixty students at the intermediate level of language proficiency were randomly selected. Of the sixty students, thirty students were randomly assigned to control group and thirty students to experimental group. In the experimental group, twelve students were male and eighteen students were female. In the control group, ten students were male and twenty students were female.

2.4. Instructional Material
The treatment for the experimental group was instruction and practice in concept mapping. Students were provided with handouts that included definition of concept mapping, different uses and examples of concept maps. Students practiced the application of concept mapping in writing essays. They were required to draw concept maps of their own or to complete the incomplete maps. In the experimental group, the students practiced writing expository essays, using concept mapping strategy. The topics for the essays sequenced from easy and familiar topics (unnecessary to have specialized knowledge) to difficult and unfamiliar topics. They included: plants, time, weather, air pollution, the function of heart, and psychology. Familiarity/unfamiliarity and simplicity/difficulty of the topics were judged by three university teachers who were teaching writing courses. The control group wrote essays about the same topics without the use of concept mapping strategy. (See Appendix B).

2.5. Instruments
The instrument used to determine the level of the students’ English proficiency was Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency. Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (Printrich et al., 1991) was applied to measure the students’ self-regulation. First, the students were asked to participate in the test of language proficiency. From among ninety students, sixty students at the intermediate level of English proficiency were randomly selected. Then the students were asked to fill out the questionnaire. It was designed to assess college students’ motivational orientations and their use of different learning strategies in college courses. The learning strategies section had 50 items regarding students’ use of different cognitive and self-regulated learning strategies. Only five scales in the learning strategies section (metacognitive self-regulation, time and study environment, effort regulation, peer learning, and help seeking) were relevant to self-regulation and were used in this study. The scales were adapted to measure students’ self-regulation in writing tasks. Cronbach’s alpha for the scale was .76 (See Appendix A).

2.6. Procedure
The period of instruction was about twelve weeks and comprised of three phases:

2.6.1. Pre-testing
Before the students in experimental group received any instruction, all the students in two groups completed the self-regulation questionnaire.

2.6.2. Strategy instruction
Following pre-testing the students participated in twelve sixty-minute study sessions . The students in experimental group received the instruction for concept mapping strategy. The strategy was taught following Harris and Graham (1996): (1) Strategy description, (2) Discussion of goals and purposes, (3) Modeling of the strategy, (4) Student mastery of strategy steps, and (5) Guided practice and feedback.

  1. Strategy description. As an introduction to the first lesson, students were told that they were going to learn about the strategy of concept mapping. Concept mapping was described as a strategy that could be used to categorize information in a graphic form through drawing. It was also described as a strategy that could help them with vocabulary development, reading comprehension, study skills, and prewriting activities. Finally, the sequence of steps for creating a concept map was described.
  2. Discussion of goals and purposes. The teacher discussed the students about the significance and benefits of using the concept mapping strategy in writing. Students were asked two questions: (1) How do you think this strategy might help you write? and (2) How could this strategy help you with different types of writing? To reinforce student participation as collaborators in the learning process, goals and purposes that students generated were written on the white board.
  3. Modeling the strategy. The teacher modeled use of concept mapping strategy by creating a map while students were offered several topics to select from for the activity. Once the group agreed on a topic, the teacher wrote it on the white board. This topic was labeled as “main idea” of the concept map. Next possible subtopics were generated. The teacher demonstrated use of arrows to connect main ideas and subtopics. Finally, details were generated and added to each of the subtopics. Students participated in the process by brainstorming possible categories and details. Students were taught how to write subtopic information in telegraphic form. The teacher modeled use of telegraphic language forms and explained that this involves choosing the most important information. Students assisted by generating ideas to be placed on the map. Then, the teacher discussed how the categories and the details could be sequenced into paragraphs, and sentences within paragraphs, to compose an essay. The teacher explained that each subtopic may represent different paragraphs in the essay. Upon completion of the map , the teacher modeled the transfer of subtopic information from the map into written form- instruction followed the sequence of procedures for transferring concept maps into written paragraphs, starting with top-level structures i.e., topics and subtopics ) , the teacher reviewed the information on the map. Each category was reviewed, including the main ideas and supporting details. The teacher modeled how she would rewrite the information from the map into complete sentences. For each subtopic, a topic sentence was written, followed by supporting sentences. Finally, the concluding paragraph was explained and with the help of the students the teacher wrote a concluding paragraph.
  4. Student mastery of strategy steps. During this stage, students rehearsed and memorized the sequence of activities for concept map construction.
  5. Guided practice and Feedback. During these sessions, feedback was provided for students’ performance. Students chose a topic and created maps. Then, they used the concept maps to compose essays.

The first three sessions were devoted to training the technique. The other nine sessions were spent on practicing the strategy for the students to master the fundamental skills. One essay was composed every two weeks for a total of four essays for each student. During these sessions, other formal teaching techniques were not employed by the teacher. The teacher was a non-native English teacher who taught writing courses for many years at the university. Before starting the project, the teacher was trained how to teach concept mapping strategy (following Harris and Graham’s strategy teaching, 1996). During the instructional period the students in the control group wrote as many expository essays as the experimental group but without the use of concept mapping strategy.

2.6.3. Post-testing
After the instruction of the strategy of concept mapping (at the conclusion of the treatment period) all the students in two groups again completed the self-regulation questionnaire.

2.7. Scoring of the Data
The research applied Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) to assess students’ self regulation. Responses were scored using a 5 point Likert type scale: 1) Not at all true of myself 2) Slightly true of myself 3) About halfway true of myself 4) Mostly true of myself 5) True of myself. Scale scores were determined by summing the items and taking an average.

Table1. Means and standard deviations for pretest and posttest scores on self-regulation

Experimental group
Control group
Experimental group
Control group

To investigate the effect of concept mapping strategy on students’ self-regulation, an ANCOVA on Post self-regulation scores by group (experimental vs. control), using Pre self-regulation scores as a covariate was conducted. The results indicated there was a significant difference in posttest scores between groups (F= 10.57, df= 1; P= .002). The conclusion is that concept mapping strategy significantly influenced students’ self-regulation. In other words, it revealed that the implementation of concept mapping strategy in writing expository essays would positively affect students’ self-regulation in writing tasks. Table 2 displays the results.

Table2. ANCOVA on Post Self-regulation Scores by Group (experimental vs. control), using Pre Self-regulation as a Covariate

Source of variation

One possible explanation for the improvement of the students’ self-regulation might be a change in the students’ attitude toward writing skill. As Barnhardt (1997) stated there is a relationship between strategy use and confidence in language learning. For students who had not positive attitudes toward writing for a long time, a positive change in attitude due to their success in the application of the concept mapping strategy could be the initial step toward improved writing skill. It is also possible that when students were taught the mapping strategy to use with their writing, their positive attitudes toward writing increased. It meant that when the students had a better idea of how to go about a writing task, they were more positive about the task. In other words, concept mapping strategy helped students attend to writing tasks, and control their learning more effectively. It helped students facilitate their learning by organizing key concepts into visual representation. They simply represented visually their understanding of ideas and their relationships. This created a much more tangible evidence of the quality of both the learning process and concept understanding.
It seemed that the construction of concept maps might have helped students to build more complex cognitive structures in regard to information which was vital for writing. According to Pintrich (2000), the cognitive area of self-regulation begins with goal setting, prior knowledge activation and planning. Pintrich places the actual use of cognitive strategies in the phase of cognitive control and regulation. It has been suggested that strategy instruction should be integrated into a larger framework of self-regulation involving the helping of students to identify their goals in a learning task (Butler, 2002).Butler states that by strategy intervention it is easier to demonstrate the different types of knowledge which are essential for fostering students’ self-regulated strategy use.
The positive effect of concept mapping strategy on the students’ self-regulation is confirmed by McAleese (1998) in that individuals are affected by control mechanisms that are both external and internal. According to McAleese (1998), there is some interaction between the external representation (concept mapping) and the internal understanding (self-regulation). The factors that determine students’ behavior shift between the internal self-regulation and the external factor of concept mapping.

4. Conclusion and implications
The findings clearly demonstrate that concept mapping can benefit university students at the intermediate level of English proficiency. In fact, the benefits of concept mapping might extend beyond achievement gains to some variables such as self-regulation which is an achievement-related variable. This is consistent with the finding of Corno and Mandniach (1983) that instruction in strategy use is an effective means of promoting self-regulation. It seems that the use of concept mapping strategy in our courses of writing in the university has been personally rewarding as a means of constructing knowledge and promoting self-regulation. This has important implications for both students and teachers. Students maximize their learning by using concept mapping in their essay writing; hence they feel more independent and feel more responsibility for their own learning. Because concept mapping is easily adopted by the students, it doesn’t rely too much on teacher’s involvement. Teachers may enhance their students’ self-regulation in writing by familiarizing them with the concept mapping strategy.
Although the present study suggests that the strategy of concept mapping is beneficial to university students, there are areas that need to be studied further. In regard to university students, it needs to be investigated whether the benefits of concept mapping would be the same for the students at the elementary level of English proficiency. Furthermore, it needs to be studied whether the concept mapping strategy would have positive effects on students’ self-regulation in other courses such as reading comprehension.

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Appendix A and B (see PDF or SWF File)

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Category: 2007