A Concept Map of a Talmudic Passage (Lex Rofes)

Over the last year I have been experimenting with “concept mapping” in my classes.  In my latest experiment I had my undergraduate students use a software package called CMap to “map” or outline a passage of Talmud that we have been studying this semester.  The assignment ended up far exceeding my own pedagogical goals.

Concept mapping refers simply to representing visually the relationship between concepts.  The basic technique is to write down or represent concepts relevant to a particular problem or question and then connect them with lines.  The key step, however, is to use some kind of verb or verbal phrase in each line that shows the relationship of the concept.  There is an excellent introduction to this technique, its goals, strengths, and weaknesses here.

CMap is a simple, free, software package that can be easily downloaded (on Mac or PC).  My students had no problem either obtaining it or, after a very brief demonstration, learning to use it.  A visualization tool, it can be used to create, modify, share, and collaborate on concept maps.

Last semester I used the program to create concept maps for my “Religion and Sexuality” class.  At the beginning of the semester I asked groups of students, in class, to create concept maps showing the relationship between religion and sexuality.  Then for the midterm, they had to do the same thing – but this time on their own.  They then had to write a short paper comparing the concept map that they just created to the one that they created at the beginning of the semester.  One goal of this assignment was to have them reflect on the learning that they had done in the class thus far.  The results were very encouraging.

This semester I used CMap in my Talmud class not so much to map concepts as to outline a passage in the Talmud (syllabus here).  For much of the semester we have devoted at least part of each class to reading through, together, a single coherent section in the Babylonian Talmud (beginning at Taanit 10a, Steinsaltz edition).  One of the main difficulties of reading the Talmud, even for experienced readers, is determining the precise relationships between each sentence or paragraph.  Is it a question, a refutation, a solution, or simply a digression?  Does the statement connect to what immediately precedes it, or to something that appears earlier in the passage?  We had discussed these relationships in class.

The midterm assignment, then, was deceptively simple: put each statement in a box (i.e, making it a “concept” in CMap), connect them and indicate the relationships, and then write a short essay reflecting on the results.  My primary goal was to give them an opportunity to solidify their learning and, by working more intensely with the text, to better internalize the nature of talmudic logic (or its occasional lack thereof).

The results were really stunning.  There is no single, mechanical solution to this problem, and students took very different approaches to mapping.  Students also took full advantage of CMap’s flexibility (it allows for different shapes, lines, colors, etc.) on their own initiatives to represent other information as well, such as whether traditions were early, late, anonymous, etc.  Some layouts emphasized the sequential flow of the text while others represented themes.  The diversity of representations opened my own eyes to aspects of the passage that I had not seen before.  Their written reflections were thoughtful and clearly demonstrated the learning that had taken place in the exercise.

A year ago I was intrigued but slightly wary of integrating concept mapping and CMap into my courses.  Now, however, I am completely won over.  These are very powerful tools that can directly contribute to student learning.