Concept mapping: The Basics

Objective of this post:

Concept maps are famous, celebrities even. No surprise then when I find a lot of gossip, look-alikes, and wannabes. The downfall? I often hear students and faculty say that concept mapping isn’t helpful. The main objectives of this post is (i) to share what I have learned from the literature to be the definition and (ii) to list the steps to creating a concept map to gain the benefits research has evidence to support.

What is a concept map?

  • A strategy for organizing and representing information, most useful for big ideas and interrelationships.
  • A representation of the conceptual mental model
  • A “true” concept map must include
    • Concepts as nodes – usually enclosed in circles or boxes
    • Relationships among concepts as labelled links
      • Illustrated by lines and arrows connecting concepts
      • Labels on those lines that highlight the nature of the relationship

Who can concept map?

While bulk of the research has focused on adults aged 18 and above, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that middle-school aged kids and above show learning gains from concept mapping. There is preliminary evidence to support the idea that young children (aged 4 to 7) can concept map with a few conditions such as using pictures instead of words for concepts, using voice recorders for students who are not able to write yet, and that young children are able to concept map individually after engaging in the activity as a group first. Further, it is recommended that young children are given preliminary support such as an engaging experience before being asked to concept map on their learning.

What does a concept map look like?


How do I construct a concept map?

  1. Focusing stage: Set the guiding question; What question is the concept map trying to answer?
    • “What” questions typically give rise to single level concept maps unless worded carefully: “What factors are associated with the fermentation process?” is broad enough to connect the different factors while a question “What factors are involved in fermentation?” might yield 5 word answers.
    • How questions lead to cyclical concept maps with more process and interrelationships depicted. E.g. “How are clouds formed?” versus “what are clouds?”
  2. Brainstorming Stage: Make a glossary list of ideas
    • Step 2a. Write out all key-words (concepts) that come to mind when you think of the guiding question.
    • Step 2b. Once you’ve listed all concepts, revisit the list and identify the central concepts that answer the guiding question.
  3. Organizing Stage: Take a step back
    • Step 3a. Separate the concepts you have marked as central.
    • Step 3b. Identify which of your remaining concepts are pertinent to understand your central concepts with regards to the guiding question.
    • Step 3c. Remove or add concepts.
  4. Layout Stage: Put it down (Use post-its for mobility)
    • Step 4a. Write the guiding question at the top.
    • Step 4b. Connect the central concepts with directional arrows.
    • Step 4c. Connect supplementary concepts
  5. Linking Stage: Connect the dots
    • Step 5a. CRITICAL: add a linking word on every arrow connecting every 2 concepts. At the end, a person must be able to take the concepts and linking word (edited slightly) to form a meaningful sentence.
    • Step 5b. Connect concepts which you may not have previously.
  6. Revising Stage: Revisit and update
    • A concept map is an ongoing document. When new information is learned or understanding changes, repeat steps 2, 3, 4, and 5.
    • Often concept maps change structure at revisions because of clarity.
    • Concepts may be swapped out or added or deleted – keeping the guiding question in focus.

Says who?

Novak & Cañas (2006) say.

What tools can I use?

  • Post-its give a ton of mobility for preliminary concept mappers.
  • Whiteboard + Markers / Pen + Paper are always a possibility for low resource situations.
  • I really like using Mindomo and find it an easy to use tool. Free version gets you three unlimited space maps and allows you to concept map. Paid versions have a lot of interesting features (including adding videos).
  • Novak & Cañas and their team set up cMaptools which is basic and requires download.
  • I have not personally used Kidspiration but can see it as an option.
  • Microsoft Visio lets you create concept maps with ease.

Okay, what’s the catch?

You caught me. As wonderful as concept mapping is, it takes practice. The first few times may not feel natural nor like a revelation. It will most likely make you feel stressed and confused with your map looking like a mess. This is normal and evidence that you are pushing your brain to do something different and process information (Geeks call it cognitive conflict). Once you get the hang of it, its smooth and can provide clarity.


What Next?

I’d love to hear from you! Have you used concept maps? How was your experience? What questions do you have? What would you like to learn about concept maps? Was this post helpful?

Watch out for Concept Mapping: Applications and Benefits coming up soon!


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