ABC: Applications & Benefits of Concept Mapping

Now that you know how to concept map, here is a list of ways and reasons to concept map:

Syllabus Planning:

Concept map may be an efficient way to build the syllabus for a course  because the process of concept mapping will isolate the points that set the foundation for course knowledge from the details of each unit. More importantly, a completed concept map would allow the instructor and students to see the big picture of what is being covered in the course AND how they are inter-related. This may also help instructors identify and lend schedule flexibility by attending to students’ interests in a connected concept rather than a rigid linear structure.

Lesson Planning: 

Often planning lessons and executing it in class is a challenge for most teachers, especially new teachers. Concept maps can help you work your way through the question: “What do I want my students to ABSOLUTELY know?” In other words, the process of concept mapping can help you isolate the most important ideas (the central concepts) from the breadth of concepts and skills students can learn. This is important when it comes to (i) time allocation, (ii) assessment objectives, and (iii) meeting standards.

Summarize and Revise: 

An appropriately constructed concept map (with linking words) serves as a snapshot summary  sheet for learners to review and revise. This is particularly helpful when the learner creates their own concept map rather than one is given to them to study (though that may be useful to a lesser extent too).

Team System Think:

Collaborative concept maps encourage students to bring a piece to the table and work to see how each piece contributes to the whole. This takes the popular ‘group think’ brainstorming sessions to the next level by prioritizing, fine-tuning, and interlinking ideas. Imagine the possibilities of a guiding question that is targeting a macro-system.

Practice Example: What factors shape the passing of an animal rights legislation? Such a guiding question evokes big concepts including and not restricted to animal welfare, politics, economics, veterinary practices, social aspects, cultural considerations, species of animal etc. As you may imagine, each of these big (central) concepts have multiple sub-components, some of which may overlap and in some cases contradict. This kind of question might be more manageable by using a Jigsaw method i.e. allow one student to concept map one big concept each with the team coming together to hash out the macro-system level concept map. By engaging in such an activity, students likely refine their thinking about (i) the factors that shape animal rights legislation, (ii) the common elements across factors, (iii) the contradictory  elements, (iv) the complementary elements, and potentially (v)  the role of each element in contributing to the passing of the legislation.

Assessment: Concept maps may be wonderful tools for assessment over time and content. Watch the video below to learn how:


Nesbit, J. C., & Adesope, O. O. (2006). Learning with concept and knowledge maps: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 76, 413-448

Adesope, O. O., & Nesbit, J. C. (2009). A systematic review of research on collaborative learning with concept maps. Handbook of research on collaborative learning using concept mapping, 238-251.

Haugwitz, M., Nesbit, J. C., & Sandmann, A. (2010). Cognitive ability and the instructional efficacy of collaborative concept mapping. Learning and individual differences, 20, 536-543.


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!