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Concept mapping: Home

Guide to building and using concept maps.

Introduction to concept mapping

What is concept mapping?

Concept mapping is a technique for articulating, organizing, and communicating knowledge.

There are a lot of different techniques out there - the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods is a great place to explore - so, what makes concept mapping unique?

It is a lot like brainstorming and mind mapping, since it helps to get information out of our heads and challenges us to articulate the essential concepts or ideas. However, unlike brainstorming and mind mapping, concept mapping asks us to define how these essential components relate to each other. It results in maps that are structured and complex, but also more informative.

Concept mapping has a strong theoretical background. Joseph Novak and his research team at Cornell developed the tool in the 1970s (The Origin and Development of Concept Maps). Their work focused on human learning and knowledge creation, with the idea that the single most important factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. When you create a concept map, you demonstrate your understanding of an area. As you build on what you already know, your map grows and you can visualize the learning process.

Concept map structure

Maps consist of concepts, that describe events or objects, and their relationships.

Concept maps are hierarchical: Concepts are mapped hierarchically, from general to specific, or in a logical order. 

Concepts are connected: All concepts are linked together with words or phrases that define the relationships. Concepts and linking words form propositions, or statements, so that maps can be read at any point. 

Proposition examples: 

  • hazards include rocks
  • hazards include winds

The concepts in the above examples are: 'hazards', 'rocks', 'winds'. The linking word in both cases is 'include'.

Simple map:

Example map

What makes a good concept map?

There are different things to look for in a concept map, including the number and quality of concepts, connections, levels, and cross links (links between different areas of a map). Maps may be referred to as isolated, departmental, or integrated (Hung & Lin, 2015):

  • Isolated: Several concepts are linked to a main concept but with little depth, or branching.
  • Departmental: Maps appear to be made of separate departments or areas that do not connect to each other (no cross links).
  • Integrated: Maps have a well developed hierarchy, and the different departments are linked to each other with cross links.

Concept mapping applications

Concept maps in the classroom

Concept mapping is used to promote meaningful learning, enable feedback and assessment, and provide students with additional reference materials (Daley & Torre, 2010):

  • Promote meaningful learning
    • Expert maps can be pre-constructed or created with classroom feedback.
    • Student maps can be individual or group activities.
      • Example of an individual activity from McGill Library: Concept mapping is used to help graduate students articulate their research projects and determine their information needs in MyResearch (handout: Concept mapping with CmapTools; Student map)
      • Example map from Berglund of a group activity (2015). Groups of 5-7 students were given 70 concepts to map collaboratively. 
  • Enable feedback and assessment
  • Additional reference materials
    • Concept mapping is a reflective activity that can be used for self-evaluation.
    • Maps can be used in the field and as study aids.
    • Maps can serve as communication tools.

Other applications 

Concept maps were designed to demonstrate learning, but today they are used for a wide variety of applications, such as:

  • Course and curriculum design (alignment of content with learning outcomes)
  • Capturing expert knowledge
  • Communicating information
  • Generating ideas
  • Project planning

Learn more about concept mapping

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April Colosimo
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Berglund A. What's in a Word? Concept mapping: A graphical tool to reinforce learning of epidemiological concepts. (2015). Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69: 1232-1236. doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205068

Bilton N., Rae J., Logan P., & Maynard G. (2017). Concept mapping in health sciences education: Conceptualizing and testing a novel technique for the assessment of learning in anatomy. MedEdPublish, 6(3): 17. doi:10.15694/mep.2017.000131

Colosimo, A. L., & Fitzgibbons, M. (2012). Teaching, designing, and organizing: Concept mapping for librarians. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 7(1). doi:10.21083/partnership.v7i1.1800

Daley, B. J. & Torre, D. M. (2010), Concept maps in medical education: an analytical literature review. Medical Education, 44: 440–448. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2010.03628.x

Morfidi, E., Mikropoulos, A. & Rogdaki, A. (2017). Using concept mapping to improve poor readers’ understanding of expository text. Education and Information Technologies. doi:10.1007/s10639-017-9600-7

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 2008-01

Novak, J. D., & Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.36 @McGillLib

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