Concept Mapping

A concept map is a graphical representation of concepts and their interrelationships. Concept mapping is a technique that allows you to understand the relationships between ideas by creating a visual map of the connections. The concept mapping technique was developed by Prof. Joseph D. Novak at Cornell University in the 1960s. This work was based on the theories of David Ausubel, who stressed the importance of prior knowledge in being able to learn about new concepts. Novak concluded that "Meaningful learning involves the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing cognitive structures". In the words of Novak and Gowin (1984), a concept map is a "schematic device for representing a set of concept meanings embedded in a framework of propositions."

Concept maps are comprised of nodes (concepts) and links (lines), arranged hierarchically or in some other order to reflect the information domain being represented. Nodes represent concepts and links represent the relations between concepts. Links can be non-, uni- or bi-directional. Concepts and links may be categorized, they can be simply associative, specified or divided in categories such as causal or temporal relations.

A concept map can be an effective tool for organizing new information and integrating it with existing knowledge. The act of constructing concept maps helps learners to recognize new relationships among concepts and refine their understanding of existing relationships (Anderson-Inman & Zeitz, 1993). Because concept maps are externalized representations of the learner's knowledge they can also be effective tools for revealing misconceptions.

Concept maps allow you:

  • to see the connections between ideas you already have (which can be helpful in studying for a test);
  • to connect new ideas to knowledge that you already have (which can help you organize ideas as you find them in researching a paper; and
  • to organize ideas in a logical but not rigid structure that allows future information or viewpoints to be included (which can help you decide how you want to organize a paper).

Concept mapping looks like clustering (a type of freewriting that is almost completely unstructured and that works by free association), but it goes one step further by revealing a clear relationship between the ideas that you're writing about. While concept mapping is more structured than prewriting, it is less structured and more flexible than formal outlining (which puts ideas in a sequence and organizes them by hierarchy or levels of importance), and so it allows you to see more complex relationships between ideas than just sequence and hierarchy.

Concept mapping can be done for for several purposes:

  • to generate ideas (brain storming, etc.);
  • to design a complex structure (long texts, hypermedia, large web sites, etc.);
  • to communicate complex ideas;
  • to aid learning by explicitly integrating new and old knowledge;
  • to assess understanding or diagnose misunderstanding.

To create a concept map, you should first read widely on your subject until you can list key concepts or ideas and several examples. A concept is an abstract idea that is not limited to just one place or time. An example is one instance of a concept. For example, "subliminal advertising" is a concept and "Seagram's advertisement in Newsweek" is an example of the concept. The following steps allow you to build a concept map; remember that you can create many different maps from the same list, depending on how you interpret the relationships between ideas.

The process of building a concept map is comprised of four major activities:

  • identifying the main topic or key concept of the map by enclosing it in a graphic element (called a node);
  • entering subordinate concepts in similar nodes that radiate from the key concept;
  • identifying the relationship between each subordinate concept and the key concept by creating and labeling a link (line) between the two; and
  • repeating this process as information is added to the map and more conceptual relationships between and among concepts are portrayed.

Relationships included on a concept map are usually of two kinds: propositions (or sentence-like statements about the relationship of one concept to another) and examples (a specific type of relationship in which one of the linked concepts is an example of the other). Because learning is often best achieved when details are organized under broader, more general categories, concept maps are usually hierarchical in form, with the most general concept (the main topic or key concept) at the top or in the middle. The steps involved in making a concept map are outlined below:

  1. Transfer the concepts and examples to small pieces of paper or post-it notes (you may want to use different colors for concepts and examples) or simply make a list of the concepts and examples to be mapped. . Concepts are signified by a noun or short phrase equivalent to a noun.
  2. Choose the most general, or the main, idea. Write it down on a large sheet of paper or poster board and draw a circle or box or cloud (etc.) around it.
  3. Arrange the pieces of paper of other concepts on the large sheet of paper or poster board around the central idea, with the broadest or most abstract ideas closest to the central idea and the most specific ideas far from the central idea. Furthermore, the closer concepts are to the central idea, the more directly they are related to the main idea. If two or more concepts bear the same relationship to the main idea, they should be placed at the same level. Do not include the examples yet.
  4. Keep related concepts together. At this point, you may wish to add concepts that help explain, connect, or expand the ideas that you have.
  5. Draw lines from upper concepts to lower concepts that they're related to; do the same for any related concepts that are on the same level. You may decide to rearrange the pieces of paper or concepts during this stage.
  6. This is the most important and most difficult step: on the connecting lines, write words or short phrases that explain the relationship of the concepts. For example, you could connect the concept "extracurricular activities" to the concept "resume" with the phrase "should not be included on" (in other words, a resume should not contain a list of extracurricular activities. You may continue to rearrange the pieces of paper to make the relationships easier to visualize.
  7. Put the examples under the concepts they belong with, and connect the concept to the example with a phrase like "for example". Copy the results of the above steps onto a single sheet of paper. Instead of post-it notes, draw circles, boxes, etc. around the concepts. Drawing circles, boxes and etc. around examples is optional. Consistency in the style of shapes drawn is critical.

Here are some other examples of concept maps (of varying quality):

Here is a list of software that could be used to draw concept maps. Some of them of limited trial offers that would allow you to use the program for free. You are not expected to use software to complete your assignment and this is not an endorsement for any of these software packages.

Inspiration Software
Decision Explorer
iMindMap Desktop Software