Using Concept Maps

Apr 12 2011

Student learning of new concepts requires connecting the new concept to old learning. Understanding grows as layers are added through connections to old ideas, and deepens as old ideas are rearranged through sudden insights.
This process can be made more explicit by using concept maps—a graphical representation, like an organizational chart, of a central idea.
To build a concept map for a particular topic, the creator identifies a central idea or focus question for the map. After recording as many ideas that fall within the focus question as possible, he or she then orders them approximately from the most inclusive to the most specific concept. Finally, he or she arranges these associated ideas in a meaningful way on his/her map to show relationship hierarchies, drawing in various types of links, such as solid lines for strongly connected ideas, dotted lines for weaker ideas, a line with a slash mark on it for opposites, etc. The system doesn’t matter so much as that it is individualized by the student to represent his or her construction of that concept. And it is a map “in progress”. Rather than being “finished” it evolves with the students’ understanding.
Concept maps are particularly powerful in illustrating a student’s understanding of relationship and interconnectedness. They can immediately reveal misperceptions.
Students may have difficulty at first creating something that requires so much active thought, but with practice and encouragement they can improve. They may have particular difficulty understanding or making explicit relationships between different concepts. They may feel everything is related to everything, but their task is to choose the most salient/important links.
Creating a concept map for a chapter is a great way to study once the process has been practiced and understood. Creating an accurate concept map does require some understanding of the material so you would probably use them in the middle to end of a topic, rather than at the beginning (unless you want to do a pre-post comparison).

  • Examples of concept maps are available at
  • More can be learned about educational applications of concept maps at
  • Software is available (links at the site above or try FreeMind (, a free software I have used.  Or you can create one using post it notes or a large blank piece of paper.
  • Also try Tufts University’s Visual Understanding Environment, Here’s the description from their web site: “The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University. The VUE project is focused on creating flexible tools for managing and integrating digital resources in support of teaching, learning and research. VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information.”
  • For in depth understanding, this paper is good: “Novak, J. D. & A. J. Cañas, The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2008, available at:

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Sally L. Kuhlenschmidt, Ph.D.
Director, Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching (FaCET)
Western Kentucky University

Author: francine_glazer