Concept map

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A concept map is a kind of visualization and a kind of diagram, i.e. a graphical representation of some domain knowledge. More precisely, concept mapping is a technique to visualize relationships between different concepts. Concepts are drawn as nodes (e.g. boxes) and relations are drawn with so-called arcs, i.e. lines that are drawn between associated concepts. These arcs are usually labeled (named), i.e. express the kind of relationship, for instance, "results in". In addition arcs can be directional, i.e. one would use arrows instead of lines.

  • A concept map is a graphical representation of a person's (student's) knowledge of a domain. (Alpert & Grueneberg, 2001).
  • Concept maps are tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts or propositions, (indicated by a connecting line and linking word) between two concepts. Linking words on the line specify the relationship between the two concepts. (Concept Maps: What the heck is this?, retrieved 11:44, 9 August 2007 (MEST).)
  • The arrangement of major concepts from a text or lecture into a visual arrangement. Lines are drawn between associated concepts, and relationships between the connected concepts are named. These concept maps reveal the structural pattern in the material and provide the big picture. ( Diane Ehrlich retrieved 21:08, 3 July 2006 (MEST))
  • Concept mapping is a technique for visualizing the relationships between different concepts. A concept map is a diagram showing the relationships in between concepts. Concepts are connected with labelled arrows, in a downward-branching hierarchical structure. The relationship between concepts is articulated in linking phrases, e.g., "gives rise to", "results in", "is required by," or "contributes to". ( Wikipedia - Concept Map retrieved 21:08, 3 July 2006 (MEST) )

Typology of concept maps

Concept maps can be defined in a more narrow sense as by Novak & Cañas (2006) - see below - or more generally as a drawing that somehow connects concepts.

According to structural properties
  • Spider-like maps with labeled arcs (the typical concept map)
  • Hierarchical maps (like mind maps)
  • Various diagrams, e.g. flow charts
  • Formal maps like UML diagrams,
  • Formal semantic networks, Topic maps, etc. I.e. drawings are associated with a formal symbolic representation.
  • Other specialized contents like arguments, part-of maps, organigraphs (organization charts), etc.
According to purpose

(Jan Lanzing, retrieved 11:44, 9 August 2007 (MEST))

  • 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 define processes and flows
The typical concept map

The most typical concept is a map that contains

  • concepts,
  • directed and labeled arcs.
  • In addition, concepts are presented in hierarchical manner, the most general concepts on top.

I.e. Novak and Cañas (2006), two of leading concept map researchers define concept maps in their famous Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them paper defined concept maps like this: “Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts. We define concept as a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label. The label for most concepts is a word, although sometimes we use symbols such as + or %, and sometimes more than one word is used. Propositions are statements about some object or event in the universe, either naturally occurring or constructed. Propositions contain two or more concepts connected using linking words or phrases to form a meaningful statement. Sometimes these are called semantic units, or units of meaning.”

Here is Novak's and Cañas' concept map explaining concept maps (this image may be under copyright):

A concept map showing the key features of concept maps. Concept maps tend to be read progressing from the top downward. Source: Copyright: copied without permission

An other, simpler version of this map can be found in Wikipedia

Example concept map, created using IHMC CmapTools. Copyright: Wikipedia - GFDL
Integration of multimedia.

Tools like CMapTools can integrate multimedia resources. Alpert and Grueneberg argue as follows:

“Concept map tools should be able to represent multiple types or forms of knowledge, not merely text-based propositions. Specifically, incorporating multimedia in concept mapping software should (a) provide for greater cognitive fidelity in student-constructed concept maps, allowing students to more comprehensively represent their knowledge in ways similar to their own cognitive representations; (b) offer the illustrative advantages of dynamic visual imagery and audio to students learning new concepts and domains; (c) provide the capability of reifying concepts with concrete instances that can be seen and heard; (d) offer richer expressive power for concept map authors; (e) provide for a more engaging student experience; and (f) better capitalize on functionality available in modern personal computers.” (Alpert & Grueneberg, 2001)

Design guidelines according to Novak et al.
  • Concepts are either perceived regularities in events or objects, or sometimes records of events or objects
  • You should understand links as propositions. Using the linking words one should be able to phrase a meaningful statement. Propositions that are encoded in a map are semantic units or units of meaning.
  • Concepts should be represented in a hierarchical fashion with the most inclusive, most general concepts at the top of the map and the more specific, less general concepts arranged hierarchically below.
  • Concept maps should be built with a context in mind. E.g. one can construct concept maps with reference to a focus question (some particular question we seek to answer).
  • Concept maps should include cross-links, i.e. links between concepts in different segments or domains of the concept map. These represent/foster creative leaps on the part of the knowledge producer.
  • One should add specific examples of events or objects that help to clarify the meaning of a given concept. Normally these are not included in ovals or boxes, but added as special links, since they are specific events or objects and do not represent concepts.

There are two features of concept maps that are important in the facilitation of creative thinking: the hierarchical structure that is represented in a good map and the ability to search for and characterize new cross-links.

Concept mapping in education

Rationales for concept mapping in education are based on several connected ideas:

  1. General writing-to-learn arguments like writing favors making connections, or writing in a different genre favors meta-cognitive activities.
  2. Concept maps can prepare writing, assist in exploration and reading and be used as planning tools. More precisely: concept maps can be used as a creativity / brainstorming tool, as note taking tool, as planning tool for writing (in particular hypertexts) or project (e.g. conjecture map), as tool to express and communicate complex ideas.
  3. Concept maps could an assessment tool for the teacher and/or could be used as teaching materials.

Plotnick (1997) lists five purposes of concept mapping:

  • To generate ideas (brainstorming);
  • To design complex structures (long texts, hypermedia, large web sites);
  • To communicate complex ideas;
  • To aid learning by explicitly integrating new and old knowledge; and
  • To assess understanding or diagnose misunderstanding.

Some quotes

(to integrate in some re-writing) “[...] the primary rationale for concept mapping is that students must establish connections between bits of given information, again in a visible medium. Concept mapping can stimulate students to demonstrate relationships among facts and concepts, demonstrate relationships between lower-order and higher-order concepts, and demonstrate relationships between old and new information within the students' own cognitive structures. It is noteworthy that writing of any kind, not just journaling or concept mapping, makes many of the same demands and that the literature on cohesion in writing (Halliday & Hasan, 1976; Lovejoy & Lance, 1991) complements the literature on concept mapping. Concept maps, then, not only serve the same ends as writing (making connections) but also serve as a valuable means to writing (as a prewriting or planning tool) and as a valuable means for the teacher to assess learning-in-progress.” (Germann & Young-soo, 2001:321).

However, findings reported from these authors who studied whether electronic journaling plus electronic concept mapping lead to heigtheing reflection in science classes for future science teachers, are not overwhelming: “It was hoped that use of electronic journaling and concept mapping would promote sustained reflection (as demonstrated in the quality of revised concept maps and quality of revised drafts of the culminating paper). On the surface we were disappointed. [...] This lack of demonstrated changed in their concept maps leads us to believe that most students were doing all they could to absorb new ideas and begin to make sense of them. If, however, reflection stems from certain habits of questioning and from heightened skepticism and discrimination of sources of evidence, then most students displayed many behavioral change”. (Germann & Young-soo, 2001: 327).

Learning theoretical foundations

Novak and Cañas (2006) argue that “learning is mediated heavily by language, and takes place primarily by a reception learning process where new meanings are obtained by asking questions and getting clarification of relationships between old concepts and propositions and new concepts and propositions” and refer to Ausubel's assimilation theory:

“According to Ausubel, learning is based upon the kinds of superordinate, representational, and combinatorial processes that occur during the reception of information. A primary process in learning is subsumption in which new material is related to relevant ideas in the existing cognitive structure on a substantive, non-verbatim basis” Subsumption Theory (D. Ausubel), retrieved 14:03, 18 August 2007 (MEST). According to this theory, cognitive maps can make excellent advance Organizers.

Ausubel makes a clear distinction between simple rote learning and meaningful learning. We summarize Novak and Cañas (2006) interpretation of Ausubel's theory:

  1. Learning materials must be clear and presented with language and examples that related to learner's prior knowledge.
  2. The learner must possess relevant prior knowledge (this is related to condition 1)
  3. The learner must choose to learn meaningfully, i.e. attempt to incorporate new meanings into their prior knowledge, and as consequence, instructional strategies that emphasize relating new knowledge to prior knowledge foster meaningful learning.

Concept maps can help with 1 for the presentation of information and 3 for both presentation and learning activities where the leaner draws concepts maps. These learner made maps then also can be used as evaluation tools and help to organize remediation activities.

Novak and Cañas (2006) also make the point that cognitive maps can favor integration of concepts and reduce misconceptions and cognitive load. Most importantly they help structuring of information which is crucial for retrieval. “We believe one of the reasons concept mapping is so powerful for the facilitation of meaningful learning is that it serves as a kind of template or scaffold to help to organize knowledge and to structure it, even though the structure must be built up piece by piece with small units of interacting concept and propositional frameworks. Many learners and teachers are surprised to see how this simple tool facilitates meaningful learning and the creation of powerful knowledge frameworks that not only permit utilization of the knowledge in new contexts, but also the retention of the knowledge for long periods of time (Novak, 1990; Novak & Wandersee, 1991).”

Instructional designs with concept maps

Student construction of concept maps

According to Novak and Cañas (2006) concept maps can be used to support many kinds of learning activities, from reading expert maps, to various active learning like data collection, report preparation, oral presentation, group collaboration, and finally, evaluation.

The authors then outline a few recommendations for student activities.

  • A teacher may give focus questions. The phrasing of the question will lead to different outcomes. E.g. asking "what is educational technology" only may not lead to the same result as "why do we need educational technology".
  • Use of a "parking lot". “The staring point for the construction of the concept map can be a list of concepts that the teacher wants to make sure all students include in their map”
  • Expert skeleton maps “have been previously prepared by an expert in the topic, and permits both students and teachers to build their knowledge on a solid foundation. "Expert skeleton" concept maps serve as a guide or scaffold or aid to learning in a way analogous to the use of scaffolding in constructing or refurbishing a building.” Novak and Cañas (2006)

The free IHMC CmapTools support such activities. CmapTools provides a variety of features for a variety of the tasks that students perform (Cañas & Novak, 2005). For example

  • Support of collaboration (shared synchronous or asynchronous editing). In addition, "Discussion threads" and "Annotations" in the form of electronic "Post-It" notes can be used to make anecdotal comments on concept maps or during map construction.
  • Search for information based on a concept map leading to an improved map with linked resources.
  • Record the process of constructing a Cmap for later playback, providing support to the teacher to demonstrate the construction of a concept map.
  • Piece-wise display a concept map and associated resources in full-screen mode for oral presentations
  • Graphically compare two Cmaps, allowing the teacher to compare the student's map to his/hers for an initial evaluation.

The concept map can thus become an artifact around which the various activities of the learning process can be centered.

Concept maps as advance organizers

“Ausubel suggests that advance organizers might foster meaningful learning by prompting the student regarding pre-existing superordinate concepts that are already in the student's cognitive structure, and by otherwise providing a context of general concepts into which the student can incorporate progressively differentiated details. Ausubel claims that by presenting a global representation of the knowledge to be learned, advance organizers might foster "integrative reconciliation" of the subdomains of knowledge - the ability to understand interconnections among the basic concepts in the domain.” (Ausubel's Advance Organizers, retrieved 19:35, 2 October 2006 (MEST))

Cognitive maps as concept maps

Läge et al. (2008) suggest a strategy to support assimilative learning. Assimilative (as opposed to accomodation) is understood as integrating new information into existing knowledge or cognitive structures without restructuring the current schema. A stable and most notably a correct memory representation which "spans" the knowledge space is essential. Building elaborately a basic structure as well as the assimilative integration of new information can be eased with the aid of cognitive maps. The authors propose a “general model of a "cognitive map" which is based on geographical representations.In such a cognitive map, a distance measure between the concepts is used to represent the general similarity which an individual sees between each object of a knowledge field.” (Läge, 2008:30). Such maps can be generated with statistical techniques like multidimensional scaling from a matrix of paired similarity judgements for a set of objects.

These maps could be used in the following way. Students are given a map containing a number of concepts (e.g. 20) where the similarities (and therefore the distance) have been defined by experts. Learners then will have to state similarities between new concepts and existing ones. From this a learner's map will be generated. The learner's map then can be compared to the expert's map. “If the structure of a learner-map differs eminently from the expert-map, the person has to be instructed to re-learn the fundamental criteria of the knowledge field in a first step. As soon as the positions of the majority of objects correspond to those of the experts [...], the correctly placed objects can be used for an assimilative process for learning the incorrectly represented objects: Exercises are presented which specifically focus on a feature comparison by using one correctly placed (well known) object as an anchor for learning the features of the incorrectly represented object. Similarities and differences are specifically presented so that the person learns to better integrate the target object into the existing structure.” (Läge, 2008:32)

Other uses

Particular kinds of visual maps and languages exist for many purposes. E.g.

  • Flow charting (processes and activities)
  • Argumenting

Assessing students schemata about concept maps

Klein (1998:32) describes a schema questionnaire. It “was used to elicit information regarding students' existing schemata about concept mapping. The questionnaire included three questions to assess schemata directly (What is a concept map? How do you make a concept map? What can you use a concept map for?) and 18 questions that sought to get at the level of abstractness of studentsÕ schemata indirectly (9 ratings of the usefulness of concept mapping in various situations, and 9 ratings of the goodness of different concept maps).”

The same institution, the Center for the Study of Evaluation at UCLA, also published a feasibility of machine scoring of concept maps study [1]


See also other indexes, e.g.:

Stand-alone programs

Free standalone general purpose programs
  • IHMC CmapTools. Freeware, multi-platform. Joseph D. Novak, the inventor of concept maps is part of the team at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). DSchneider recommends this tool). There is extensive documentation done with CMAP itself.
  • FreeMind (Wikipedia entry) is a free mind mapping application written in Java. Various export formats. Integrates with some Wikis .
  • PIViT (Project investigation and Visualization tool) is a Project Support Environment initially designed for science teachers and its main feature is a concept mapping tool. (This project may be dead, but it is often referred to in the literature).
  • VUE from the Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) project at Tufts UIT Academic Technology. VUE provides a visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information. Using VUE's concept mapping interface, faculty and students design semantic networks of digital resources drawn from digital libraries, local and remote file systems and the Web. The resulting content maps can then be viewed and exchanged online.
  • XMind “XMind is an open source brainstorming and mind mapping software tool developed by XMind Ltd. It helps people to capture ideas, organize to various charts, and share them for collaboration. It supports mind maps, fishbone diagrams, tree diagrams, org-charts, logic charts, and spreadsheets. It is often used for knowledge management, meeting minutes, task management, and GTD. XMind is compatible with FreeMind. The latest version is XMind 3.” (Wikipedia, retrieved 19:37, 13 January 2010 (UTC)).
Free Mind mapping software

See also mind map

Maps by coding

Some folks prefer using code to generate maps. It can be faster if precise layout is not an issue. See for example:

Free standalone special purpose programs

Online software (web 2.0 services)

Somewhat free online mind mapping programs
  • MindMeister is an online mind-mapping service (free, at least beta version of Feb 2007)
  • on-line concept map tool (free, with some google ads). Features and easy to learn interface, zoom, printing, export as widget code, export as bitmap.
  • Webspiration Made by Inspiration (probably the best commercial standalone software, free for the moment - 1/2010).
Free online programs
  • Seeing Reason Tool Analyzing cause-and-effect relationships is important to understanding complex systems by Intel.
Online diagramming (flowchart) programs
Online programs to sort out


Commercial online programs


Indexes and bibliographies


Templates & Examples [1](Mind Map Templates & Examples) - Collection of ready to use mind map templates and example that's freely available to use.


  • WikiIT " here to provide you with a resource to help in taming the torrent of information that knowledge workers have to deal with daily". E.g. see:


(rather see bibliographies above ... )

  • Alpert, Sherman R. and Keith Grueneberg (2001), Multimedia in Concept Maps: A Design Rationale and Web-Based Application, Proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2001, HTML
  • Anderson, J. R., & Lebiere, C. (1998). The atomic components of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Anderson, J. R., Byrne, M. D., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y. (2004). An Integrated Theory of the Mind. Psychological Review, 111(4), 1036–1050.
  • Anderson-Inman, L.,& Zeitz, L. (1993, August/September). Computer-based concept-mapping: Active studying for active learners. "Computing Teacher," 21(1). 6-8, 10-11. (EJ 469 254).
  • Ausubel (2000). The Acquisition and Retention of Knowledge: A Cognitive View, Springer, SBN 978-0-7923-6505-1
  • Ausubel, D. (1968). "Educational psychology: A cognitive view." New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Burrows N L and S R Mooring, Mapping conceptual understanding, Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 2015, DOI: 10.1039/c4rp00180j (summary)
  • Cañas, A. J., Ford, K. M., Novak, J. D., Hayes, P., Reichherzer, T., & Suri, N. (2001). Online concept maps: Enhancing collaborative learning by using technology with concept maps. The Science Teacher, 68(4), 49-51.
  • Cañas, Alberto J. and Joseph D. Novak (2006). Re-Examining The Foundations For Effective Use Of Concept Maps, Concept Maps: Theory, Methodology, Technology, Proc. of the Second Int. Conference on Concept Mapping, Costa Rica 2006. PDF
  • Farrand, P.; Hussain, F.; Hennessy, E. (2002). "The efficacy of the mind map study technique". Medical Education 36 (5): 426–431. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2923.2002.01205.x. Abstract
  • Germann, P., & Young-soo, K. (2001). Heightening reflection through dialogue: A case for electronic journaling and electronic concept mapping in science classes. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, [Online serial], 1 (3) . Available: HTML/PDF
  • Halliday, M.A.K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English . London: Longman.
  • Lovejoy, K.B., & Lance, D.M. (1991). Information management and cohesion in the study of written discourse. Linguistics and Education, 3, 251-273.
  • Luckie Douglas, Concept Maps: What the heck is this? Excerpted, rearranged (and annotated) from an online manuscript by Joseph D. Novak, Cornell University (, webpage HTML, , retrieved 11:44, 9 August 2007 (MEST).
  • Buzan, T. (1995). The MindMap book. (2 ed.). London, UK: BBC Books.
  • Jonassen, D.H., Beissner, K., & Yacci, M.A. (1993). Structural knowledge: Techniques for conveying, assessing, and acquiring structural knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Läge, Damian; René Oberholzer; Samy Egli and Roland Streule (2008). Assimilative Learning with the Aid of Cognitive Maps, International Journal of emerging technologies in learning, 3 (2). Abstract/PDF
  • Lawson, M. J. (1994). Concept Mapping. In T. Hus"n & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of education (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1026-1031). Oxford: Elsevier Science.
  • Mintzberg, H. and L. Van der Heyden. 1999. Organigraphs: Drawing how companies really work. Harvard Business Review (September-October): 87-94. (A summary was made by Deborah Bichsel)
  • Novak, J. D. (1990). Concept maps and vee diagrams: Two metacognitive tools for science and mathematics education. Instructional Science, 19, 29-52.
  • Novak, J.D. (1991). Clarify with concept maps: A tool for students and teachers alike. The Science Teacher, 58(7), 45Novak, J. D., & Wandersee, J. (1991). Coeditors, special issue on concept mapping. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28(10).-49.
  • Novak, J. D. (1993). How do we learn our lesson? : Taking students through the process. The Science Teacher, 60(3), 50-55.
  • Novak, J.D. (2010). Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Mapas as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations (2nd Ed.) NY: Routledge. ISBN 0415991854
  • Novak, Joseph D. & Alberto J. Cañas (2006). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, HTML (PDFs also available). Recommended for introductory reading. (in case the URL changes see [2]
  • Novak, J. D., Gowin, D. B., and Johansen, G. T. (1983). The use of concept mapping and knowledge vee mapping with junior high school science students. "Science Education," 67, 625-645.
  • Novak, J.D., & Wandersee, J.H. (1990). Perspectives on concept mapping (special issue). Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 921-1079.
  • Novak, J. D., & Wandersee, J. (1991). Coeditors, special issue on concept mapping. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28(10).
  • Pressley, M., VanEtten, S., Yokoi, L., Freebern, G., & VanMeter, P. (1998). "The metacognition of college studentship: A grounded theory approach". In: D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in Theory and Practice (pp. 347-367). Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum ISBN 9780805824810
  • Ross, B., & Munby, H. (1991). Concept mapping and misconceptions: A study of high-school students' understanding of acids and bases. "International Journal of Science Education," 13(1), 11-24. (EJ 442 063)
  • Yensen, Jack, Strategies for Learning - from Concept Maps to Learning Objects and Books to Wooks, Webpage, [3], , retrieved 11:44, 9 August 2007 (MEST).

fr:carte conceptuelle

  1. Harold F. O'Neil & Davina C. D. Klein, Feasibility of Machine Scoring of Concept Maps, enter for the Study of Evaluation National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles



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