Concept Mapping: Connect Knowledge with Ideas

Written by Jori Marshall
November 9, 2019 • 2 minute read

Maps are essential tools for guidance and understanding. When you lose your way in a city, you use a map. When you arrive to a new place and want to understand how to get around, you use a map.

How often do you evaluate student learning outside of direct assessments, such as exams? 

Direct assessments are necessary, yet how valuable are they in you gaining an in-depth awareness of where your students are “going” and if they are “lost”. In lecture-based courses, it is easy for a student to show you what they comprehend on written tests and exams by simply repeating what they have memorized with little critical thinking skills involved. 

You may have heard of a learning method called Concept Mapping. Concept Mapping (CM) is a tool used to help learners visually organize and make connections between the material they seek to learn by utilizing graphic diagrams. Concept maps encourages students to pinpoint primary concepts in a text or class material and determine how these concepts are connected to one another and helps to identify existing understandings and develop new ones. 

Research conducted by Laurie Campbell of University of Central Florida on incorporating concept mapping in secondary education demonstrated that CM is a useful strategy in documenting interpretations of knowledge.

Benefits of using Concept Mapping in your classroom:

  • Arranging and framing information in the context of your student’s understanding; making this assessment technique learner-focused.
  • Allowing students to organize their knowledge of a given subject or topic.
  • Allowing students to see links between ideas they didn’t see before.
  • Helping you introduce and/or explain complex ideas and guide students in developing deeper understandings. 
  • Aiding you in understanding your student’s cognitive processes and in planning future lessons upon reviewing your student’s CM. 
  • Serving as an active and engaging assessment tool regardless of the type of map used. 
  • Helping students in communicating understanding to not only you but to their classmates.
  • Guiding your students in modifying their understanding to be more clear and comprehensive. 
  • Aiding in knowledge transfer. 

With these benefits on CM, you can help foster not only skills listed above, such as critical thinking and knowledge transfer, but you can also encourage creativity. 

Concept mapping could take some getting used to, but once familiar with this strategy it should be as straightforward as writing your name. CM requires a considerable amount of time in planning and administering but can be beneficial once composed and carried out. 

Steps to creating an efficient concept map:

  1. Create a “focus question” that will be answered as a result of your students completing the CM. This question can be created by you and/or your students.
  2. Individually or collaboratively develop a list of related concepts, terms or phrases (up to 8 or 10) to your focus question. 
  3. Provide your students with a concept map template (either on paper or digitally) or facilitate your students through creating their own. 
  4. Have students begin their maps with a  main topic or focus question, major points, and then supporting details.
  5. Allow students to review their maps and search for connections using symbols (such as arrows) and colors to depict relationships between ideas. 
  6. Make sure students include details regarding their ideas and connections in their maps. E.g. diagrams and definitions. 

Once students have created their concept maps, have them analyze their maps for connections, accuracy, and details. Students can talk amongst each other regarding their maps and make comparisons. 

Below is an image of a concept map that depicts the main features of concept maps.

A concept map showing the key features of concept maps

A concept map showing the key features of concept maps (Novak and Cañas, 2006)

Concept maps can be used pre and post-assessment and there are various formats you can use to create CM's in your classroom; including fill in the blank or learner created CM’s. Students also have the ability to edit or adjust existing maps after a lesson/unit is taught.

Recommendations in the use of concept maps:

  1. Concept mapping should be utilized in the context of assessments that are not focused on memorization and recall but meaningful learning. 
  2. Concept mapping should be a tool that is used to direct your student’s search for information, not its ending. 
  3. Communicate clear and concise learning objectives for the use of concept mapping to your students.
  4. Combine your use of concept mapping with other assessment strategies, such as dialogue and feedback. 

    Are you or someone you know finding success with Concept Mapping in your classrooms? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Email to share your story.

    Whether you don’t know where to start or have a particular educational technology in mind, we are here to help! To learn how to apply educational technologies to your course, request an Instructional Design consultation.

    Contact Instructional Technology & Training to schedule a training session and access self-guided training materials on educational technologies supported at the University of San Francisco.



    • Concept Mapping: An “Instagram” of Students’ Thinking (Campbell, 2016, Social Studies)
    • Concept Mapping as a Learning Tool in Higher Education: A Critical Analysis of Recent Reviews (kinchin, 2014, Journal of Continuing Higher Education)
    • Concept Mapping for Critical Thinking: Efficacy, Timing, & Type (Harris & Zha, 2017, Education)
    • How Concept-mapping Perception Navigates Student Knowledge Transfer Performance (Tseng et al., 2012, Journal of Educational Technology & Society)
    • Learning With Retrieval-Based Concept Mapping (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014, Journal of Educational Psychology)
    • Successive Concept Mapping: Assessing Understanding in College Science Classes (Quinn, Mintzes, & Laws, 2003-2004, Journal of College Science Teaching)