A review of meta-analytic research shows that concept mapping has a typical impact of d=0.66. This is a much larger impact than most other teaching strategies.
But what does it involve and how can you use it?
This guide answers these and many other questions you may have.
As this a complete guide, it is quite long. If you want to go straight to a particular section, click on it in the following list of contents.
- What is Concept Mapping?
- Concept Mapping Is Useful in Many Year Levels & in Many Subjects
- Two Ways to Make a Concept Map
- How to Start by Concept Mapping Yourself
- Complex Concept Mapping in 6 Easy Steps
- A Step by Step Example of the 6 Above Steps
- Concept Mapping Works Best in These 3 Situations
What Is Concept Mapping?
Concept mapping involves representing and organising interrelated knowledge visually and hierarchically. They are a specific type of graphic organiser.
Concept maps have 3 key parts. The first two parts are the:
- Concepts – usually written within rectangles or ovals
- Relationships between them – often represented by labelled arrows
Together, the concept-relationship-concept structure makes propositions. Propositions form the third key part of concept maps and they reflect the key understandings of the material.
Note: Propositions don’t have to be grammatically correct. For example, solid → type of → state translates into solids are a type of state.
Here is a more developed map of the concepts related to the states of matter.
The next two diagrams are not concept maps. They do not explicitly show the relationships between concepts. Nor do they show a real hierarchy, as:
should not be placed on the same hierarchical level.
Concept Mapping is Useful in Many Year Levels & in Many Subjects
One recent meta-analysis of research has shown that concept mapping has a positive impact on all levels of schooling. However, most studies focused on students in:
The same research found that concept mapping is useful in both STEM and non-STEM subjects, as well as:
However, there was a different review of research, finding that concept mapping wasn’t helpful in Mathematics. The study showing support for STEM subjects didn’t drill down further than classifying subjects as STEM vs non-STEM. And, as a different study found that using concept maps in Mathematics is not a good idea, I would proceed with caution in that area.
Two Ways to Make a Concept Map
There are two ways to make concept maps:
- By hand
- Using a computer (or iPad or similar)
You can create concept maps by hand. However, the process often involves moving concepts around, which can then require a lot of rubbing out. You’ll appreciate this more after you complete your first concept map. If you want your students to make a complex concept map by hand, then I suggest a bit of creative thinking. For example, you could use small Post-it® notes on a blank piece of A3 paper. You can use different coloured notes to help identify each hierarchical level. You connect the separate post-it notes with hand-drawn arrows and relationships. It may still involve some rubbing out, but not as much. Once you are happy with your map, you can copy it into a notebook.
You can also use software (or apps) to create concept maps. You can do this manually, using a generic graphics program such as Adobe Illustrator. However, it is easier to use a program specifically designed for concept mapping. Many schools already have a program called Inspiration. However, you can also download a free program called CMap from the Florida Institute for Machine & Human Cognition. It is the one I use. It comes in Computer, Server, iPad and Cloud versions.
How to Start by Making Some Concept Maps Yourself
Before you start asking your students to make concept maps, it is a good idea to start making some concept maps yourself. It will help you:
Download & Install CMap Tools
Concept mapping can get a bit complex. So, I recommend using CMap Tools. It’s free! But you can donate at any time. Once you are familiar with the software, consider doing this.
- Click the above link
- Scroll to the bottom and click on the download button
It will open a new page
- Scroll down until you see a form, enter your details in that form, and click submit
- Click on the download button for your operating system (e.g. mine was Windows 64-bit)
The file will download to your computer
- Open or run the file. It’s an install file, not the program itself
The installation program has several steps. Most of them are self-explanatory
In step 3, choose Typical Installation
In step 4, choose your usual program file location. For Windows, this is simply C:\Program Files and the folder \IMHC CMap Tools
In step 5, choose some shortcut locations, such as Desktop & Start Bar
- Review and confirm your options, and then you are all done
Making Concepts & Linking Relationships
In this section, you will learn how to create concepts and the linking relationships between them. This is the essence of concept mapping. You will also learn the necessary formatting skills you need to make more complex maps.
Start by opening CMap. Then click File and New. Maximise your CMap, so it fits a full screen.
Double click anywhere on the page and a blank concept rectangle appears with ???? acting as a placeholder for your concept.
When the concept is selected, it has a blue rectangle around it and 2 arrows at the top. While your blank concept rectangle is selected, type the word dogs. You have made your first concept.
Now create a new concept for Labrador beside dogs.
It’s time to link these two concepts. When linking concepts, directions are important. In this case, I want to show that Labradors are a breed of dog. So I start from Labrador and draw a line to dogs.
- Select Labrador so that it has a blue line around it and two arrows at the top.
- Click on the two arrows, hold the mouse button down and drag across towards dogs
- When you get close to dogs, you will see a blue border around it and several anchor points
- Then, simply let go when you are over an anchor point
Once you let go, you will see ???? acting as a placeholder for your link label. Select ???? and then simply type your label, breed of.
You have now used the concept-link-concept format to create a proposition. If you have not left enough room between concepts to fit the words, breed of, select and drag one of the concepts, so they are further apart. You can also select and drag the words breed of to centre them again.
Propositions, concepts and the relationships (labelled arrows) between them are the basis of concept mapping.
Making a Basic Concept Map
There are steps you should consider when making a complete concept map. I expand on these concept mapping steps later in this guide, but they include:
In this example of a basic map, I have chosen to focus on breeds of dogs that I have owned. Why? Partly because I love dogs, but mainly because it keeps the concept map nice and simple.
After deciding upon my focus, I simply list the relevant concepts.
Next, you need to arrange your concepts into a basic hierarchy. Using the above concepts, Dogs would be at the top of the hierarchy, and the 3 breeds of dogs would be underneath. To move a concept, you simply click on it, hold the mouse button down and move your mouse.
I suggest that you also format each level of your hierarchy differently. To format an object, simply select it, then select the Format at the top of the screen. And, from the drop menu items, select Styles.
A small screen, such as the one below, will appear on your screen. Don’t worry if it looks different to mine. I will explain it.
About ¾ of the way down the style screen, you will see 4 tabs – font, object, line and CMap. On mine, Object is selected. This allows me to format things such as shape (rectangle, rounded rectangle, circle), and the background colour. On yours, a different tab may be selected. Under the font tab, I can choose the font style, size and colour. Under the line tab, I can play around with arrows and line types.
With the style screen still open, select Dogs. It is the top concept in this map, so we want to make it stand out. I gave it a:
The concepts, Labrador, Maltese Terriers and Border Collies, are all on the same level of our hierarchy, so we want them to look the same. While they already do, I want to show you how to style multiple concepts at once.
You simply click and drag around the objects you want to include. In this example:
You can now go back to your Style screen (Format then Style), and style these 3 concepts all at once. I gave them a light orange background, and a black, size 16 font.
It is now time to create some linking relationships. Think about the direction of your relationship before making it. For example, I want to show that Labradors are a breed of dog. This relationship goes from Labradors to dogs, so I draw it that way. I repeated this process for Maltese Terriers and Border Collies.
You now have a completed, albeit basic concept map. Next, we look in more detail at the steps involved in concept mapping.
Concept Mapping in 6 Easy Steps
There is no single set of steps to follow to make a concept map. However, the following steps give you a good starting point. You can go back and forth between the steps as needed.
A Step by Step Example of the 6 Concept Mapping Steps: A Unit on The Solar System
Year 5 students learn about our solar system as part of their science curriculum. Involving them in concept mapping can enhance their learning. However, before I ask students to make concept maps, I make one myself. I normally do this as part of my unit planning process as it helps clarify the things students must understand. These steps describe the steps I took to create a concept map on the solar system.
Concept Mapping Step 1: The Focus Question
The topic of the concept map is the solar system. Yet, phrasing the topic as a question helps to focus the concept map, by avoiding unnecessary details. What should my focus question be?
To help answer that I had a look at the Australian Curriculum for Year 5 Science. I like to start at the end, that is what must the students be able to do. The achievement standard states that students should be able to describe the key features of the solar system.
So, I made my focus question:
What are the key features of the solar system?
Concept Mapping Step 2: Identify & List Key Concepts
With the focus question in mind, I brainstormed some key concepts that I believed would help answer my focus question. These included:
- Solar System
Then I looked up Solar System on NASA’s website. In a nutshell, it described our solar system as the Sun and the things that go around it. Things I had missed, included:
- Dwarf Planets
I also needed better words than things and go around. So I changed them:
- Things became objects – I could have used celestial bodies, but thought it unnecessarily hard for Year 5
- Go around became orbit
Next, I went to a more in-depth overview of our solar system on NASA’s website. In addition to the above, they mentioned:
- Stars – specifically that our Sun is one of many stars
- Kuiper Belt
- Oort cloud
I then looked up NASA’s webpage on planets and found 3 types of planets, within 2 categories. The 2 categories were:
The 3 types of planets were:
- Gas Giants
- Ice Giants
I then had a quick look at the relevant learning descriptor in the Australian Curriculum. It stated that the Earth is part of a system of planets orbiting around a star (the sun). Nothing to add from that.
Then I had a look at the elaborations and added the following concepts:
- Time (different planets take different amounts of time to orbit the Sun)
- Size (of the Sun and objects orbiting it)
- Distance (of planets from the Sun)
- Energy (the Sun gives off energy)
I wasn’t sure about energy in the F-10 Science Curriculum so I searched for the term. I found it wasn’t mentioned until Year 6. The related concepts of heat and light had been covered before Year 5. I toyed with including them, but I was starting to wonder about my concept map becoming too complicated, and I wasn’t sure if heat and light reflected my focus question. So, I decided to leave them out. I would still talk about them when discussing the Sun, and the types of planets, but I have not included them in my concept map.
That left me with 21 concepts. To finish this step, I listed them at the top of my concept map page.
Step 3: Grouping Concepts into a Basic Hierarchy
Next, I took the listed concepts and grouped them into a basic hierarchy. My hierarchy goes from left to right.
Essentially, I used colour and fonts size, as well as the physical location to show this hierarchy. Some concepts have different shades of the same colour, to show that while they technically at the same hierarchical level, some are more ‘key’ than others.
I also wanted the concept star to be close to the concept Sun. But as other stars are not part of our solar system, I left star as a plain white box with a small font size.
I still had not decided where to place the concepts, size, time and distance, so I left them unformatted at the top of the page to deal with later.
Concept Mapping Step 4: Linking Concepts
Step 4, when concept mapping, involves showing the key relationships between concepts in the above hierarchy. The shape of the map remains fairly like that shown in Step 3. However, as I had to add labelled arrowed lines, I moved some for aesthetic reasons.
I also decided to remove the concepts of size, distance and time. Instead, I referred to them in the labels of some of the arrowed lines. Here is what it looks like.
Step 5: Looking for Ways to Enhance Your Map
Next, I added in examples of some of the key concepts. These examples included all 8 planets, plus representative examples of some other concepts. I made my examples all look the same, black text in a white dotted rectangle.
I also added some additional concepts, such as natural satellites, clear orbit, spherical shape, belt and thick shell.
Concept Mapping Step 6: Reviewing Your Concept Map
Overall, I was quite happy with my concept map. But I now needed to review it, proofread it and improve it.
Reviewing a complex map involves asking yourself questions, such as:
After reflecting on these questions, and doing some further reading, I found 5 ways I could improve my map:
What Could You Get Out of this Form of Concept Mapping?
In addition to clarifying in my own mind what I was about to teach. This process allows me to generate propositions that I can use as part of my unit objectives.
See this example.
Concept Mapping Has More Impact on Student Learning in These 3 Situations
You can use concept mapping yourself to help you do things like getting your own head around a unit topic. This is what I did with the above concept map on the Key Features of Our Solar System. Research shows that such clarity has its own benefits, but concept mapping is only one way to achieve it. Furthermore, there is no research showing that using concept mapping in this way is any more effective than other ways of clarifying the focus and scope of intended learning. No research shows that concept mapping isn’t better either – there is just no research on the topic.
But research has shown that concept mapping has a more substantial impact on student learning when:
- Used to help students learn central ideas, rather than details
- Used within and beyond your classroom
- Your students actively engage with the map
Working with Central Ideas
The concept map I made about our solar system was quite complex and detailed. Yet, research shows that concept mapping with school students works best when it focuses on central ideas rather than details.
If I was teaching this unit, I would not use the whole map with my students.
I would start with the first 4 hierarchical levels.
I would then ask students to use their prior knowledge to come up with a list of what those objects include. Next, I would clarify and correct their ideas by including the fifth level of the hierarchy. When doing so, I would only show the key relationships between them.
When expanding on other concepts, such as planets or asteroids, I would make separate concept maps. I would do the same thing for additional concepts, such as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. For example:
I would only show them in the overarching map, to explain key relationships – and then, only the relevant parts.
When Done Within & Beyond Your Classroom
Essentially, this means that concept mapping has more impact on student results when students use it in class, and for:
As with all homework and assignment work, you shouldn’t ask students to do something you haven’t shown them how to do in class.
Concept Mapping at its Best Works When Students Actively Engage with It
Research shows that student results improve when students study teacher-made concept maps. But there is a larger impact on their results when they engage with the maps.
Such engagement can take the form of:
For example, in my first lesson on our solar system, after showing them the first 5 hierarchical levels of my own map, I may ask them to complete the following by themselves.
I would then ask them to do it for homework. I would repeat this task over time, each time asking them to do more of it themselves. Eventually, I would ask them to make the map from scratch.
It Doesn’t Matter …
The research shows that it doesn’t seem to matter:
I trust found this guide on concept mapping in the classroom helpful.
Please feel welcome to link to it from your website.
Shaun Killian is an experienced teacher and principal with a passion for helping students to excel. He believes that assisting teachers to adopt evidence-based education is the best way to make this happen. Shaun is committed to bringing you practical advice based on solid research.