Concept maps in teaching and learning

By Kalliopi Benetos, PhD, TECFA, Faculty of psychology and educational sciences

Concept maps are tools for visually organizing and representing conceptual knowledge (Novak, 2010). They are graphic representations made of a collection of concepts (nodes) semantically linked together. They allow for the organization and association of ideas without the constraint of linearization inherent in written or oral expression. For example, this concept map example explains concept maps. The quick and immediate generation and association of ideas without structural or organizational constraints that concept maps permit is thought to favour creativity.

The structure, depth and complexity of concept maps can vary. Chains imply a surface knowledge or rote learning (Figure 1). Concepts organized radially in spokes show a knowledge multiple but unrelated concepts. Concepts organized in networks with multiple links between nodes are thought to be indicative of a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness of concepts. A concept map’s richness, characterized by the number of concepts (nodes) and links between them (crosslinks) is thus considered to represent the richness of the individual’s cognitive structures and conceptual understanding (Hay & Kinchin, 2008).

Figure 1 : Concept map structure types according to Hay & Kinchin (2006)

The use of concept maps in learning and instruction

Students can use concept maps to take notes, associate new concepts to existing ones or to structure their ideas and knowledge of a particular domain. For teachers, concept maps can offer a view of students’ learning process and understanding. These snapshots of an individual’s understanding on a particular subject can be used to evaluate states and assess changes in learning.

Digital tools for concept mapping

Concept maps can be readily drawn using pencil and paper or constructed with cards or post-its. There are, however, many free online or downloadable open source applications available, that can be used to create concepts maps, with many being expressly designed for this purpose.

There are two main categories of digital concept mapping tools that can be identified by the structure of the maps they allow users to create. Those generally classified as mind mapping tools allow users to generate hierarchical tree-like structures (Freemind, XMind) (Figure 2). The offer the advantage of being able to more readily organize ideas into a linear structure, but do not allow for network structures to emerge.

Figure 2: Mind map with a spoke tree-like structure

Concept mapping tools allow users to freely introduce and arrange concepts in chains, spokes or networks (VUE, Cmap) and incite the insertion of labels within links to describe the relations between concepts (Figure 3). Word processing software (MSWord, OpenOffice) and presentation software (PowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress) also offer simple drawing tools (shapes and arrows) that can be used to create concept maps. Certain online tools (Cacoo, Gliphy, Google Docs) extend possibilities further by offering the option to create concept maps collaboratively.

Figure 3: Concept map with network structure

Additional resources :

Edutechwiki – Concept maps


Hay, D. B., & Kinchin, I. M. (2006). Using concept maps to reveal conceptual typologies. Education + Training, 48(2/3), 127–142.
Hay, D. B., & Kinchin, I. M. (2008). Using concept mapping to measure learning quality. Education + Training, 50(2), 167–182.
Novak, J. D. (2010). Learning, creating, and using knowledge: concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.