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Teaching Tips

Concept Mapping

Concept mapping is a great way to build upon previous knowledge by connecting new information back to it. This post explores the uses of concept mapping and provides tools for creating concept maps on the computer.

If a person knew how to make a lemon meringue pie, it would be easy for him to learn how to make a Baked Alaska. Because of the previous experience making the meringue for the pie, it would be easy to understand how to make a Baked Alaska even though you had never made it before. So it goes with academic learning.

When new knowledge is integrated with and connected to existing knowledge, that new knowledge is easier to understand and to remember. A professor’s job is to build scaffolding from existing knowledge on which to hang incoming new knowledge. Using a concept map is one way to build that scaffolding.

A concept map is a visual organization and representation of knowledge. It shows concepts and ideas and the relationships among them. You create a concept map by writing key words (sometimes enclosed in shapes such as circles, boxes, triangles, etc.) and then drawing arrows between the ideas that are related. Then you add a short explanation by the arrow to explain how the concepts are related.


How Professors Use Concept Maps

Dr. Jeff Fox, Political Science
We were studying the influence of political socialization on belief systems and I needed a way to have students think systematically about their views and identify the sources of their values and beliefs. I chose to use a concept map to help students explore this.


Student first identified their stance on the war in Iraq. They then brainstormed and listed factors (attitudes, values, beliefs, etc.) that came to mind that led to their position. Students were able to use branching to show more complex associations. After fleshing out their cognitive maps, students identified where their attitudes, beliefs, and information came from (family, media, teachers, peers, political party, etc.). Students found it valuable to explore their own thinking in this way. They also found that they were able to detect assumptions in their thinking, see that many of their views were essentially reproductions of what they heard from other sources, see that their views were not systematically or rationally obtained, as well as assess the influence of various socialization forces on their thinking.


Since students might not know how to create a concept map, it is beneficial to model the process in class. Once students understand the process, you can use concept maps in the following ways:

  • Use as an in-class pre-assessment. Prior to discussing a topic, ask students to create a concept map. Then, as you discuss the information, they can add to or modify their map to reflect their understanding about the topic.
  • Do as a small group activity. Give your students a problem, case study, or question about a key concept. Divide them into small groups of 4-5 students. Have each group create a concept map as they analyze and synthesize previously learned information into this new scenario. Have the groups present their conclusions.
  • Do as a whole class activity. As a class, create, a concept map and use it as a springboard to discuss relationships among the concepts and ideas listed in the map.
  • Fill in the blanks. Before class, create a concept map of the material you want to cover in class. Then, remove some of the concepts and labels. Show the partially completed map to the class and have them fill in the blank spots and label the relationships.
  • Organize your research. Use a concept map to build and organize your ideas, layer details, and find connections and relationships that might never have occurred to you before.

There are several benefits of using concept maps. A concept map:

  • Helps visual learners grasp the material (however all learners benefit from the activity)
  • Helps students see relationships between ideas, concepts, or authors
  • Utilizes the full range of the left and right hemispheres of the brain
  • Helps memory recall
  • Helps to clarify and structure ideas
  • Aids in developing higher-level thinking skills (create, analyze, evaluate)
  • Helps students synthesize and integrate information, ideas and concepts
  • Encourages students to think creatively about the subject
  • Lets students do self-evaluation of beliefs, values, socialization, etc.
  • Helps students evaluate assumptions.

The following list contains specific functions that can be performed by using concept maps. Click on each link to see examples (source:

Once you have decided the type of mental function you want students to perform and the type of visualization that will help, there are several tool options. Students can use Microsoft Word to create their organizer by inserting shapes, smart art, and charts into a Word document.

There are also many good Web tools that have been developed and most are free. To use them, all you need is access to a browser. Here are three popular ones:

  • is a simple, and easy to use mind mapping tool
  • Gliffy: has more complex shapes and tools, can export as a jpg, and provides a URL to a read-only version of the map
  • Mind42: is more robust, can export a map as PDF or jpg, can add attachments, URL links, or notes to nodes, has good collaboration tools (e.g. connections to Skype or Google Talk accounts)


Web based applications (short list)
Mapping Tools Overview (comprehensive list)
A Periodic Table of Visualizations Methods