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Concept Mapping: A Complete Guide

By Tessa Reid, Aug 09, 2022

concept mapping

Did you know concept mapping was originally developed to support learning? 

This concept (pun fully intended) has since caught on with engineers, marketers and all manner of professionals, but back in the 1970s, Joseph D. Novak and his research team at Cornell University used these maps to help students represent and retain knowledge. 

In his book, Learning How to Learn, Novak explains, “It is necessary to understand why and how new information is related to what one already knows.”

In other words, it’s much easier to retain a new concept when you understand how it fits in with your prior knowledge. Enter the concept map. 

This visual tool involves representing key concepts and relationships in a map or diagram. Nowadays, professionals use concept maps to generate ideas, organize complex information and make missing connections. 

But whether you’re an educator or a business professional, there’s a lot to love about these maps. There’s also a lot to learn, so keep reading for a deep dive on this topic, including what a concept map is (exactly), how to create one (quickly) and why you should (absolutely).

 

Click to jump ahead:

What is concept mapping?

Concept mapping (also called conceptual diagramming) is the process of visualizing the relationship between key concepts. In plain English, a concept map lists ideas in circles or boxes connected with labeled lines or arrows. 

This type of map is ideal for structuring knowledge and organizing everything from simple thoughts to sophisticated systems. Whether you’re in an academic or business setting, a concept map can create clarity and fuel creativity. (More on these benefits in a sec.) 

Here’s a concept map example

concept mapping
 

As you can see, there are two major components in a concept map: the circles or nodes and the lines or links. Nodes house concepts, while links provide context about the relationship between each concept.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Depending on the goal of your map, things can get more complicated. For example, if you’re creating a concept map to summarize a training module for your team members or to help your students study for an exam, your links might feature more thorough information. 

See exhibit A: 

concept mapping
 

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Why are concept maps important?

Depending on your profession and industry, a concept map may help you come up with new ideas, learn faster or teach better. 

In education, concept maps promote active learning — the very action of mapping out concepts helps the brain understand and retain them. In fact, there’s a name for this notion in educational psychology: constructivism. Constructivists believe that learners actively “construct” knowledge. 

Coming full circle here, constructivism is the learning movement that inspired concept maps.

Here’s an example of a more free-form concept map template that outlines different chemistry career paths. Of course, you could customize the content of this map any way you see fit: 

concept mapping
 

But don’t be deceived by all these educational examples. Concept maps are popular beyond the education sphere, too. 

Business leaders may use them to lay out strategies. Product managers to brainstorm new features. And software designers take concept maps to a whole new level. (They use something called a “Unified Modeling Language” to map out system designs.) 

I’ll go into more depth about the different uses for concept mapping a little later on. But first, why have these maps gained popularity across the board? Because benefits! 

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Benefits of concept mapping

From learning and problem solving to creativity and critical thinking, concept mapping comes with many benefits. Here are just a few: 

Supports meaningful learning 

To quote our friend Novak again, “meaningful learning involves the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing cognitive structures.” 

In other words, making connections between new concepts and what you already know is the way to go. This method of learning relies on existing knowledge to anchor new knowledge. You’re not just trying to memorize facts — you’re building meaningful bridges in your brain. 

Concept maps make this process explicit: you’re literally visualizing the links between old and new ideas. The result? Concepts take on meaning and learning takes place.

Encourages creativity and innovation

If you’re struggling to come up with a solution to a problem or you’re feeling creatively blocked, a concept map can help you get unblocked. 

By visualizing the relationship between ideas, you can uncover brand new connections and broaden your understanding of a problem, project or task. In fact, concept maps are a great brain-storming tool. Simply start with an idea and see where the map takes you. 

Helps organize key concepts

When dealing with complex systems or large amounts of information, concept maps are especially useful. 

They can help you clearly lay out a system in a hierarchical structure. Or, if you have a data set from a survey, for example, you may use a more free-form concept map to organize the results. Either way, these maps can help you make sense out of masses of information.

Here’s an example of a concept map that organizes lots of information:

concept mapping
 

Promotes critical thinking skills

By virtue of creating a concept map, you need to think critically. 

What’s the relationship between this and that concept? Is it reciprocal or uni-directional? Is there any overlap or redundancy between ideas? What new connections can you make between concepts? You could say concept mapping really is an exercise in critical thinking. 

Facilitates communication

Though concept mapping is often a subjective exercise, you can also use these visual tools to communicate complex ideas. 

For example, lawyers might use concept maps to outline arguments. By presenting their arguments to their team in a concept map, they could get feedback and uncover faults or gaps in their reasoning. 

You could do the same with any project. By laying out a strategy or project in a concept map, you could show your team how everything fits together and talk through any missing pieces while you’re at it. 

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Tips to create concept maps yourself

There are no hard and fast rules for how to make a concept map. As I mentioned, these maps can be hierarchical or more free-form with many different hubs and clusters. 

But to get the most out of this exercise, keep the following simple tips in mind: 

Start with a question 

Have a topic in mind? Great. Now, turn it into a question. This will help you better define the actual problem you’re trying to solve with your concept map. Use this “focus question” as the starting point for your map.

Park your concepts

Once you have your focus question, brainstorm a list of related concepts, facts and ideas. Put that list in order of least to most specific. As you work through your concept map, you can add items from this “parking lot” until it’s empty.

Think beyond links

Remember how links describe the connection between nodes? There’s also something called cross-links: these links connect concepts across a map and can help you think outside the box (or map, if you will). In addition to using descriptive links, try making connections between concepts that are side by side or across from each other, like in this example: 

concept mapping
 

Use visual representations

Make your map truly visual by adding icons and illustrations. These additions aren’t just for aesthetics — they can help make the information in your map easier to understand and retain. (If you’re using a concept map for learning and development or education, this point is key.)

Keep creating 

A concept map isn’t a one and done exercise. As ideas, strategies and systems evolve, so too should your concept map. Take the time to reflect and revisit your map with any fresh thoughts, connections and insights. 

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Characteristics of a concept map

Before we dig into the characteristics of a concept map, let’s take a moment to appreciate that alliteration… 

… 

Moving on, when creating a concept map, remember the five Cs: 

  • Clarity. First and foremost, your map should be clear and easy to understand at a glance.
  • Correctness. It goes without saying, your map should accurately reflect the relationships between concepts. You should also keep it up to date with new information and ideas.
  • Completeness. Your concept map should cover all the relevant information on a topic — including relationships and (if applicable) hierarchy — to the best of your knowledge. 
  • Conciseness. Watch out for duplicate or overlapping concepts: how can you reorganize to eliminate redundancies? Think concise but comprehensive. 
  • Creativity. Concept mapping is a creative exercise and your design can be too. Remember, visuals will make your concept map more engaging and memorable. The following map is a good example — it uses a themed color-palette and a few icons to bring a concept to life:
concept mapping
 

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4 types of concept maps

According to a research paper on developing digital learning courses, there are four main types of concept mapping: spider, hierarchy, flowchart and system. 

a) Spider

Named for its looks, this type of map extends out from a central concept or node. Sub-concepts surround this central node creating a spider web shape. Spider maps (also called spider diagrams) are best for representing simple concepts or conducting quick brainstorms. 

b) Hierarchy

Just like it says on the box, these maps visualize related concepts in a hierarchical (top-down) manner. The main concept goes on top and cascades down into more specific sub-concepts. Use this type of map if you need to get across the relative importance of concepts. 

c) Flowchart

Flowcharts organize information in a sequential or linear manner. Each concept leads to another concept in a specific order. These types of maps are perfect for outlining processes and workflows.

c) System

A system map is similar to a flowchart map, except it’s more free-form. The nodes in this type of map connect to each other as needed to represent a system. As you may have guessed, this is the type of map a software designer might use to visualize a system.

But these maps can also come in handy for visualizing other types of systems, like ones you might encounter when studying biodiversity:

concept mapping
 

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Concept mapping examples for businesses

As I touched on earlier, concept maps aren’t just helpful in academia. These maps have many uses in the business realm as well. 

Here some quick examples of how businesses can use concept mapping: 

Product development

Creating concept maps is a great way to visualize all the different factors that go into the product development process. Whether a product team is looking at user flows, information flows or infrastructure, a concept map can help them see the big picture — and make better decisions as a result. 

Strategic planning

Along the same lines, concept mapping can help leadership teams get a holistic view of a company’s operations and strategies. With a concept map, leadership can assess where an organization is now, and where they would like to go next.

Learning and development (L&D)

In L&D, information retention is key. And concept maps can help team members not only understand, but retain information. Make the most of every training by creating a one-page concept map team members can take away. Or, incorporate concept mapping into training to promote information retention on the spot. 

Technical writing 

Similar to how you might create an outline for an article, a concept map can help technical writers lay out complex information — and turn that information into straightforward documentation. 

Here’s an example of a concept map that organizes a complex concept, simply and visually:

concept mapping
 

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FAQs about concept mapping

What’s the difference between a concept map and a mind map?

mind map usually radiates out from a single center. Mind map templates may also use a tree structure. Concept maps differ in structure. They’re often hierarchical or free-form with multiple hubs and clusters. Unlike mind maps, concept maps also include information about the relationship between ideas along lines (or links). That’s why concept maps are more commonly used to map out systems, while using mind maps for brainstorming is more popular.

Can you use a concept map as an assessment? 

Yes, teachers can use concept mapping to assess their students. In fact, concept maps are one of the best ways to gauge how well students really understand a topic. What connections are they making? What connections are they missing? Since concept maps also promote meaningful learning, this type of exercise is beneficial all around. 

How is concept mapping used in teaching and learning? 

There are many ways to use concept maps in educational settings. For teachers, assigning a concept map exercise can provide insight into their students’ progress and learning processes. Teachers can also share concept maps with their students as learning aids. On the other hand, students can use concept maps to organize their notes, structure their ideas for a project or study for an exam. 

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Make your own concept map with a customizable template

I could write another thousand words about the beauty of concept maps and why you should give the practice a try… 

But I’m going to assume if you’ve made it this far, you’re intrigued by the idea! 

Which leads me to believe you’ll also be interested in Venngage’s concept mapping software and collection of customizable concept map templates. Get started for free and make your own concept map — with our user-friendly editor, it truly is quick and easy. 

 
About Tessa Reid

Tessa Reid is the Content Marketing Manager at Venngage. She wrote her first novel at the age of eight and never looked back. Now, she’s applying her background in psychology, publishing and design to tell stories on everything from infographics to data and pop culture.

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