Concept mapping is the technique used by individuals and groups to organize, represent, and visualize knowledge and ideas in graphical formats. It is used to develop a structured framework in order to plan or evaluate various types and sizes of projects. Sometimes called knowledge maps, the graphical technique is based on graphically describing topics within one concept and/or relationships found among different concepts.

The diagram used to visualize these relationships among various concepts is called a concept map. Within a concept map, networks are drawn that consist of nodes, which represent concepts. Connecting lines, or links, represent a particular relationship between two concepts. Linking words, phrases, and symbols, used to describe relationships between nodes, often appear on the links.

Concept maps are generally, but not always, created so they are read from the top downward. Some concept maps are simple designs that examine one central theme and only a few associated topics. Other concept maps contain complex structures that describe multiple themes and relationships.


The concept map is a relatively new way to visualize complex subject matter. The technique of concept mapping was first developed in the 1960s and 1970s by American educator and research scientist Joseph D. Novak (1930–) while at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. During this time, Novak, a professor of education and biological sciences, developed an effective way to strengthen the process for his students performing research. Novak discovered that representing thoughts visually often helped students to effectively associate ideas without being inconvenienced by writing them down in lengthy formats. His students, Novak found, could represent newly learned information by first defining a concept, adding related topics, and linking similar ideas. Such an arrangement helped to organize research information and formulate educational theses.

Novak's work was based on the cognitive learning theory first developed by educational psychologist David Ausube in the 1960s. Also known as the theory of meaningful learning and assimilation theory, Ausube's theory became a tool for structuring information in an easy-to-recognize way. He found that students learned new material based on prior knowledge. According to Ausube, by visualizing past knowledge, students were better able to control the learning process and, consequently, learned new information faster and more efficiently.

The concept map itself is founded in a learning theory called constructivism, which states that humans learn from previously acquired knowledge. Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) is generally recognized as the first scientist to formalize constructivism into scientific structure.

Later, the theory of concept mapping developed by Novak, and first published in 1977, helped to guide educational research and instruction. Since that time, concept mapping has been widely applied to science, education, business, and government.


There are several components used when teaching and applying concept mapping. The concept map is generally represented in a defined order, with members arranging parts of the concept map according to a pre-determined ranking. The more general concepts are usually positioned at the top, and the more specific concepts, along with examples, images, and other describers, placed underneath. Networks are drawn, consisting of nodes usually enclosed in boxes but also represented by points, circles, or other figures. Nodes represent various concepts, with a concept defined as a perceived regularity in, or record of, some event or object.

Nodes are joined together with connecting lines, or links, which represent a particular relationship between two concepts. Nodes are always labeled, while links are usually labeled. Links can be nondirectional (with no arrows), unidirectional (with an arrow at one end), or bidirectional (with an arrow at both ends).

Linking words, phrases, and symbols are used to demonstrate the relationship or connection between concepts. Besides words and phrases, symbols such as +, -, and = are sometimes used. A proposition is the term used when two or more concepts are connected with linking lines and linking words, phrases, or symbols to form a meaningful statement.

Cross-links are long connections, which consist of connecting lines with linking words, phrases, and symbols, between concepts in different themes (domains) of the concept map. Cross-links are usually used to help identify how various domains are related.


Three types of concept maps are generally recognized by professionals who have researched and developed the theory behind concept mapping. Spider concept maps place the main topic in the center of the map and related themes are linked around it—thus, the map is shaped like a spider's body with its many legs. Spider concept maps are often developed when only one concept is being used. For instance, a single node might state “National Football League” and linked around it could be the various teams of the NFL.

Hierarchical concept maps place the most general, or most important, concept at the top of the map and the more specific, or less important but related, topics below it. For instance, the most important concept contained in a specific hierarchical concept map might be “Sally Ride,” and below it the specific, but related, topics of “astronaut,” “physicist,” “writer,” and “businesswoman.”

Flow chart concept maps represent a sequence or a process in a linear format. Flow charts are frequently used in businesses and organizations to analyze the steps involved in completing tasks. For instance, a computer manufacturing company might use a flow chart concept map as a guide to assembling its laptops, using such terms as “motherboard,” “graphics card,” and “hard drive.” Alternatively, mathematicians often use flow chart concept maps when analyzing a complicated mathematical equation.


Concept mapping is designed to help students and others clear up ambiguities and clarify misconceptions in information (which often arise in the learning process), along with strengthening the memory and retention process after the learning is accomplished. Such improvements in education with the use of concept maps have been proven by scientific studies.

When performing such scientific studies, researchers want to ask a multitude of questions relating to concept mapping. Some of these questions include: What aspects of achievement and learning can be bettered? How much improvement can be achieved? How do these improvements compare with other approaches? Do all students (including special needs students) benefit? How do different grade levels compare in their benefits? Do gender, racial, socioeconomic and other differences affect the benefits? Do students and educators like or dislike the process? And how much training is necessary for implementation?

Research scientists have found that concept mapping is very effective in educational settings. The use of concept maps was reported in studies to have the largest positive effect at the university level; however, modest and consistent improvements were also seen at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

Numerous studies have found that students with and without disabilities benefit equally from concept mapping. For instance, improvements in verbal and written abilities, reading and comprehension abilities, and other such capacities were increased when students with learning disabilities used concept mapping.

In addition, research studies have found that the use of concept maps during reading lessons early in the educational life of a student were exceptionally beneficial. Other areas in which researchers found a positive correlation between the use of concept maps and educational learning include science, social studies, mathematics, and language arts. Using concept maps to learn mathematics, for instance, was found very useful in teaching a sometimes-difficult subject.

Besides these specific fields of study, researchers discovered that concept mapping is useful to prepare students for their studies. Such areas as taking notes and organizing question-and-answer responses were shown to work well with concept mapping. Many times researchers found that students took less notes in class but were more effective in learning and retaining the information when they used concept maps.

A study funded by the Office of Special Education Programs, within the U.S. Department of Education, showed a slight but consistent improvement in comprehension and a moderate improvement in vocabulary when students used concept mapping during their general studies. The students were tested using such measures as written summaries, traditional tests, concept acquisition tests, and grammar tests, along with the widely used Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test.

The ability and knowledge of educators to implement concept mapping is important to the process. An 11-year study, for instance, showed that learning results in students were more positive when teachers properly instructed them on the use of concept maps, along with providing realistic, informative, and positive ways to use them. It was also learned that computer-based methods to present concept mapping can be effective for the learning and application of educational materials In addition, searching on the Web was shown to improve students' abilities to develop more detailed and complicated maps.

A paper written in 2006 by Josianna Basque and Marie-Claude Lavoie, of the LICEF Research Center (Montreal, Canada), discussed the conclusions of 39 research studies conducted between the late 1980s and early 2000s. The studies were performed on the theory, methodology, and results of collaborative concept mapping (CCM), a process in which students construct concept maps in small groups. Basque and Lavoie's conclusion praised the collaborative learning style of concept maps.

Extensive research has also been conducted supporting the use of concept maps for business and organizational settings. Several classic research papers explain the research performed on the development of concept mapping. Some of these historic articles include “An Introduction to Concept Mapping for Planning and Evaluation,” by American social research scientist William Trochim, and “Concept Mapping For Evaluation and Planning,” a compilation of articles edited by Trochim.

In addition, the “Concept Mapping Resource Guide” Web site of the Web Center for Social Research Methods provides additional information on many of the important articles written about concept mapping.

Research has found that six general steps are involved in developing and implementing any concept map. Step one, the preparation step, involves the selection of participants and the development of the basic reason for the project. A broad range of people are sometimes involved because their various areas of expertise will be valuable in the development of a complex project. In other groups, a random sampling of people from a total population might be selected. Small groups are more easily managed when developing a concept map, but larger groups may be needed when the complexity of the project is immense.

Statements are discussed and recorded during the second step. Usually a brainstorming session, or other type of idea-generating meeting, is initiated to produce as many statements as possible. Later, during the third step, these statements are ranked and sorted based on the project's requirements. Participants are often asked to distinguish each item as to importance and how likely each item will affect the final conclusion.

The most difficult part in planning or evaluating a project is conceptualization. How well a project is accomplished is often based on how well it is initially organized. Thus, it is important that all members recognize the project's major goals, resources, and capabilities; and place them at levels of most to least important.

In the fourth step, the concept map is physically generated by using symbols, words, phrases, and pictures to represent the statements developed earlier. Each statement is given a position (node) within the developing concept map. Closely related statements are positioned physically nearer to one another than are less related statements.

The interpretation of the concept map is the primary focus in step five. All of the parts of the concept map are grouped, ranked, classified, and generally interpreted for use within the final concept map.

The sixth step involves the utilization of the concept map. It is used as a guide to actually carry out the various details of the project such as planning meetings; developing products, procedures, or services; and assessing results.

Research has found that the use of concept mapping— with its easy-to-read and interpret structure of symbols, pictures, and phrases—helps members to remember the primary mission of the project. Major ideas and concepts are easily visible, making it easier to accomplish goals and coordinate the activities of individuals and the group as a whole.


Concept mapping has been proven to provide meaningful learning in the educational setting by offering clear structure and detailed organization during the process by which students gain knowledge.

Concept mapping does not replace traditional educational systems; it only provides a conduit for better learning, wider discussions, and more positive advancements within those environments. Teachers use concept maps to better assess knowledge gained by their students. Traditional testing, such as with essay, multiple-choice, and fill-in-the-blank questions, is a valuable way to test students.

However, the practice of having students construct concept maps to determine their level and quality of learning has been found to be more effective in showing how well students understand important concepts recently learned. In fact, according to the researchers in the Department of Education at Stanford University, California, teachers and other educators find concept mapping an easy-to-use and effective method for evaluating the progress of their students.

In addition, concept mapping has been found to be conducive to the quantity and quality of material learned based on long-term memory. This relationship is partly based on the work of Australian educational psychologist John Sweller and his cognitive load theory first proposed in the late 1980s. He created the theory based on the research of many earlier scientists including American psychologist George A. Miller from Princeton University, New Jersey.

Sweller stated within his theory that the ability of long-term memory within a person is best when it is not overloaded. He found that long-term memory, when it is used for problem solving, reasoning, and thinking, is optimized when humans can make clear and direct connections between previously learned materials and newly learned information. Sweller stated it is essential for educators and designers of educational materials not to overload a person's memory with large amounts of information.

Instead, Sweller recommended using smaller segments during the learning process. Concept mapping is ideal for such “piece-work” learning because it helps students to easily make the connection between what was previously learned and what was just learned, and not to forget the information in the future. Concept maps accomplish Sweller's ideas by physically organizing information into small groupings so as not to overload students with too much information at any given time.

Primarily, concept mapping provides for applications within the planning process, the learning process, and the assessment process. Even before students learn material, concept mapping is a valuable tool used by educators to organize the material they want to teach their students during the planning stage. Often, educators have difficulty creating both a comprehensive and an understandable teaching program. However, with concept mapping, they are much more likely to be able to create and implement effective teaching curriculum (including concepts, ideas, and images) that will be communicated more effectively to their students and better comprehended by their students.

During the learning stage, concept mapping is a very important learning tool because it facilitates the learning of material in a meaningful and structured way, by organizing information piece by piece so that it is easy for students to comprehend.

After students learn material, concept mapping is also used to test the learning of students during the assessment stage. It can easily and effectively track, document, and evaluate learning and knowledge gained during the educational process.

More than 40 years of research, development, and application has resulted in the inclusion of concept mapping within many businesses and organizations, large and small, throughout the world. In the United States, Concept Systems, Inc., is one of the leading companies that provide computer software and consulting services in the area of concept mapping. Its clients include national and regional associations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and private businesses.

The Web Center for Social Research Methods is an important academic resource in the applied social research and evaluation of concept mapping. It provides introductory materials, research, and case studies involving concept maps.

There are many reasons why concept maps are generated in the first place. They are used within an established business, such as taking simple notes at a department meeting and remembering important concepts at a board of director's meeting. A new business might use concept mapping to identify its employees' knowledge base. Computer programmers often use concept maps to design complicated computer programs, such as for creating Web sites and video games. Large organizations often use concept maps to communicate complex ideas to their employees or to the general public.

Lawyers use concept maps to illustrate arguments on both sides of complex issues. Educators frequently use concept maps to help students learn new material, retain historic material, and integrate the two together. Problem solvers use concept maps to better understand and diagnose problems. A troubled company, for example, might use concept mapping to create a shared direction to improve employee morale or increase its customer base.


Basque, J., & Lavois, M-C. (2006). Collaborative concept mapping in education: Major research trends. Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://cmc.ihmc.us/cmc2006Papers/cmc2006-p192.pdf.

Birbili, M. (2006). Mapping knowledge: Concept maps in early childhood education. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 8(2). Retrieved May 4, 2008, from http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v8n2/birbili.html.

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Concept-mapping software: How effective is the learning tool in an online learning environment? Department of Education, Stanford University. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.stanford.edu/dept/SUSE/projects/ireport/articles/concept_maps/ConceptMapsOnlineLearningEnvironment.pdf.

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Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct them. Pensacola., FL: Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. Retrieved May 6, 2008, from http://cmap.ihmc.us/Publications/ResearchPapers/TheoryCmaps/TheoryUnderlyingConceptMaps.htm.

O'Donnell, A., Dansereau, D., & Hall, R. H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14, 71–86.

Preszler, R. W. (2004). Cooperative concept mapping improves performance in biology. Journal of College Science Teaching, 33, 30–35.

Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. Universal design for learning: graphic organizers with UDL. Center for Applied Special Technology. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.cast.org/publications/ncac/ncac_goudl.html.

Trochim, W. M. K. Concept Mapping: An Introduction to Structured Conceptualization. Web Center for Social Research Methods. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/mapping/Concept%20Mapping%20Presentation,%20Jan05.ppt.

Trochim, W. M. K. An introduction to concept mapping for planning and evaluation. Web Center for Social Research Methods. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/research/epp1/epp1.htm.

Trochim, W. M. K. Concept mapping for evaluation and planning. Web Center for Social Research Methods. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/research/Concept%20Mapping%20for%20Evaluation%20and%20Planning.PDF.

Web Center for Social Research Methods. Retrieved April 16, 2008, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/.