How to use concept mapping in the classroom

An Illustration representing concept mapping. It shows an outline of a person’s head with many different thoughts coming out of it.

Published: March 18th, 2022

Concept mapping is an easy-to-implement and effective teaching strategy that can help students better comprehend and understand course content. Rather than simply memorising facts, concept mapping enables students to build on and integrate new concepts and ideas into an established cognitive framework.

Concept mapping has various educational benefits, including facilitating comprehension (especially for complex ideas), integrating new and old concepts to better represent ‘the big picture’, encouraging creativity, brainstorming and critical thinking, and promoting collaboration. 

We break down all you need to know about concept mapping, including how to teach concept mapping and how to enhance your lessons with concept mapping apps and technology.  

Concept mapping definition

What is concept mapping, exactly? 

Concept mapping is the process of visualising the relationships between concepts and ideas using charts and diagrams. Most concept maps have three key elements:

  1. Concepts: also known as ‘nodes’, these are usually represented by circles or boxes. 
  2. Relationships: also known as ‘arcs’ or ‘links’, the relationship between concepts is represented by arrows or lines. Along these arcs, you’ll often find words and phrases that better explain the relationship between the ideas. These words and phrases should be kept as concise and to-the-point as possible. 
  3. Propositions: the combination of concept one, the relationship, and concept two is called the proposition.

Concept maps have a hierarchical structure with the most general concepts at the top and more specific concepts at the bottom. Because of this structure, concept maps should be read from top to bottom. 

Are concept maps the same as mind maps?

While the two methods are often confused, concept maps are different from mind maps in a couple of key ways:

  1. Concept maps have a hierarchical or tree-like structure, whereas mind maps have a radial structure.
  2. Concept maps focus on the relationships between interconnected concepts, while mind maps tend to explore one concept.

What is concept mapping in education?

Concept maps were first developed by university professor Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University in the 1970s. Novak’s studies at Cornell focused on learning, education, and the sharing and representation of knowledge. His research team at Cornell first used concept mapping to represent the emerging knowledge of students.

More broadly, concept mapping belongs to the learning movement known as constructivism, which theorises that knowledge is built or constructed – in other words, knowledge is developed by assimilating new concepts into existing cognitive structures. 

With this in mind, concept mapping can be used in the classroom to help students better understand and comprehend new ideas by building on previously acquired knowledge. They can use concept mapping to incorporate new concepts into ideas they already understand.

So rather than just teaching the facts and asking students to recite them back, educators can use concept mapping to help students understand the relationships between the facts, driving greater comprehension and understanding. 

Concept mapping in the classroom

Concept mapping is a powerful classroom tool that can be used across all types of educational settings, content areas, and grade levels. Whether you’re working with primary-aged or tertiary-aged students, teaching science or English, concept mapping is a great way to improve comprehension.

For example, concept mapping can be used:

  • To organise ideas while reading
  • To help students synthesise information or review information from a prior lesson
  • To access prior knowledge before a lesson
  • To assess students or to check for understanding

How to use concept mapping

While the specific process of concept mapping may vary from classroom to classroom depending on the age of the students and the content being covered, the general steps remain the same.

1. Identify your focus

As noted, concept maps are an effective method of teaching all types of content. When selecting your focus, a good strategy is to focus on a question, such as, “What are the key characteristics of birds?”.

2. Brainstorm ideas and list your key concepts

After finishing delivering the content, ask your students to brainstorm the main ideas that were presented. Alternatively, you could choose to identify ideas as you move through the content. Stop to explain when a major concept or idea is introduced, or encourage students to raise their hands when they spot one. Write down each idea as your nodes.

3. Group the concepts

Once you’ve collected all your ideas (or this can be done as you go), organise these concepts into different categories, clustering similar ideas together. These categories are flexible, and you may wish to re-assign a concept into a different category as you move through the course content and build a greater understanding of the larger picture.

4. Organise the concepts into a hierarchy

Once you have your major groupings, continue to organise these concepts into a hierarchical structure, with your primary and most general concepts at the top and your more specific concepts shooting off from the relevant idea above. Remember, concept maps are meant to be read from top to bottom. 

5. Connect the ideas

Use lines or arrows to demonstrate how different ideas or categories relate to one another. You can use words or simple phrases to connect concepts and explain their relationship, but try to keep these concise. The map should be as concise and straightforward as possible

6. Share the map

Once your students have finished their mapping, encourage them to share with their peers and explain how and why they made the connections they did. At the end of the lesson, you could also encourage your students to summarise the content using their concept map. Of course, this only applies if each student creates a separate map. If you’re creating a single map together (more on this below), then you can have these discussions as you go.

Concept map examples

Here is an example of a concept map about birds. 

It shows the concepts within rectangles and the relationships with labeled arrows. As you can see, the most generic, broad concept – “Birds” – sits at the top of the map, while the more specific concepts – that they lay eggs, that they’re warm-blooded, and so on – sit underneath. 

Some of the propositions this concept map shows are:

  • Birds have two feet, feathers, hollow bones, rapid digestive systems, beaks, and two wings
  • Feathers and hollow bones give birds their light weight
  • A bird’s light weight enables it to fly
Concept Map example using birds as the subject.

Source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Concept-map-about-birds-from-Canas-Novak_fig1_287071018

Using technology to facilitate concept mapping

Of course, you can create a concept map by hand, simply using pen and paper, but technology can enhance the process of concept mapping and make collaboration much easier. 

Concept mapping generally involves a lot of moving concepts around, so unless you want to spend a considerable amount of time rubbing out concepts and jotting them down again in a new spot, it makes a lot of sense to use a computer. 

Promethean’s ActivePanel and accompanying Whiteboard app provides educators and students with a digital, interactive whiteboard and suite of annotation tools, as well as a gallery of preloaded templates and charts.

Using the ActivePanel and Whiteboard app, educators can build a concept map using one of the preloaded templates or build one from scratch using the annotation and drawing tools. It’s then easy to create new nodes and links and to move nodes and re-categorise ideas into different groups as you go.

The Whiteboard app also has a multi-user mode so students can collaborate easily – using their own smart devices, students can add concepts and ideas to a shared concept map and work together with their peers to group concepts, discuss the relationships between ideas and add links to connect ideas. 

In addition to the preloaded gallery of mapping templates, the ActivePanel can access educational apps via the Promethean Store or other sources. There are also plenty of concept mapping apps available. Some excellent concept mapping tools include MindMeister, iMindQ, MindNode, and Ideament (note that many apps also enable mind mapping). These collaborative mapping apps let students create, edit and share concept maps. They encourage thinking and brainstorming and enable organisation and visualisation of ideas.

Want to learn more about integrating digital concept mapping into your lessons?

Request a free demo of the Promethean ActivePanel to see how it could enhance your lessons.

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