Concept Maps: An Underutilized Education Super Tool

Discover what sets concept maps apart from other visual diagrams and why they are so useful for both learning and assessment

8 minutes

Table of Contents

An educator's innovation

From the beginning, concept mapping has had a strong pedagogical foundation.

Concept maps owe their existence to educator, scientist, and researcher Joseph D. Novak. In the early 1970’s, Joe and his team at Cornell developed concept mapping to help enable meaningful learning—the idea that learning is the process of connecting new knowledge with prior knowledge. 

Joe Novak, the educator, scientist, and researcher who led the development of concept mapping

Since then, hundreds of case studies from around the globe have demonstrated the cognitive benefits of concept mapping.

Concept maps can be used for numerous purposes, including:

  • Engaging higher-order thinking skills
  • Diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment
  • Driving personalized learning and targeted instruction
  • Capturing and sharing knowledge, particularly expert knowledge
  • Representing complex structures of information at a glance
  • Facilitating teamwork and collaboration

We’ve innovated these uses — even wrote a book about them with Joe and other respected colleagues.

Yet despite their proven efficacy, too few educators are familiar with concept maps and how to use them efficiently in learning environments.

We aim to change that!

What, exactly, are concept maps?

Not to be confused with "mind maps"

Concept maps are commonly mistaken for mind maps and other block and line diagrams. But there are important differences:

Mind maps are radial, block-and-line diagrams used for brainstorming and idea organization.

They suggest general connections between various ideas by using labeled boxes or circles connected with linking lines.

Concept maps are meaningful diagrams used to construct mental models of knowledge. They are often designed to answer a focus question.

Concept maps indicate specific relationships between various concepts using structured statements, called propositions.

What chiefly sets concept maps apart from mind maps is use of clear and precise relationships between concepts.

More clarity and precision creates more accurate, meaningful, and insightful information.

The anatomy of a proposition

Just as sentences are the building blocks of essays, propositions are the building blocks of concept maps—and thus, of knowledge.

Propositions include four key components: two concepts joined together by directional links and a linking phrase.

Concepts are typically noun-like phrases people—places, things, ideas, or events.

They are concisely-worded and as specific as is relevant and necessary in a particular map.

The examples below are all valid concepts:

  • cattle ranchers
  • the Atlantic Ocean during wintertime
  • hospital admittance procedures
  • boiling point

Linking phrases almost always contain a verb and are typically no more than five words long.

They may also include helping verbs, modifiers, prepositions, and/or articles to adequately describe the relationship between two concepts.

The examples below are all valid linking phrases:

  • causes
  • is a type of
  • i.e.,
  • is the reason why
  • can sometimes be used for

The structure of a proposition is:

concept – linking phrase -> concept.

The second linking line should always contain an arrow to show the proposition’s directionality—that is, the order in which it should be read.

Read in order, each proposition should be a coherent and independent statement about the world.

The importance of "focus questions"

Everything in the universe is related to some degree, so without constraints concept maps can become infinitely large and complex.

Focus questions help establish context for what information a concept map should include.

Research has shown that different focus questions can inspire different concept map structures, even within the same subject.

Consider the differences between the following questions:

  1. What are the parts of the solar system?

  2. How do parts of the solar system affect life on Earth?

The first question is static and will most likely elicit definition-based relationships between concepts.

The second question is dynamic and more likely to elicit a structure that shows the systemic nature of how concepts are related.

One tool, many cognitive uses

MANY valuable applications and outcomes follow from the basic structure and process of concept mapping.

Here are a few more:


Concept maps naturally compel learners to examine their own thought processes and consider their knowledge strengths and weaknesses.

Holistic thinking

By presenting information as interconnected pieces of a bigger picture, concept maps help learners contextualize and comprehend the greater significance of individual facts.

Results inform instruction

Assessment FOR learning

While traditional multiple-choice tests tend to activate low-level memorization and guessing skills, concept mapping engages higher-order analytic, evaluative, and creative thinking skills.

This offers assessors deeper insights into learner thinking and turns assessment into a learning opportunity.

Next, you’ll learn a simple four-step process to create concept maps for a variety of learning and assessment purposes.


  • Concept maps are a pedagogical tool with many benefits and nearly 50 years of evidence to support their efficacy.
  • The specificity in how concept maps define relationships between concepts makes them distinct from mind maps.
  • Concept maps activate powerful and diverse cognitive skills that engage learners and offer assessors deep insights into their thinking.

Read Next


Moon, B., Hoffman, R. R., Novak, J., & Cañas, A. (Eds.). (2011). Applied concept mapping: Capturing, analyzing, and organizing knowledge. CRC Press.

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2006). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct them. Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition1(1), 1-31.