Using Concept Maps to Propel Learning

Find out how concept maps can engage critical thought and provide deep insight into what learners do and don’t know

6 minutes

Table of Contents

Concept mapping tasks tap abilities that are difficult to measure by other means.

U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress

Concept mapping has been recognized for decades as an effective tool for driving and observing cognitive growth.

Concept mapping tasks can enable learners to:

  • Practice higher-order thinking skills
  • Pinpoint misconceptions and gaps in their understanding
  • Witness changes in their mental models
These qualities make concept maps ideal assessment tools.

What are mental models?

Representations of "probable truth"

Philosopher C.S. Peirce pioneered the theory of mental models. He described them as relational diagrams that convey “probable truth.”

Essentially, mental models are the mental connections we form to make sense of the world.

Philosopher C.S. Pierce pioneered the theory of mental mobdels

Concept maps are a tried-and-true tool for conveying one’s own mental models and observing those held by others.

Expressing mental models through concept mapping enables learners and assessors to visualize thought processes, gauge their accuracy, and see how they change through learning experiences.

A way to stimulate higher-order thinking skills

Sir Frederic Barlett (1958) introduced a nuanced set of higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) that support rigorous learning activities:

  • Interpolation: filling in information that is missing from a logical sequence
  • Extrapolation: extending an incomplete argument or statement
  • Reinterpretation: rearrangement of information to affect a new interpretation

These are exactly the sorts of HOTS that are activated when constructing mental models with concept maps.

Concept mapping for assessment

Encourage holistic thinking

Traditional assessments present items in linear order, sometimes even disallowing learners to return to previously answered questions.

However, in real life, knowledge isn’t so ordered and compartmentalized. Rarely do we use one bit of it at a time.

Concept maps challenge learners to think holistically. By approaching knowledge as a collection of interconnected ideas, learners can deepen their understanding of the “big picture.”

Pinpoint misconceptions & close learning gaps

Many documented examples exist of how educators have used concept mapping activities to identify misconceptions and help learners address gaps in their understanding.

Here is but one example explored with our friends at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

One tool, many approaches

Stanford Professor of Education Richard Shavelson once counted over 125 concept mapping tasks that can be used to evaluate learning (1994).

Methods vary by the kinds of tasks to perform, the amount of given content and structure, and rubrics for scoring the structure, elements, and propositions.

The most valid & reliable approach

A meta-analysis of the research showed that methods that compare the learners’ performance against a reference, or “mastermap,” are the most valid and reliable method for scoring concept mapping-based assessments (Himangshu and Cassata-Widera, 2010).

This is the method that Sero! uses.


  • Decades of research has shown concept mapping to be a valid, reliable, and versatile tool for engaging higher-order thinking skills and assessing cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

  • While interest in concept mapping is widespread, a key challenge has been the time and effort required to use them on a large scale.

  • In the next step, you’ll learn how Sero! employs best practices and cutting-edge technology to make concept mapping activities convenient in any learning context.

Read Next


Bartlett, F. (1958). Thinking: An experimental and social study.

Himangshu S., & Cassata-Widera, A. (2010). Beyond individual classrooms: How valid are concept maps for large scale assessment? Proceedings of Fourth Intl. CMC

Shavelson, R.J., Lang, H. & Lewin, B. (1994). On Concept Maps as Potential ‘Authentic’ Assessments in Science: Indirect Approaches to Knowledge Representation of High School Science. Los Angeles: National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Students.