iStudy for Success!
Online learning tutorials for essential college skills.

Concept Maps


Teaching and Learning with Technology would like to acknowledge Kathryn Maxwell for revising the content of this tutorial.



Concept mapping is a cognitive tool coA concept map.mprized of learning techniques that help develop and organize ideas. These visual and active thinking techniques can be used to create an external representation (or picture) of a set of ideas or a body of knowledge. By generating representations, tools such as concept maps, graphic organizers, webbing, idea maps, and other visual diagrams help to structure thoughts, illustrate in-depth ideas, and show relationships between and among them. 

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this tutorial, you will be able to:



Constructing, interpreting, and critiquing concept maps are all ways to learn about them, learn how to use them, and also why to use them. First, read the materials on concept maps. As you read through the information about concept maps, complete the activities to practice making and reading them.

  1. Information about Concept Maps
  2. Activity 1: What is a Concept Map?
  3. Why Use Concept Maps
  4. Activity 2: Benefits of Using Concept Maps
  5. How to Develop a Concept Map
  6. Principles about Linking
  7. Activity 3: Creating a Concept Map
  8. Assessment Criteria
  9. Activity 4: Evaluating a Concept Map

Note: All external links in this tutorial will open in a new window or tab. 




Instructor's Guide

Information about Concept Maps

Defining Concept Maps

Concept mapping is a technique for representing what you know about a given topic. It is a process of creating a "visual map" or "web" of your knowledge. Creating a concept map is a good way for you to identify key concepts in lectures and readings. It also allows you to show how different pieces of information relate to one another.

Components of a Concept Map

Concept maps are visual representations of what we know about a topic and consist of nodes and labeled links. Concepts are sets of specific objects, symbols, or events that share common characteristics. The meaning of a concept is determined by a list of its properties, which are, in turn, other concepts. Most concepts do not exist in isolation, but rather as part of a set of related concepts.

Nodes correspond to the concepts or important terms related to your studies of a topic. For example, the concept "water" can be defined by other concepts, such as liquid, solid, and gas. The relationship of each concept to other concepts determines its meaning. As you can see, a concept map is a set of relationships among other concepts.

Labeled links identify the type of relationship. Therefore, the line between a pair of concepts denotes a relationship, and the label on the line tells how the two concepts are related. For example, in a concept map of seasons, the relationship between the amount of sunlight and temperature variations is labeled as "cause" – in other words it is an action relationship between antecedent and consequent. In a concept map of dairy policies, the relationship between "dairy policy" and "federal milk marketing order" is labeled as "includes" because it represents an inclusion relationship between superset and subset.


Activity 1: What is a Concept Map?

Check to see what you have learned so far by completing the quiz below.


 Toggle open/close quiz group  

Why Use Concept Maps?


Student Dialog - "Why do I use concept maps?"

Jose and Sage talking. Sage: Jose, after our sessions, why do you run off to your room to create concept maps of them? And why use concept maps, anyway?

Jose: Well, they help me to visualize what I already know about a topic. They guide my study and research about that topic and can enhance meaningful learning. Not to mention that they aid me in achieving deeper learning.

Sage: Ha ha. Did you get that directly from a book?

Jose: Yep. Now, to construct a concept map, you need to determine important concepts and the relationships between these concepts. By doing that, you explore your understanding of the topic. In other words, you examine and reflect on what you know about the topic.

Sage: I think that might be useful.

Jose: I'm glad you see things my way, Sage. This way you'll be able to see the most important areas of the topic. Then you can focus on relevant information and stay organized while you study or research more information about the topic. And concept maps are adaptable. As you learn, you can adjust your map to include new concepts and ideas.

Sage: So, in order to do this, you have to analyze the patterns and structures of the topics? And that will help you to recall the information as well as help in applying the knowledge?

Jose: Yep again! See, there are benefits to this stuff.

Sage: Thanks, Jose. I promise to give it a try next time I do a research project.



Meaningful learning requires you to relate new knowledge to existing concepts and ideas. When you learn a new concept, you add it to the appropriate place in the concept map. By interrelating concepts in networks of concepts and labeling relationships between the concepts, the concept map helps you integrate different concepts together. In order to do that, you have to analyze the patterns and structures of your topic. This promotes better memorization and recall as well as the ability to apply knowledge in new situations.


Activity 2: Benefits of Using Concept Maps

Check to see if you understand the benefits of using concept maps by completing the short quiz below.


 Toggle open/close quiz question  

How to Develop a Concept Map


Remember, a concept map is a visual representation of what you know about a topic. It helps you to organize, analyze, and communicate your studies and research.

Now that you know what a concept map is and all of its components, let's see how you would create one for yourself.

Steps in Developing a Concept Map

The process of concept mapping involves three major steps:

Step 1: List key concepts related to the topic

List all the concepts related to the topic which you consider essential to understanding the topic. For example, for the topic "cooperative learning," Jose determined the key concepts to be:


Step 2: Build up concepts to elaborate key concepts

After defining the key concepts, you then expand on those concepts. Ask yourself the question:

"What are the important concepts, facts, ideas, terms, etc. that explain the key concept?"

Step 3: Identify links between concepts

It is important to show how or why certain concepts relate to one another. This is called linking – explaining the connection between two separate parts of your concept map.


Making a Concept Map

Concept maps (also known as mind maps) can be made with a pencil and paper,


Relation of dog to mammal.








with post-it notes on a white board (you draw the links) which is great for group brainstorming because you can move the post-it notes around,

Dog and mammal relation.








or with special computer software. Some of the more popular software includes:

 A comprehensive list of concept mapping tools is located at and also at .


Principles about Linking


Interlink existing concepts as much as possible

It is important that your link labels fully describe the relationship between the two concepts. This means making the labels more than simply "relates to" or "is connected to." Labels should indicate the exact nature of the relationship. Links may connect to, or be related to, more than one concept – be sure to link all related concepts together.


Why is linking important?

By establishing links between concepts you are able to see the "big picture" and gain a deeper understanding of a topic. In fact, your goal is to attempt to link every concept in your concept map to every other one. Trying to establish links helps you focus on which concepts are most important in order to understand a topic and identify areas within a map that you might need to work on a little more. For example, you may need to expand a map by establishing sub-concepts, or you may even need to eliminate concepts that turn out to be unimportant for a particular topic.

Most Common Words Used in Link Labels

Link Type


Inclusion Links

  • Subset of: is included in, is contained in, is example of, is part of
  • Superset of: include, contain, consist of, has example, has part of

Characteristics Links

  • has characteristic/is characteristic of
  • has attribute/is attribute of
  • has type/is type of

Actions Links

  • Function: cause/is caused by
    • function as/is used for
  • Operation: act on/is acted on by
    • generate/is generated by
    • regulate/is regulated by
    • determine/is determined by
    • increase/is increased by

Process Links

  • has process/is process in
  • has input/is input to
  • has output/is output of

Temporal Links

  • precede
  • follow
  • has step/is step in

Similarity Links

  • is similar to
  • is like
  • is opposite to


Activity 3: Creating a Concept Map


Now that you have a basic understanding of what a concept map is, develop a concept map on "A Dog" with pencil and paper. The following link is an example:

Concept Map Example on Cats


One way to begin is to list sub-topics and then classify them by ranking them from general to specific in a kind of top-down approach. For example, the topic of cats (see the "concept map example on cats" above) might trigger some thoughts about mammals, different kinds of cats, or pets. These general sub-topics will most likely elicit thoughts about even more specific topics such as four legs, tails, spine, hair type, and friends of mankind.

Another way to begin is to simply start brainstorming or "free associating" by jotting down every idea that comes to mind. After brainstorming, you can classify the items. Make use of the tools that are available to you and that make sense for you. Consider using colors, numbers, codes, arrows, paper clips, or different sizes or colors of "sticky" or "post-it" notes.

Regardless of how you decide to approach this map, always keep in mind the central word, concept, question, or problem for which you are building the map. Then, think about the concepts, words, descriptions, subjects, items, or issues that are connected to or associated with your central word or idea.

Assessment Criteria

Why should you self assess your concept maps? For the same reason you assess your writings - to improve them and ensure you have accurately captured knowledge. Jonassen (1996) provides examples of how concept maps can be used to assess learning. Use the following information to assess your concept maps. However, keep in mind that there is no "right" concept map. Each student, or group of students, will likely build a different map, based upon their personal experiences. It is also important to understand that assessment of a concept map must be consistent with the needs of the content domain (Jonassen, et al., 1997).


Checklist for Concept Maps

An additional tool you may want to use to evaluate your concept maps is a checklist. A downloadable RTF of this checklist is included in the left sidebar of this page.


Concept Map Evaluation Checklist


Criteria Met? 



 All major concepts that are relevant to the main topic have been included and represented as such.


 Main concepts are easily identified, either by use of a larger font, a graphic or other means of emphasis.


 All the important sub-concepts have been included and represented as such.


 All concepts are presented with a minimum of text.


 Concepts are well organized in a logical manner.






 All the relevant concepts are linked logically.


 Labels accurately and concisely describe the relationship between concepts.


 Concepts are physically arranged so links are established in the most economical way possible, without cluttering the map.






 Correct spelling and grammar are used throughout the map.






 Text is clear and easy to read; font is neither too small nor too large.


 Amount of text is appropriate for the intended audience.


 Color is effectively used for emphasis and increased comprehension.


 Graphics are used only when necessary to increase comprehension.






 The concept map is clear, legible, and focused.


 Concepts reflect the essential information about the topic.


 Information is clear, accurate, and well organized.


 Content is logically arranged to facilitate comprehension.


 The concept map shows evidence of what was learned about the topic.



Activity 4: Evaluating a Concept Map


Compare your concept map about dogs with the concept map example provided below.

  • Does the example map include nodes and concepts that you did not include?
  • Did you include concepts, nodes, or linkages that may not be appropriate?
  • Would you have used different key words or phrases to describe concepts?

Concept Map Example on Dogs

Concept Map Example on Dogs

Based on your findings from this activity, critique your own concept map and reconstruct it. Refer to the check list mentioned in the previous page.




Because concept maps are an external visualization of a person's ideas and body of knowledge, or how the person conceptualizes a topic, they are an excellent tool for assessing the level of a learner's knowledge on a given topic.

J. D. Novak is considered by many to be the 'father' of concept mapping. Any in-depth examination of concept mapping should include his writings.


For more information on concept mapping, please refer to:

 * Indicates that the original Website is no longer available.




Concept maps are visual representations of how concepts on a particular topic relate to each other. Nodes and links are the symbols used to create a concept map.

A concept map has to contain all of the important concepts for the topic, and it has to make sense to you. You could ask a friend who is working on the same topic to look at it to see if you missed anything, or you could ask your instructor to look at your map. You could also use a checklist to assess your map yourself.


A concept map.


Instructor's Guide

Quizzes, Reflective Questions, and Activities

The following assignments are embedded in the Concept Maps tutorial:


Relationship to Other iStudy Tutorials

This tutorial should be used after any tutorials on problem identification and data collection because you must have a conceptual base (built by data collection) from which to build a concept map.


Suggested In-class Methods of Presentation




Note : This is an excellent opportunity to utilize and reinforce the cooperative learning techniques found in the Cooperative Learning tutorial.


Key Points

These points are covered in the iStudy tutorial, but should be emphasized in any discussions.

Assessment Criteria

Jonassen (1996) provides examples of how concept maps in general can be used to assess learning. If the students create a concept map for your assessment, use the following information to assess the concept maps. However, it is important to keep in mind that there is no "right" concept map. Each student, or group of students, will likely build a different map, based upon their personal experiences. It is also important to understand that assessment of a concept map must be consistent with the needs of the content domain (Jonassen,, 1997).

You may also use the Concept Map Evaluation Checklist as part of your evaluation. A RTF version is included for download on the left sidebar of this page.


Criteria for assessing concepts (nodes)



Accuracy of concepts

Is the learner's perception of the content domain accurate? Are the concepts correctly labeled?

Breadth of concepts

Does the concept map reflect the breadth of the content domain? A concept map with a greater number of nodes reflects greater breadth.

Depth of concepts

Does the concept map reflect the depth of the content domain? The depth of the map is measured by the number of levels of concepts.

Relative importance of concepts

Are major and minor concepts represented as such? Is greater weight given to more important concepts?

Criteria for assessing relations (links)



Validity of links

Are the relationships established between concepts or nodes valid? If the map is hierarchical, are hierarchical links established? Likewise, are causal links established if the map is causal?

Preciseness of link labels

Are the labels used to describe the exact nature of the relationship?

Economical use of links

Are links established in the most economical way possible, without becoming too general in nature?


Through observing both the group's and the individual's activity, the instructor may assess student performance. Assessment criteria are as follows (instructors supply the percentage weights):


Assessment Criteria





iStudy Tutorial


The student can define the following terms; concept map, concept links, concept link labels.




The student can define what a concept map is, and how it can be used to analyze information.




The student can interpret a given concept map.


Task in Manual


The student can develop his/her own concept map.