Concept Maps...
Sample Concept Maps
Concept Map Presentation (Powerpoint)

Concept Maps and Other Useful Representations

What is a Concept Map?

A concept map can be thought of generally as a pictorial representation of a system. It often includes concepts or ideas, enclosed in circles or boxes, that are represented in a hierarchical fashion. They show relationships between concepts, indicated by a connecting line, with words on the line specifying the precise relationship. Good concept maps include cross-links, or relationships between concepts in different domains of the concept map, and specific examples of events or objects to help clarify meaning of a given concept.

Figure 1: Sample concept map created using Inspiration Software (click for larger image).
(Used with permission from

A concept map captures an overall system in a visual representation so we can at once perceive the level of complexity in a way that we can not immediately comprehend from a narrative description. Concept maps also help in the process of refining and adding new ideas to an existing framework of knowledge. One can think of learning as adding to, refining, and revising the concept map of your mental model.

There is no definite prescription for drawing concept maps, as they are simply "a schematic device for representing a set of concept meanings embedded in a framework of propositions", or "meaningful relationships between concepts in the form of propositions."1 To accommodate alternate ways of thinking and knowing, it is important to retain this fluidity of definition. However, it is also important to show students various examples, or better still, devote class time to have them generate maps, and discuss the alternate representations of the same set of related concepts, and the clarity of communication necessary.

We mentioned earlier Fritjof Capra's six properties of ecological systems.2 These properties will often arise as indicators of a good concept map. Once again, they are:

  1. Networks: Interdependence, diversity, complexity
  2. Boundaries: Scale and limits
  3. Cycles: Recycling of resources and partnership
  4. Flow-through: Energy and resources
  5. Development: Succession and co-evolution
  6. Dynamic balance: Self- organization, flexibility, stability, sustainability


Origins of Concept Mapping

The concept map was born out of the constructivist theory of learning, which holds that the learner constructs or builds his/her own knowledge, as opposed to the previous notion of knowledge as something that was acquired through direct transfer from books or experts. In the constructivist theory of learning, information can be acquired, but knowledge is pieced together only through the incorporation of new information or ideas into the framework of the learner’s existing knowledge. Constructivism is based on two principles first noted by Von Glaserfield, cited by Cheek :

"(1) Knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject.
The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality." [Cheek 1992, page 63].

An elaboration of this model and an extensive bibliography is found in the book by Dennis Cheek on using constructivist approach to teach STS (science-technology-society).3

In other words, it is only when the learner begins to recognize and to understand relationships between existing ideas and concepts and newly-presented meanings that internalization truly occurs, making the new information accessible as part of the learner’s active reservoir of knowledge.

Joseph D. Novak and D. Bob Gowin are cognitive psychologists who expanded our understanding of the uses and benefits of the concept map with the publication of their book, Learning How to Learn.4 David Ausubel, a cognitive psychologist who was at the forefront of constructivist thought--and whose research and findings strongly influenced the work of Novak and Gowin--explains that "the acquisition of new materials is highly dependent on the relevant ideas already in cognitive structure and … meaningful learning in humans occurs through an interaction of new information with relevant existing ideas in cognitive structure." (REFERENCE?)


Purposes of Concept Mapping

Learners across the spectrum have discovered many useful functions for the concept map. The most common uses generally fall under three basic categories:

  • BRAINSTORMING SUPPORT: Provides an important format and direction for planning and generating new ideas.

  • STUDY AID: Facilitates effective note taking, summarizes newly learned concepts, or lends some structure or activity to reflective thinking.

  • INSTRUCTIONAL TOOL: serves as visual aid or schematic summary, demonstrates complex relationships, or provides a means for assessing of understanding or isolating misconceptions.

For the purposes of this class, we attempt to expose students to many of these beneficial applications; however, we primarily use the concept map as an instructional tool.

Learning diagrams are central to encouraging students to construct their own worldviews or "mental models," and reflect upon relationships and systems. Because students have experiential knowledge about the environment, it is important to use their frameworks as a starting point of learning. We use the student's existing experiential knowledge to obtain a their "mental model" as the starting point. This model is used to lead to the framing of the environmental problem in the context of the relevant environmental system. We then follow analysis, synthesis and evaluation as steps to decision making.

This approach is also at the heart of the constructivist approach to teaching and learning, which treats learning as "meaning making". The use of such maps serves as a primer for active learning in which students organize their prior knowledge for the present context, and prepare to modify or add concepts and relationships. Practically, such a start for a topic also serves as a tool for brainstorming, to spark discussion, and for the teacher to observe and correct existing misconceptions. The learning environment provided by starting a topic in this fashion also conveys to the student that there are alternate frameworks for representing and dealing with knowledge.

In Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge, perhaps the most useful primer on a variety of simple learning diagrams, David Hyerle states that learners can use learning diagrams "to become independent, flexible, and interdependent builders of knowledge."5

We often draw concept maps of environmental phenomena or of a configuration of environmental entities. Economics, politics, organizations, individuals, science, and technology all interact with the environment. They influence and are influenced by the environment. Concept mapping provides a systematic way to capture the relevant elements of a system.


Some Notes on Efficacy

When creating a concept map, the mapper must always keep in mind the ultimate purpose of his/her final product. The many uses of the concept map bring varying levels of organization or methods of presentation to ensure that the map’s goals are most effectively fulfilled. Concept maps can be held to different standards of organization or consistency depending on their intended purpose. Novak and Gowin would emphasize that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to organize a concept map–-they express time and again that different learners will come up with creative and innovative ways to represent concept relationships on paper. They do, however, offer three basic guidelines for assessing the relative value of any given concept map.

It seems that concept maps are most effective as an instructional tool when the map-reader has at least a basic prior knowledge of the subject. In this sense, a map is beneficial as a visual aid for summarizing or supporting ideas already presented in another form. Concept maps are capable of demonstrating complex relationships clearly and efficiently. However, if offered without supporting material, the perceived vagueness and complexity of the map can be overwhelming and intimidating, inhibiting the process of comprehension. Also, because important concepts are often reduced to a single word, the map-presenter must ensure that the meaning and implications of the word are not lost or misconstrued. For these reasons, it is most desirable to offer some sort of explanation or guide to the map, be it verbal or written.


Alternate Tools

Varying ways of drawing relationships among concepts are inherent to representing and reflecting on a systems view of a subject in question. Diagrams for representing knowledge frameworks, or logical sequences, have been used in many disciplines under differing names such as concept maps, flowcharts, and mindmaps.

Flowcharts, hierarchical, and cycle maps--as well as more analytical tools such as decision or probability trees--are also diagrams in this category, each with a different definition and purpose. Flowcharts are used to show sequences of events or activities or causal links. Hierarchical maps may show the relations - usually hierarchical - of various positions in organizations, including ecological niches. Cycle maps show the "closed loop" nature of processes in nature including biological or chemical cycles. These are particularly relevant to environmental issues as conservation of matter in nature often occurs by cycling of critical components. Thus we have the water cycle, or the carbon cycle. Cycling materials also becomes a cornerstone of ecological practices, as discussed extensively by Barry Commoner.6 "Closing the circle" is at the root of many emergent paradigms for design, engineering, and industrial production such as Green Design, and industrial ecology, that we discuss elsewhere in this book. Probability or decision trees are analytical tools often used in decision making in tracing the paths alternative decisions may cause the event or system to take, and associating with them the likelihood and consequences of each decision.

All of these tools are valuable means of expressing concepts and relationships, helping students in the process of defining and redefining their own mental models.



[1] Novak, Joseph D. and D. Bob Gowin. Learning How to Learn, Cambridge University Press, 1985. Page 15.

[2] Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

[3] Cheek, Dennis. Thinking Constructively About Science, Technology and Society Education, State University of New York Press: Albany, NY, 1992. Page 63

[4] Novak and Gowin, 1985.

[5] Hyerle, David. Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA, 1996.

[6] Commoner, Barry. Closing the Circle ....

  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.