Concept Map

Concept maps are a type of two-dimensional graphic organizer consisting of nodes (often drawn as boxes or ovals) that are labeled with a concept name and links drawn between the nodes (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006; Novak & Cañas, 2008). The links are often given a label that expresses the relationship between two concepts and the link may indicate directionality(Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). They can look similar to webs or chains. Concept maps began to gain recognition as an educational method in 1985; since this time, over 500 articles have been published on the topic, most of them after 1997(Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). Novak and Gowin (1984) are credited with first bringing concept maps to the educational world as a study and teaching tool.

How do concept maps help students to learn and retain knowledge?  Two recent review papers invoke Ausubel’s (1968) theory of meaningful learning to provide an explanation  (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006; Novak & Cañas, 2008). According to Ausubel, learning is the process of assimilating new knowledge into one’s existing knowledge frameworks (Ausubel,1968; Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1978). Traditional concept maps are hierarchically organized diagrams (i.e., they depict the most general, inclusive concepts at the top and the most specific concepts at the bottom; Novak & Cañas, 2008). Hierarchically-structured maps lend themselves to the integration of new (typically more specific) knowledge with existing concepts.  Although Wheeldon and Faubert (2009) contend that not all concept maps need be organized hierarchically, they maintain that the maps should visually depict relationships among constructs, thus providing a structured means by which students can represent their understanding.  Whether the concept map is organized hierarchically or not, creating one requires students to deeply think through the components of a topic. People are thought to better understand and remember information that they can make sense of in light of what they already know(Ausubel, 1968; Novak & Cañas, 2008). 

Students may be provided with pre-constructed concept maps and asked to consult them as study guides; however, constructing their own concept maps is associated with the best learning outcomes (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). Students may work individually or in groups. One variation is to provide students with “Expert Skeleton Maps” which are concept maps that have been partially constructed by an expert in the field (Novak & Cañas, 2008). The student’s task is to complete the concept map using a list of remaining concepts, which is provided for them. Another alternative is for the instructor to place the nodes in the correct spots on the concept map but to ask the students to label the linkages between the nodes (Novak & Cañas). Novak and Cañas claim that labeling the linkages, or explaining how concepts are related to each other, is really the crux of what students need to understand.

Concept maps are frequently used as a learning and/or study tool in the sciences (Novak, 1991; Novak & Musonda, 1991; Yarden, Marbach-Ad, & Gershoni, 2004). Published articles documenting the use of concept maps as a learning tool exist in the fields of biology (Yarden, Marbach-Ad, & Gershoni), physics (Martinez, Perez, & Suero, 2013; Nousiainen, 2013), engineering (Martinez, Perez, & Suero), nursing (Harrison & Gibbons, 2013; Lee, Chiang, Liao, Lee, Chen, & Liang, 2013), and algebra (Lapp, Nyman, & Berry, 2010). Concept maps are also used as a tool to train pre-service  (Chiu & Lin, 2012; Nousiainen, 2013) and currently working teachers (Greene, Lubin, & Slater, 2013). Because they entail a small amount of written text, concept maps may be particularly effective tools for students with low verbal abilities (Holliday, Brunner, & Donais, 1977; O’Donnell, Dansereau, & Hall, 2002; Stensvold, & Wilson, 1990) or students whose native language is not the language of instruction (Chularat & DeBacker, 2004). There is some evidence that creating concept maps at the end of a unit or lesson is a more effective learning strategy than using them to preview concepts at the beginning of a lesson, in terms of students’ long-term retention of the material (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006).

Concept maps are associated with high rates of student engagement(Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). They are an optimal group activity because, as students work together to create the map, they are actively processing and discussing the material. Because the maps themselves do not involve a lot of written prose, this frees up time for students to discuss the material without getting bogged down in a lot of writing (Nesbit & Adesope). Novak and Cañas (2008) write that a good concept map should go through at least three rounds of revision; in this way, students gain practice working with a product through multiple iterations. A meta-analysis of 55 studies found that students who completed concept maps on a topic had higher levels of knowledge retention and transfer compared to students who read passages of text, attended lectures, or participated in classroom discussions on the topic (Nesbit & Adesope). The same meta-analysis found that completing concept maps was only slightly more effective than engaging in other summary-making learning strategies, such as creating lists or outlines, which suggests that other methods that prompt students to generate summary-level findings, and to understand the relationships between important concepts, may be equally effective.

Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education


Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational psychology:  A cognitive view. New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Ausubel, D.P., Novak, J.D., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational psychology:  A cognitive view (2nd ed.). New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Chiu, C-H. & Lin, C-L. (2012). Sequential pattern analysis:  Method and application in exploring how students develop concept maps. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 11(1), 145-153.

Chularat, P., & DeBacker, T.K. (2004). The influence of concept mapping on achievement, self-regulation, and self-efficacy in students of English as a second language. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29, 248-263.

Greene, B.A., Lubin, I.A., & Slater, J.L. (2013). Mapping changes in science teachers’ content knowledge:  Concept maps and authentic professional development. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(3), 287-299.

Harrison, S. & Gibbons, C. (2013). Nursing student perceptions of concept maps:  From theory to practice. Nursing Education Perspectives, 34(6), 395-399.

Holliday, W.G., Brunner, L.L., & Donais, E.L. (1977). Differential cognitive and affective responses to flow diagrams in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 14, 129-138.

Lapp, D.A., Nyman, M.A, & Berry, J.S. (2010). Student connections of linear algebra concepts:  An analysis of concept maps. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 41(1), 1-18.

Lee, W., Chiang, C-H., Liao, I-C., Lee, M-L., Chen, S-L., & Liang, T. (2013). The longitudinal effect of concept map teaching on critical thinking of nursing students. Nurse Education Today, 33(1), 1219-1223.

Martinez, G., Perez, A.L., & Suero, M.I. (2013). The effectiveness of concept maps in teaching physics concepts applied to engineering education:  Experimental comparison of the amount of learning achieved with and without concept maps. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(2), 204-214.

Nesbit, J.C. & Adesope, O.O. (2006). Learning with concept and knowledge maps:  A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 76(3), 413-448.

Nousiainen, M. (2013). Coherence of pre-service physics teachers’ views of the relatedness of physics concepts. Science & Education, 22(3), 505-525.

Novak, J.D. (1990). Concept maps and vee diagrams:  Two metacognitive tools for science and mathematics education. Instructional Science, 19, 29-52.

Novak, J.D. (1991). Clarify with concept maps:  A tool for students and teachers alike. The Science Teacher, 58, 45-49.

Novak, J.D. & Cañas, A.J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them. Retrieved from:

Novak, J.D., & Gowin, D.B. (1984). Learning how to learn. New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Novak, J.D. & Musonda, D. (1991). A twelve-year longitudinal study of science concept learning. American Educational Research Journal, 28(1), 117-153.

O’Donnell, A.M., Dansereau, D.F., & Hall, R.H. (2002). Knowledge maps as scaffolds for cognitive processing. Educational Psychology Review, 14, 71-86.

Stensvold, M.S., & Wilson, J.T. (1990). The interaction of verbal ability with concept mapping in learning from a chemistry laboratory activity. Science Education, 74, 473-480.

Wheeldon, J. & Faubert, J.  (2009). Framing experience: Concept maps, mind maps, and data collection in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods,8(3), 68-83.

Yarden, H., Marbach-Ad, G., & Gershoni, J.M. (2004). Using the concept map technique in teaching introductory cell biology to college freshmen. Bioscene:  Journal of College Biology Teaching, 30(1), 3-13.



Further Resources: 

  • Novak, J.D. (1998). Learning, creating, and using knowledge:  Concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations. Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Nesbit, J.C. & Adesope, O.O. (2006). Learning with concept and knowledge maps:  A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 76, 413-448.
  • Bart. M. (January 31, 2011). Concept maps help build connections to learning [blog post]. Retrieved from:
  • Buehl, M.M. (2011). Best practices in educational psychology:  Using evolving concept maps as instructional and assessment tools. Teaching Educational Psychology, 7(1), 62-87. Includes rubrics for evaluation.
  • Torre, D.M., Durning, S.J., & Daley, B.J. (2013). Twelve tips for teaching with concept maps in medical education. Medical Teacher, 35, 201-208.
  • Institute for Human and Machine Cognition CMap Website: Free downloadable software for creating concept maps.