Learning from the PEEL Experience, page 218 June 1995
Concept mapping is a procedure that assists students in their understanding
of the connections between the major concepts in a content area. The process
also requires students to understand the concepts themselves. It is a procedure
that has consistently worked early in the change process. It looks a
"legitimate" task to students and teachers, but demonstrably engages students
in different, and improved, learning. It can be used in a range of ways and it
has been common to see improved linking in students questions and comments.
In a concept map some terms are arranged on a piece of paper and each is
connected by lines to as many others as is sensibly possible. On every line is
written the nature of the connection the learner is making. Drawing concept
maps requires students to form links - usually many more links than they would
make while reading notes or participating in a lesson. Because one sequence
must be chosen in classrooms or textbooks to present ideas and events, students
commonly fail to think about linking ideas which appeared 3 weeks or 15 pages
apart - they display "linear learning". Depending on the types of terms chosen
the teacher can stimulate different types of links.
Concept maps can be used in a number of ways for different purposes. As some
of these purposes are mutually exclusive, teachers need to be clear as to why
they are using a concept map on any particular occasion. Various features of
concept maps are discussed next.
Concept maps are a powerful diagnostic tool. Diagnosis requires not just
looking for correct/incorrect links, but reading what students say and using
this to help decide what they currently believe. For instance in the example
shown in Figure 1, the student firstly does not link between photosynthesis and
any of the energy concepts and secondly seems to regard photosynthesis (which
is a process) as a place - a part of the leaf.
Figure 1 Concept Map of Photosynthesis
Concept maps can be used either early in a unit of work as one way of
probing the ideas students hold, or later in the unit to monitor student
progress (see Using Concept Maps as A Before and
After). In the former case, as with all probes of student views, it is
essential that students are not assessed or judged; the teacher should stress
that the maps are being used to identify the range of views in the class.
Concept maps can give valuable feedback on the effectiveness of previous
teaching. Weaknesses in the teaching are often reflected in a particular link
or links being incorrect or missed in many maps.
Including one or two of the activities done by the class as terms on the
map, such as "experiment 3" and a "zoo excursion", will promote reflection on
the purposes of the activities.
Asking students to replace one concept with another on a completed map and
then make the adjustments they see necessary, can focus on their understanding
of the similarities and differences between the terms. For the concept map in
Figure 1, replacing photosynthesis with respiration focuses on the
relationships between these two processes.
Including a relevant application, such as "light bulb", with electricity
concepts can give information about the ways students are linking science
concepts with their everyday world.
Concept maps can provide excellent summaries of units of work. When used
in this way, the students need a more complete list of concepts than for some
Maps can be used to help students integrate a new concept into their
thinking. After they have produced a concept map using known concepts,
introduce and discuss the new concept and then ask them to add the new concept
to their map.
Concept maps are an excellent stimulus for small group or whole class
discussion. English teachers in particular have found that generating maps such
as that in Figure 2 stimulates high quality discussion and analysis of
Concept maps are a powerful way of stimulating higher order thinking. Maps
can force students to link ideas in new ways. The more widely separated the
terms, such as terms from both chemistry and biology, the more divergent is the
We have found students learn to use concept maps fairly quickly - after two
or three attempts most students are quite competent. However these first one or
two attempts do involve a different and difficult task for students; a little
time and encouragement is essential if negative reactions are to be avoided. We
offer the following advice for training students, particularly younger
students, to use this procedure.
Show the students a completed example. This applies to many procedures -
students need to be able to imagine the final product.
Begin with a simple and familiar example. A good start is to have the links
definitional, such as contour line, altitude, map and slope. If the students
are working alone, use only 4 to 6 concepts. If they are working in pairs, more
concepts can be used.
Emphasise the importance of thinking about all possible links and writing
on the links. These are the two most common sources of errors with
Do not expect students first attempts to be good. If the attempts are
poor, give students a second attempt at the same map, perhaps with one or two
For the first map they attempt, give a suggested layout for the concepts,
or even give one possible link.
It is vital to stress that there is no one correct answer; layouts can
vary, more than one form of appropriate link between a pair of concepts is
often possible, and there are occasions when it is not clear whether a link
Before and after the first attempt, discuss some of the different sorts of
links that are possible in order to broaden the students perspectives about
what kinds of links can be constructed.
The next five pieces of advice are relevant once students are familiar with
Generally we would suggest using 7 to 10 terms only (see Figure 2).
However, more can usefully be used where some terms have only 1 or 2 links, and
where there is a strong hierarchy of concepts. For instance, the map of rock,
sedimentary, lava, slate, marble, metamorphic, granite, igneous, shale, pumice,
magma, limestone and sediment contains a manageable number of links even though
there are 13 terms.
Figure 2 Concept Map on Romeo & Juliet
Require students to organise their own layout of concepts. Giving
students a suggested layout can prompt them in ways that reduces the
effectiveness of the procedure. On the other hand, giving suggestions
about how to form their layout can be helpful to students. These
suggestions would include thinking about the number of links a concept has,
putting linked concepts close to each other and non-linked apart, beginning
with the concept(s) they see as the key or most central ones in terms of
links. Our usual advice is to put the central concept(s) in the middle of
the diagram, as in Figure 1. Others have suggested putting the central
concept(s) at the top.
Initially it is best to select terms from a small area of content because
the links are fairly easy to find. However the most powerful thinking comes
when the terms are drawn from much broader domains: whole units, groups of
units and even different subjects. In other words, choose some terms
which will generate quite new linking.
A concept map of a novel can include the names of characters as well as
concepts, and often the names of objects, if they symbolise concepts.
Figure 2 shows a concept map of the play Romeo and Juliet.
Another variation, called a relationship map, includes only the names of
characters. Students have to link the characters by explaining the
relationships between them. This requires the students to provide the
The task can be varied for students experienced in mapping by asking them
to select the concepts. This can be done at the end of a topic, or from a
chapter of a textbook, or from their class notes (see Developing Effective Note-Taking Skills). This
variation can be very valuable in that they have to both identify the concepts
they perceive to be significant and map them. A half-way position is obviously
possible - give students some concepts and invite them to add others if they
feel others are needed.
With younger students concept maps can be made more engaging
by constructing the map on a table top. The selected items can be linked with
masking tape with the connection written on the tape. (Concept Mapping SEEDS 97