Concept Maps

Last Updated 2/16/01 - Go Back


A Concept Map is the use of a noun and verb structure to visually represent a collection of concepts. In the above example we see five "noun clause" boxes and six "verb clause" relationships. A noun clause is a concept and the lines map their relationships. Note how much information is so clearly conveyed so quickly. Compare this to how the same information would appear as text:

Software engineering uses patterns. Both software engineering and patterns have a body of literature and allow more efficient and/or effective results. A pattern is defined as a reusable abstract solution to a design problem.

If you are average (most of us are :-) then the text was not as good as the map for quickly and clearly conveying the same information.

Concept Maps are good for somewhat small knowledge areas. They can be nested by allowing drilldown on a noun box to the Concept Map for that noun. In this manner even a large domain can be Concept Mapped, though things get awkward as the size of the domain increases. Concept Mapping is a great way to organize important ideas in ways to show the most meaningful relationships. Mapping can lead to new insights, such as a relation one never noticed or a new concept required to link, summarize or govern other concepts.

There is no one right way to map a concept. Concept Maps have been shown to be closer to how we think than text or lists of data. They offer better understanding of a subject and result in better long term memory than rote memorization. The reason for this is the use of relationships. The mind remembers better (faster and longer) when something new is connected to something old, or when relations to remember are more clear.

How to Create a Concept Map

1. Start with a list of concepts to be mapped, such as the most important nouns in a paragraph or idea. The list need not be complete to get started. Once you are experienced you can start with a single concept.

2. Pick the most important concepts and arrange them on a page. It usually helps to start with the one most important concept and place it at the top of the page. Then add lesser concepts on a layer below the top concept(s). Then add a layer below that until most concepts are on the page.

3. Connect the concepts with arrows, also known as links.

4. Add verbs to the links.

5. Now that the map has emerged, add more links and concepts to complete it. Try especially hard to add cross-links (explained below) and avoid a simple tree structure.


Cross-links are those links that "crossover" other links or otherwise turn a tree structure into a web. A map with few cross-links indicates insufficient relations and shallow understanding of the knowledge.

Usually a noun or verb clause should be three words or less. Brevity is power. Less is more. However certain domains may require more words on the average.

The ability to Concept Map a subject is correlated with the ability to think abstractly, because Concept Mapping is the practice of turning concrete facts into an abstract structure that represents those facts in a different way. So it's only a small jump to conclude that serious practice of Concept Mapping will lead to better abstractional abilities. In fact, it may turn out that these are two very separate abilities, and that one is learned before the other in a stepping stone fashion.

UML and other design notations are really just an advanced, domain specific type of Concept Map.

If you're having trouble grasping or communicating a knowedge area, try Concept Mapping.

Once a topic gets large, Concept Maps are too verbose and text is better. This is the reason we see such little use of maps in everyday society.

White board high level analysis, design or explanatory skills with bubbles and lines are just another form of Concept Mapping.

Further Information

Here's a map of Concept Map itself, found by Peter Vennel of the JSL Study Group. As Peter said:

"What better way could there be to explain a concept map other than by using a concept map itself. While surfing on the net, I came across this interesting concept map describing concept map, done by Joseph D. Novak, Cornell University."

Peter also found this super site on Concept Maps with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and did this fine "spider stylemap " example of an organization at a JSL meeting.

Concept Maps can get quite elaborate and can be used to illustrate process. See example1 and example2.