Increase learning success and structure knowledge with concept mapping

Concept Mapping is a method to structure and connect knowledge. This helps with learning and increases learning success. Concept maps can also be used to think about certain contexts and to start a conversation about them. This is especially useful when dealing with complex system interrelationships. This makes the method also interesting for the topics sustainability and sustainable development. Because especially in these areas, the ability to think in networks and systems is very useful. One reason why I took a look at Concept Mapping and present the method here.

Concept mapping – background and application

In German, "Concept Map" means something like "Begriffslandkarte" (from "Concept" in German). "Concept" and "Map" in dt. "map"). The American scientist Joseph Donald Novak was the main developer of the method and had a decisive influence on it in the 1970s. Since then, it has been the subject of numerous studies and research that have highlighted its positive impact on learning success in many areas.

Essentially, concept mapping is used to structure knowledge and knowledge connections, put them into context, and visualize them. The concept map is therefore also widely used in learning and teaching, both in schools and universities. But the method is also interesting for further education and training formats.

The theory on which the method is based is based on the assumption that knowledge is not built up through memorization, but through understanding, making sense or learning. Meaningful learning (engl. "Meaningful Learning"). This is a way of learning where learners actively engage with the learning material and reflect on it.

When working with the concept map, this is exactly what happens: learners have to define, classify, relate, and connect concepts in a meaningful way. Working in groups is good for this. Talking about it together promotes learning success even more sustainably.

Design and structure of a concept map

A concept map resp. A concept map is a graphical representation of a concept. It consists of terms and the relationships (relations) of the terms to each other represented by arrows and lines. The lines or arrows are usually labeled to indicate the relationships of the respective concepts. This results in meaningful conceptual units, the so-called "propositions". These are the building blocks from which the concept map is constructed.

Concept maps have certain similarities with mind maps in appearance and mode of operation. However, the concept maps also differ from the mind maps in essential aspects. In a mind map, the central theme is in the middle of the representation. Related topics and sub-topics branch out from these and form the arms of the mind map. Mind maps are also considered a creativity technique.

In a concept map, the focus is on the relationships and connections between the concepts. This often gives it a more net-like structure (s. Figure 1). In the literature one finds therefore also the designation concept network. Developing such a concept network, however, requires no less creativity.

A concept map can take on different structures and forms

Figure 1: Concept maps, or. Conceptual networks can take different forms and structures. They can be circular, hierarchical-tree-like, or net-like. Some also have similarities with mind maps (source: after Yin et al., 2005).

But as is so often the case, form follows function, so concept maps can take on very different forms (s. Figure 1).

How to create a concept map?

There are different ways to use a concept map or a concept map. Create a concept map. With a pen on a piece of paper, on a whiteboard or on a computer with appropriate software. Alone or in a group. The basic rules always remain the same.

The following guidance is oriented to Novak’s (2008) widely cited publication on concept mapping. I have only added my own comments and suggestions to the description.

step 1.Create context with the focus question

Novak recommends that at the beginning of the mapping a context, d. h. to provide a framework that directs attention to a specific question. Especially people who are still untrained in concept mapping benefit from it, because the thoughts stay on the topic and do not digress.

Teachers or group facilitators can create this context by providing a topic that is familiar to learners or by formulating an appropriate focus question. The focus question is then answered using the concept map.

Focus questions can be related to clarifying technical words or concepts ("What is an atom?", "What is an atom?", "What is an atom?", "What is an atom?", "What is an atom?")?"), as well as on interrelationships and dynamics ("What are the effects of repeated droughts in Germany on food supply?"). Other examples of focus questions related to sustainability are:

  • What is the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals?
  • What is social sustainability?
  • How does an ecosystem work?
  • What will happen if people in Germany eat less meat??

The dynamic questions can also form the context for scenario workshops. The concept maps with their networked system interrelationships that emerge from them form the starting point for the development of the various future scenarios.

Step 2.: Collect important terms

Once the context and focus question are clearly determined, one begins to collect important concepts. These should be closely related to the focus question and answer it as best as possible.

In a workshop or class, it is up to the facilitator or. Leave it up to the teacher to decide whether he or she wants to specify the terms or whether the participants or learners should develop them themselves. Both is possible. Lectures, videos, short texts or other sources of information provide necessary impulses or the basic knowledge for the collection of terms.

No matter which way you go when collecting terms: Overall, depending on the topic and its scope, you should come up with around 15 to 25 key terms. If you write the terms on index or moderation cards, it is easier to move them around later when arranging them.

For the example below, I have collected the terms related to ESD on a PowerPoint slide and sorted them accordingly.

Step 3: Create a preliminary concept map

The list of terms from step 2 forms the basis for the next tasks.

Novak recommends building the concept map from top to bottom. To do this, sort the collected terms and create a ranking from them. At the top of the list are the general and broad generic terms (z. B. "ecosystem" or "meat consumption."). At the end of the list, the specific and least general terms (z. B. "frog" or "schnitzel"). However, concept maps that do not follow this pattern are also conceivable.

For the analog, d. h. For a concept map that is not created on a computer, the terms collected on cards are spread out on a pad or on a pin board. Then you move them back and forth until a coherent logical structure emerges.

Labeled lines and arrows provide the connection between the terms. The labeling makes statements about how the terms are related in each case. Not all terms need to be used. If some of the terms remain on the collection list because they cannot be classified in the term map, then that is also OK.

Tip: If important terms are missing or connections cannot be sufficiently explained, this indicates gaps in knowledge or exciting research questions that can be uncovered with the help of the concept map.

Step 4: Search for cross connections

In this step, you look for cross-connections between terms and different areas of the concept map. Particularly in the case of more complex concept maps, knowledge and structures are thus linked across different topics and fields of knowledge. This links the concept network further and further.

Step 5: Revision of the concept map

If you create concept maps and use them as a learning strategy to explore a topic, you can keep revising and expanding your concept map. The number of revisions is not limited. A concept map is therefore never really finished.

Canas et al. (2016), however, provide some guidance on how large and comprehensive a concept map can be. Criteria include u. a.:

  • The concept map should answer the focus question.
  • The terms included, should be relevant.
  • The map should be as precise as possible. Unnecessary terms should be removed.
  • The network of terms should not be too complex. Unnecessary cross-connections should also be removed.
  • Concept maps that are too complex make it difficult to communicate about them.

An example: a concept map on the topic of ESD

Following the instructions above, I have created a concept map on the topic of ESD (Education for Sustainable Development). The underlying text is taken from the ESD portal of the German UNESCO Commission. It is available there for reference (as of 07/2020).

The text itself is already enriched with key terms of sustainable development. I first marked these in the text, transferred them to a PowerPoint slide and then developed them into a concept map. The result is shown in figure 2.

A concept map on ESD

Figure 2: An example of a concept map. The underlying focus question is "What is ESD?"?"

Please feel free to write your comments in the comments.


Concept maps or. Concept maps or concept networks stimulate learning and reflection on one’s own knowledge. Concept mapping works well alone in the study room, but concept maps developed in group work are also promising.

For me, the decisive factor in this method is that it not only has a positive effect on learning and learning success, but can also train networked thinking and systems thinking.

It is this competence that is central to reflecting on the impact of one’s behavior on the environment and the future and to making responsible decisions. It is not for nothing that this competence is one of the key competences of sustainable development. This also became clear to me again when I created the concept map above.

And now have fun with it.


Novak, Joseph D., Canas, A. J. (2008). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them. Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition

Canas, A. J., Reiska, P., Novak, J. D. (2016). Is My Concept Map Large Enough? In: Innovating with Concept Mapping, 7th International Conference on Concept Mapping, CMC 2016, Tallinn, Estonia, September 5-9, 2016, Proceedings, Springer

Yin, Y., Vanides, J., Araceli Ruiz-Primo M., Ayala, C. C., Shavelson, R. J. (2005). Comparison of Two Concept-Mapping Techniques: Implications for Scoring, Interpretation, and Use, Journal of Research in science Teaching Vol. 42, No. 2

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