Understanding Concept Maps: A Vital Tool to Help Students with Concept Attainment

concept maps

What exactly is a “concept”?  According to Joseph D. Novak (1996), a concept is a “perceived regularity in events or objects designated by a label…[while] concept maps serve to show relationships between concepts, and it is from these relationships that concepts derive meaning” (p. 32). In the 1970s, Novak and his team developed the technique of building concept maps with science students, in order to link ideas, build connections, and represent knowledge. Concept maps help students better understand and organize new ideas, previous knowledge, and connections between the two.

As an elementary school teacher, concept maps are used in various settings and across the curriculum. One of the benefits of being an elementary school teacher is that I teach the same group of students a variety of subjects, so some students who may not do well in science may excel in art, some who may struggle in Language Arts may blossom during science classes; as a result, it is interesting to see a student’s understanding in various subject areas. An activity that demonstrates this beautifully is the concept map. I usually introduce concept mapping as a whole group brainstorming activity; this way, students can build on ideas and make connections together. Teachers can begin by modelling what a concept map looks like and how to connect the various ideas together and then provide students with a template to fill in with words provided. This gradual release of responsibility will allow students both the experience and confidence to begin a concept map of their own from scratch. I like the idea of sharing concept maps in small groups either by having students explain their concepts and connections or by having them merge their ideas into one larger map. This type of rich activity would foster excellent reflection, discussion, and evaluation.

Although concept mapping appears to be a simple activity, it is actually quite complex and difficult for some learners. According to Novak (1996), concept map can be an empowerment tool for both teachers and learners as they can use concept mapping to “facilitate meaning-making and to facilitate a sense of personal control over meaning-making for future citizens” (p. 41). This seems to be a significant benefit to using concept maps in the classroom; however, I believe that it takes a lot of time, practice, and discussion to attain such a benefit. Novak (1996) explains that “students need practice and experience in becoming skilful in concept mapping, and this requires patience on the part of both teachers and students” (p. 40). This could be problematic as teachers are constantly stressed over not having enough time to cover the curriculum expectations in the allotted time, so finding extra time to teach, model, and practice using concepts maps may not always be attainable.

As I mentioned earlier, teachers must use the gradual release of responsibility model with concept mapping as it is a difficult task for students to comprehend. To me, it appears that concept maps may be difficult to students because it is so open-ended that they need some form of structure, which is why some suggest providing students with a list of terms to use in the mapping and students must determine the relationship between the words (Novak, 1996, p. 39). Novak (1996) does state, however, that although the initial experience may be daunting, students who genuinely attempted to produce a hierarchical structured concept map did so with practice (p. 35).

One thing that I find problematic with concept maps is the need for evaluation. I personally do not think that concept maps should be used for evaluation, as they are meant to help a person organize their thoughts, determine their preconceptions, and allow them to make connections. I do not feel that this form of thinking should be evaluated, as it is more of a self-assessment tool to help a students understand their starting point and what they already know. I would prefer to use concepts maps at the beginning of a unit to activate prior knowledge and inform my teaching, to organize ideas learned during lessons, and throughout a unit where students keep returning to a concept map to add on more ideas and connections as they learn.

Work Cited:

Novak, J.D. (1996) Concept mapping: a tool for improving science teaching and learning. In: Treagust, D.F., R. Duit, and B.J. Fraser (Eds.) Improving teaching and learning in science and mathematics. pp. 32 – 43 London, Teachers College Press.

For more info please refer to:

Novak, J. D. & A. J. Cañas, The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01 Rev 01-2008, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2008″, available at: http://cmap.ihmc.us/Publications/ResearchPapers/TheoryUnderlyingConceptMaps.pdf.

Plotnik, E. Concept Mapping: A Graphical System for Understanding The Relationship between Concepts. ERIC Digest, 1998.

Saskatoon Public Schools. Instructional Strategies Online. What are Concept Maps?

Vanides, J., Yin, Y., Tomita, M., & Ruiz-Primo, M.A. Using Concept Maps in the Science Classroom.  Science Scope, Vol 28, No. 8, Summer 2005 (p.27- 31).

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