Introducing Concept Maps

Posted by Vivian Beaty on January 22, 2018

A concept map is a visual display representing the spatial relationships and connections between ideas or concepts (Smith and Ragan, 1993).  Concept maps have also been referred to as graphic organizers, sematic mapping, information mapping, and networking (West, Farmer, and Wolff, 1991). According to West, Farmer, and Wolff, there are three common types of concept maps. The three common types of concept maps include the spider map (also referred to as a cluster map), chain map (also referred to as a flowchart), and hierarchy map (West, Farmer, and Wolff, 1991). Examples of the common types of concept maps have been provided below. 

  • Spider Map – the organization of this map begins with an idea being place in the center of the map and associated offshoots of the central idea is linked outward representing sub-themes and supporting factors. 

Example of an image of a spider concept map

  • Chain Map – the organization of this map presents ideas in a linear formation. This map is also referred to as a flowchart map where decision inputs and outputs can be inserted. 

Example of an image of a chain concept map.

  • Hierarchy Map – the organization of this map presents an idea or information in the order of importance. 

Example image of a hierarchy concept map

It is important to note that there are hybrid forms of the three common types of concept maps commonly used.  For example, a concept map displaying the relationship and connections among and within systems may be comprised of features of a spider and hierarchy concept map.  Concept maps can be created by instructors to demonstrate relationships and connections between key concepts and subordinate ideas or by students to demonstrate their understanding and explanations of the relationships and connections associated among concepts and subsuming components.  

Theoretical Foundations

In the 1950s, a researcher by the name of Joseph D. Novak and his research team set out to understand how and why some learners obtained a deep and meaningful understanding of content and concepts and others did not.  Novak believed that “knowledge acquired meaningfully is usually retained longer, functions to facilitate future learning and can be used in novel problem solving or creative thinking (Novak, 2010).”  In 1963, Novak read a research article written by David Ausubel on assimilation theory.  David Paul Ausubel began his career in the field of medical psychiatry and later returned to school at Columbia University to earn a Ph.D. in developmental psychology (Ivie, 1998).  As a psychologist with a research interest in education and cognitive development, Ausubel wanted to learn more about deep level learning that reflected a meaningful learning experience  which allowed students to retain material over a longer period of time rather than superficial knowledge frequently forgotten resulting from rote learning.  The idea is that student’s learn by creating and making connections and links from prior knowledge to new material being learned. It is through this connection and association between prior knowledge and new material that supports deep level meaningful learning experiences (Cliburn, 1990; Ivie, 1998; Novak, 2010; Daley & Torre, 2010.  This is the underlying basis of Ausubel’s assimilation theory. Using Ausubel’s theory on assimilation as a theoretical foundation, Novak developed an instructional tool called the concept map. The purpose of a concept map is to provide a big picture view of the relationships, connections and associations of an idea or concept to its subsuming components.  

In her Doctor of Nursing Program (DNP) courses, Dr. Lisa Young has integrated the use of concept maps. Below is a short video clip of Dr. Young describing how she uses concept maps in her courses.  Click on the link below to view the video.

While the video focuses on Dr. Young's use of concept maps in her nursing courses, concept maps have been used in other disciplines such as education, science, computer science, business, branding and marketing courses, and research data organization,  On Thursday, January 25th at 2 p.m. in a Blackboard webinar, I will be discussing and demonstrating the use of the Mindomo concept map software to help gain a big picture perspective on how to organize and shape research ideas and concepts.  All are welcomed to participate in the discussion. If you are unable to attend, but would like to learn more, please feel free to contact Vivian Beaty at


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Yang, Y.F. (2015). Automatic Scaffolding and Measurement of Concept Mapping for EFL Students to Write Summaries.  Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(4): 273-286.