Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Using Concept Maps

Concept maps are a graphic representation of students’ knowledge. Having students create concept maps can provide you with insights into how they organize and represent knowledge. This can be a useful strategy for assessing both the knowledge students have coming into a program or course and their developing knowledge of course material.

Concept maps include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes, and relationships between concepts, indicated by a connecting line. Words on the line are linking words and specify the relationship between concepts. See an example (pdf).

Designing a concept map exercise

To structure a concept map exercise for students, follow these three steps:

  1. Create a focus question that clearly specifies the issue that the concept map should address, such as “What are the potential effects of cap-and-trade policies?” or “What is materials science?”
  2. Tell students (individually or in groups) to begin by generating a list of relevant concepts and organizing them before constructing a preliminary map.
  3. Give students the opportunity to revise. Concept maps evolve as they become more detailed and may require rethinking and reconfiguring.

Encourage students to create maps that:

  • Employ a hierarchical structure that distinguishes concepts and facts at different levels of specificity
  • Draw multiple connections, or cross-links, that illustrate how ideas in different domains are related
  • Include specific examples of events and objects that clarify the meaning of a given concept

Using concept maps throughout the semester

Concept maps can be used at different points throughout the semester to gauge students’ knowledge. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask students to create a concept map at the beginning of the semester to assess the knowledge they have coming into a course. This can give you a quick window into the knowledge, assumptions, and misconceptions they bring with them and can help you pitch the course appropriately.
  • Assign the same concept map activity several times over the course of the semester. Seeing how the concept maps grow and develop greater nuance and complexity over time helps students (and the instructor) see what they are learning.
  • Create a fill-in-the-blank concept map in which some circles are blank or some lines are unlabeled. Give the map to students to complete. 

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