How to make a concept map

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“A good way to define the context for a concept map is to construct a Focus Question, that is a question that clearly specifies the problem or issue the concept map should help to resolve. Every concept map responds to a focus question, and a good focus question can lead to a much richer concept map”[1] (Cañas and Novak)

When you feel you have a focus question that gets to the heart of the subject you intend to map, you will add boxes containing the concepts related to the question. Where you can, add linking phrases showing how the concepts are related, but if you have not decided how they are linked, leave the linking phrase empty or the concepts unattached.

Building a concept map – a concrete example[edit]

Let us suppose that you have been asked to prepare a paper on “The place of reason and emotion in management”.

Focus question[edit]

First you develop the specific focus question that this map will attempt to answer: How are emotions and reason balanced in organizational management?

Get started[edit]

You record this in the map, and add the three essential concepts that must appear because they are your starting point, as the focus question shows:


So what do you know?[edit]

These concepts can be seen to be connected and you would add linking phrases to show your thinking about how they are related:


That stage is not difficult because the focus question defines what appears and your knowledge will suggest immediate and simple connections between the concepts.

For beginners in concept mapping, the next stage can be more challenging because it is so open – “Where do I start?” is a common question, or “How do I decide what concepts to add?”

One way of provoking your thinking is to work out how the six traditional question-stubs, What? Where? When? Why? Who? and How?, might be applied to the three concepts we have so far.

Another is to check through the visual thinking guides to see which might help explore your focus question. In the example we are working on, Compare and contrast might be useful, as might Tracking an enquiry. Then you can come back to the concept map to start adding your new thinking and findings that result from those guides.

Perhaps you have concluded that, as we are not robots, how we handle emotions is what counts and you could could start to add consequences that might be expected to flow from that realization:


You extend your thinking on consequences, in particular noting that a purely rational decision based in incomplete facts may not be the best (and in real life, aren’t facts always incomplete?), though the decision-maker will be able to defend it:


And this brings out the idea that good managers will use emotions to inspire, but that lost tempers will do little but chip away at team relationships, and that good managers will often make good decisions with rationality, of course, but with a dash of intuition thrown in.

The result[edit]


Now, you need to ensure that this all makes sense. The map itself is made up of a series of propositions which can be examined one by one and checked, and then discussed with others. If you use software like CMAP, this will even produce a list of the propositions for you. Here are a few, derived from the map above:

  • Management must be centered on Rationality, reason
  • Emotions may be Uncontrolled emotions
  • Emotions should be Controlled emotions
  • Rationality, reason should not eliminate Emotions
  • Management must control and make use of own Emotions
  • Emotions can inform Intuitions
  • and so on …
  • Place the main concept at the top of the page.
  • While reading or gathering information, watch out for new concepts and add a note of them to the map as follows:
  • If you do not yet know how they are related to a concept that is already on the map, note them on a pending list on a separate piece of paper, with any notes that may help describe the link later.
  • If you know how they are related to a concept that is already there:
- go ahead and add it in the appropriate place,
- try to write how the\ two concepts are related (the linking phrase),
- check to see if any other concepts are related to the new one
- if so, add links and linking phrases as well.
  • As you build each layer of concepts, link to others when you can.
  • Each time you add a concept, consider whether you now know enough to add any of the concepts currently on the pending list.

Concept Maps for youngsters[edit]

  • Give students Post-It notes with terms on them, related to the subject being taught.
  • On a large sheet of paper on the wall, have them group the notes where they think they go. This is somewhat like clustering.
  • Leave these open for changes as new concepts are introduced to the class, and let the students move the notes as they learn.
  • When finished, draw lines connecting the notes.
  • for each concept pair connected by a line, ask students to suggest a sentence that describes the connection between the two concepts. Write this along the line.
For example in a map about animals, the line connecting platypus to mammal might have “A platypus is a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal” written along it. Later students will learn to drop the concepts themselves from the linking sentence to give a linking phrase, and break down concepts and relationships still further (’egg-laying’ and ‘aquatic’ for example), depending on the context.
  • Walk all students around the maps, having them grade other’s maps – do they make sense?

Deeper concept maps[edit]

If you are looking for ways to take concept mapping to a deeper level, this quote from Cañas and Novak may give you some useful ideas:

“Objects or things are key building blocks of the universe, and they are also key building block of knowledge. We use words, usually nouns, to label objects. Events are the other key building blocks of the universe, and also for knowledge.

“When we focus on events, we are usually asking how something happens, and concept maps emphasizing events, using verbs, … tend to be richer in explanations, whereas concept maps focused on objects tend to be more descriptive. In general, concept maps showing explanations require more deep or dynamic thinking. We have observed, however, that most concept maps deal with objects, not with events, and propose that through the proper focus question, and through questioning in general, we could move towards the dynamic thinking that is required to build concept maps showing explanations.”[1]

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Re-examining the foundations for effective use of concept maps Alberto J. Cañas and Joseph D. Novak
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