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Concept mapping

Image: Concept map of sustainable tourism by a Year 8 student showing the three key concepts of ‘environment’, ‘social’ and ‘economic’ (Walshe, 2007)

“Concept maps emphasise connections between concepts and encourage deep thinking and understanding.”

Margaret Roberts, 2023, p 167

Topics on this page:

What is a concept map? | Why use concept maps? | Teaching students to construct concepts maps | How to use concepts maps | Benefits of using concept maps | Reading

What is a concept map?

A concept map (sometimes referred to as a mind map) is a visual organisation and representation of knowledge. It shows concepts and ideas and the relationships among them. 

You create a concept map by writing key words (sometimes enclosed in shapes such as circles, boxes, triangles, etc.) and then drawing arrows between the ideas that are related. You can add a short explanation next to the arrow to explain how the concepts are related.

Teachers who use concept maps think they are particularly significant in the development of conceptual understanding. They give students a way of organising ideas and content and showing links between them so they can begin to understand knowledge of the topic they are studying more holistically. They can be very simple, including only a few words and links, or highly complex.

Key reading

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.

Examples:

  • Leat and Chandler (1996) for an example of a Y10 student’s concept map to show her understanding of problems in national parks. Also reproduced in Biddulph et al (2021) p. 106.
  • Nichols and Kinninment (2001) examples of: earthquakes, coal mining.
  • Teaching Geography Autumn 2007 p. 141 in studying sustainability students draw concept maps of ‘environment’ ‘social’ and ‘economic’.
  • Teaching Geography Autumn 2007 p. 114 mind maps on coasts and for ‘geography’. (NB referred to as a ‘mind map’ but it is a concept map.)
  • Teaching Geography July 2002 p. 127 Case study National Parks Y10, Tropical rainforests Y9.

Why use concept maps?

New knowledge is easier to understand and remember when it is connected to existing knowledge. A concept map shows these connections, and teachers can use them as a scaffold to help students understand the links between concepts and ideas. Because they organise the information visually, students can find it easier to understand.

When students draw concept maps themselves, it helps them make sense of complexity and marshal their ideas. It helps them to see the connections between concepts and encourages deeper thinking and enables them to give more coherent explanations of geographical patterns and processes. 

Concept maps provide a higher level of challenge for students than spider diagrams because they focus on the relationships between the ideas, and require explanations.

  • See Wood (2007), which outlines how ‘mind maps’ were used with A level students to help them to see connectivity.

Teaching students to construct concept maps

If students have not seen or created concept maps, it is beneficial to model the process in class. It is important that the students understand the meanings of the concepts before you begin to construct the map. Think aloud as you create the concept map example with the whole class, drawing it on the board or using a visualiser.

Demonstrate how the links should be made with one pair of concepts and explain the link. Ask students to suggest more links between concepts and explain why. It is essential that you encourage clarity in their explanation for the links they suggest.

To use a concept map as a scaffold, you could prepare a partially completed concept map from which you had removed some of the concepts and labels. Show students the partially completed map and have them fill in the blanks and label the relationships.

Once students understand the process, you can give them a task to create a concept map. This is best done in small groups so they collaborate on compiling it from previously learned information. A good approach is to provide cards with an idea or ‘concept’ on each. 

The groups discuss these and agree how they should be laid out on sugar paper with links drawn between them. It is important that they label each link showing why it was made. This should help them to analyse and synthesise what they know about a topic.

When groups are creating concept maps themselves, note that they should:

  • Not make all the links before writing in the explanations, because this can get complicated and confused; it is better to add reasons when the links are drawn
  • Start with the most obvious links first, and should not draw in a link unless they can think of a reason why that link should be made.

Remind students that they can use a concept more than once to make links. You could also include blank cards in case groups think of another concept to include.

  • See Leat and Chandler (1996) for a particularly helpful list of instructions for students.
  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 166-7 for practical advice on using concept maps.

How to use concepts maps

Concept maps can be used at the start of a topic to tease out existing knowledge, or they can be used in the later stages of a unit of work to synthesise what students understand. They can be used at all levels, from year 7 to year 13. 

You can create a concept map as a whole class activity early in a topic to discuss relationships between ideas/processes and use it as a springboard to explore further. Concept maps are a particularly useful tool for essay planning.

  • See O’Brien (2002) for practical advice and it use for students’ extending writing.

Concept maps can be a powerful tool for diagnostic assessment. Prior to discussing a topic, ask students to create a concept map. A teacher can interpret a student’s level of understanding through the quantity and quality of the links that they draw and their descriptions of the relationships.

Refer to the list of possible uses for concept maps in Roberts (2023) p 165. Discuss each of these with your mentor. Identify two that you can incorporate appropriately in your forthcoming lessons and plan this together. Evaluate the use of this technique with your mentor when you have taught the lesson(s).

 Benefits of using concept maps

The Education Endowment Foundation (see Perry at al. 2021) has found evidence that concept mapping can improve student learning. 

They suggest that the value is in the extent to which students self-generate and organise information rather than the format that is used. They note there is variation in impact and suggest that this reflects the way the strategy is implemented.

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) p 167 for the advantages and disadvantages of concept mapping.

Teachers need to have a clear purpose for employing the strategy, and have planned how to assess students’ understanding.

In summary, concept maps can:

  • show the links between concepts more clearly because they are seen visually.
  • focus on the relationships shown by the links drawn between ideas and concepts.
  • help memory recall and to clarify and structure ideas.
  • support the development of higher-order thinking skills (create, analyse, evaluate).
  • help students to synthesise and integrate information, ideas and concepts.
  • encourage students to think creatively about the subject.
  • be used to organise students’ ideas as their research information for an enquiry; as they build the concept map, they might see connections that might otherwise not occur to them.

To follow up the activity, consider:

  • asking students how the use of a concept map has helped them give better explanations.
  • asking them to complete some writing that begins ‘The reasons why xx happened are not as simple as they appear because…’
  • discussing why the number of links does not always relate to the ‘importance’ of a concept – qualitative differences must be considered too.

Ruth Ward (2004) notes that students need to create concept maps several times before they really begin to use the technique effectively. She writes, ‘when the concept mapping activity was repeated for the economic geography topic on “Factors affecting farming types” the resulting work was much more detailed because students had a better idea of how to set out and develop the work.’

  • Plan a lesson for students to devise their own concept map. Prepare a demonstration to ‘model’ the process for students if they have not created one before.
  • Ask your geography mentor to observe your lesson and evaluate with them the use of the technique.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, B. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 106.
  • Ferretti, J. (2017) ‘Differentiation’ in Jones, M. (ed.) (2017) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 13 pp. 178–9
  • Leat, D. and Chandler, S. (1996) ‘Using concept mapping in geography teaching’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Nichols, A. and Kinninment, D. (2001) More Thinking through Geography. Cambridge: Chris Kington Publishing.
  • O’Brien, J. (2002) ‘Concept mapping in geography Teaching Geography, July.
  • Perry, T., Lea, R., Jørgensen, C.R., Cordingley, P., Shapiro, K., and Youdell, D. (2021) Cognitive Science in the Classroom. London: Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
  • Picton, O. (2010) ‘Shrinking World? Globalisation at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, 2nd edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 19.
  • Walshe, N. (2007) ‘Year 8 students’ conceptions of sustainability’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ward, R. (2004) ‘Mind friendly learning in geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Wood, P. (2007) ‘Developing Holistic Thinking’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.