Concept maps


Teach and/or support learning

Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme

What can I do?

  • Design activities that have students create a concept (or mind) maps to join key points over several weeks of learning.
  • Consider having students work collaboratively to create concept maps.

What is this about?

In the context of higher education, concept maps are graphical representations of the relationships between concepts and ideas. Concept maps are often used to help students organise and visualise the structure of a subject or topic, and to identify the connections and relationships between different concepts. Concept maps can be created manually or with the use of software, and they can take many forms, including hierarchical maps, radial maps, and matrix maps. Concept maps are often used as a learning tool to help students understand and organise complex material, while concept diagrams are more often used as a communication tool to represent and share knowledge within a specific field or discipline.

What's the evidence say?

A concept map is a node-link diagram that illustrates the relationship between concepts.

Concept maps can be used as part of a learning activity or as a study tool.

nb. At INSPIRE, we're pretty strict about what we cite. Use this wikipedia article for example rather than an authority on whether/why it works. Having said that, according to a study in Nature, Wikipedia is about as accurate as Britannica.

How to concept map..

Student learning improves when their educators use concept maps.

This finding is consistent regardless of whether you compare concept maps to:

  1. Not using any maps
  2. Learning through discussion or lectures alone
  3. Creating or studying outlines or notes

The effects of concept maps are fairly stable.

The effect of concept maps on learning is robust. There is no difference in the effects of concept maps on learning when:

  1. Comparing STEM and non-STEM subject
  2. Using static or interactive maps
  3. Working individually, in groups, or both

Student learning seems to improve most when using concept maps if students construct the maps and if concept maps are included in learning activities for roughly 4 consecutive lessons.

Concept maps make knowledge meaningful while reducing demands on memory and attention.

Meaningful Learning

Concept maps allow students to encode the information they're learning in a meaningful way. This process is known as meaningful learning, which concerns how students connect existing and new knowledge. Concept maps allow students to 'see' the higher-order concepts and how they connect more clearly, allowing them to more easily assimilate new knowledge into this structure when it's presented.

Cognitive Load

Learning a dense body of knowledge can be overwhelming. Using concept maps to construct meaningful, connected, and simplified summaries of knowledge can lower some of the barriers to learning. In other words, concept maps make it easier for students to pay attention to and remember key information as knowledge has a place to exist. It is no longer suspended in intangible space.

What's the underlying theory?

  1. The Cognitive Load Theory suggests that concept maps can help reduce the cognitive load of the learner by providing a clear and organized structure for the material, which can make it easier to process and understand. Concept maps can also help to highlight the key concepts and relationships within a subject or topic, which can aid in memory and retention.
  2. The Generative Learning Theory suggests that concept maps can facilitate learning by promoting the generation of new knowledge and connections between existing knowledge. By creating a concept map, students must actively engage with the material and think critically about the relationships between concepts. This process of generating new knowledge can enhance learning and retention.
  3. The Self-Explanation Theory suggests that concept maps can facilitate learning by providing opportunities for students to explain and justify their understanding of the material to themselves or to others. This process of self-explanation can help students to clarify their thinking, identify gaps in their knowledge, and integrate new information with their existing knowledge.

Where does the evidence come from?

The evidence comes from two high-quality meta-analyses.

This evidence summary is informed by two meta-analyses. The earlier of the two studies - the one by Nesbit and Adesope (2006) - has some issues regarding quality including not reporting a risk of bias or publication bias, and identifying high heterogeneity. In the latter paper - the one by Schroeder et al. (2018) - most of these issues are mitigated. The only concern around quality for this study is the high heterogeneity, which might mean that an unexamined variable is contributing to the main finding. This said, both studies found that the more students were exposed to concept map activities, the better their learning, which gives us confidence about the effects of concept maps on student achievement.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: astage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.

Kinchin, I. M., Hay, D. B., & Adams, A. (2000). How a qualitative approach to concept map analysis can be used to aid learning by illustrating patterns of conceptual development. Educational Research, 42(1), 43–57.

Nesbit, J. C., & Adesope, O. O. (2006). Learning with concept and knowledge maps: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 76(3), 413–448.

Niu, L., Behar-Horenstein, L. S., & Garvan, C. W. (2013). Do instructional interventions influence college students’ critical thinking skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 9, 114-128.

Reale, M. C., Riche, D. M., Witt, B. A., Baker, W. L., & Peeters, M. J. (2018). Development of critical thinking in health professions education: a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning, 10(7), 826-833.

Schroeder, N. L., Nesbit, J. C., Anguiano, C. J., & Adesope, O. O. (2017). Studying and constructing concept maps: a meta‐analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 431–455.

Tiruneh, D. T., Verburgh, A., & Elen, J. (2014). Effectiveness of critical thinking instruction in higher education: a systematic review of intervention studies. Higher Education Studies, 4(1), 1-17.

Additional Resources