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Best tools and practices for concept mapping

May 10, 2011

Last summer my interest in concept mapping was renewed when I read How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al.. At several points in the book they encourage higher educators to use concept maps. It has taken me a while to follow up but, with a little help from the POD List, here we go.

Concept map or mind map?

Concept mapping and mind mapping are graphic organizers, strategies for visualizing knowledge or graphically representing ideas. The terms may seem to be interchangeable, but here are some typical differences in the way they are used:

  • A mind map is a creative way to represent an idea or task, while a concept map is a formal attempt to organize or represent knowledge.
  • Mind maps focus on a central idea; concept maps connect multiple ideas.
  • Mind maps are colorful, use wavy lines, and often include pictures. Concept maps are made with geometric shapes and straight lines.
  • A mind map builds outward from the center, while concept map expands downward from the top.
Concept Map Mind Map

“Mind Map” is a registered trademark, so it may be less problematic to use “concept map” for everything. Don’t worry either way; the vocabulary police won’t be out there looking for you.

Uses of concept maps

This teaching-learning strategy is grounded in constructivist theory, which states that we create meaning from the interaction between our experiences and our ideas. Here are several strategies gleaned from the literature:

  1. Assess prior knowledge – students create a visual representation of what they know about a concept
  2. Show how experts organize knowledge – build a map that tells students how you think – this could also help in your own course design work
  3. Summarize reading – represent ideas in an article, the main points of a chapter, or the theme of a novel
  4. Plan a task – student groups visualize a project or lab assignment in order to get a handle on what is involved
  5. Conduct an assessment – at the end of a unit or course, students create a map to show what they have learned

In the video below, Karen Rohrbauck Stout at Western Washington University explains how she uses concept mapping as an assessment technique.

Practices to consider

  1. Construct maps with reference to a “focus question” that clearly specifies the problem or issue
  2. Start with a partially constructed map
  3. Provide a short list of key terms – or have students start by creating such a list
  4. Create several maps over time, allowing students to see how their understanding changes
  5. Students can work in groups – or start with individual maps and then form into groups
  6. Develop maps on a large whiteboard to allow for easy revisions
  7. Use software that allows multiple users to work on a map at the same time


The two most popular tools reported by POD users were

  • CmapTools – a free tool provided by Florida IHMC
  • Inspiration –  commercial software that has been popular for over twenty years

Three special tools you might consider are

  1. VUE  – an open source tool provided by Tufts – I’m surprised more people aren’t using this
  2. Prezi – a tool that provides a “canvas” for developing presentations
  3. iMindMap – a commercial product by Tony Buzan, who owns the Mind Map trademark

For a more complete list, see Ten popular concept mapping tools. You may also want to read about a new tool – Try Coggle for concept maps


I ran across a number of good resources for concept mapping as I researched this article over the past two weeks.



I’d like to thank the following folks who responded to my request on the POD list: Ed Nuhfer, James Greenberg, Aisha Jackson, Alice Cassidy, and Ken Plummer. Let us notify you of new articles by email!

36 Comments leave one →
  1. jerry miller permalink
    March 25, 2021 4:08 am

    that’s great information and also very useful, thank you for this.

  2. Shalin permalink
    November 2, 2018 5:47 am

    We have created useful concept mapping diagrams for learning. You can find more concept mapping templates in the diagram community of Creately online diagramming and collaboration software. There are 100s of diagram templates and examples in the community to be used freely.

  3. January 13, 2014 5:35 am

    Creately is also a good could based diagramming operating system. very useful, should be in your list.

  4. December 2, 2012 12:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection .

  5. dick wiley permalink
    October 19, 2012 2:43 pm

    this is a really good article-especially the resource section-thanks much!!

  6. Elisabeth permalink
    October 11, 2012 10:42 am

    As an educator, I also ADORE for its concept maps! I use this tool often for planning and organizing ideas, and it’s also a free account. It’s super easy to use, and it allows collaboration and links to exterior sites and documents.

  7. Lisa permalink
    May 15, 2011 6:30 pm

    I’d also recommend LucidChart. It has real-time collaboration so lots of users can work together on the same concept map at the same time.

    And they support professors and students with free educational accounts:

  8. May 11, 2011 7:37 pm

    A newer online tool that is good for concept mapping (and mind mapping, diagramming, flow diagrams, org charts, floor plans, network diagrams, etc) is Gliffy ( Nice UI and professional looking graphics. You can get some things done for free or go Premium. Good publishing and export options, as well.

  9. Chris Clark permalink*
    May 11, 2011 12:24 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Roy. I agree that keeping the two ideas distinct is a good idea. As I have looked around, though, it seems that fewer people use the term “concept map.” Perhaps because it’s not as sexy 🙂

  10. May 11, 2011 8:23 am

    MIND MAPS is a registered trademark owned by the Buzan Organization but only under “Organising and conducting courses in personal and intellectual awareness and methods of self-improvement”. So no one who uses the term “mind maps” will be going against that registration unless they offer mind map courses or training.

    Personally, I like to differentiate between the two maps types. I use both and find they help with different activities.



  1. Using Small-Group Concept Mapping for Active Learning - Notre Dame Learning
  2. Planning for the Last Day of Class - Notre Dame Learning
  3. Best tools and practices for concept mapping – /home/kOoLiNuS
  4. Student interaction in blended courses | NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  5. Two ideas for spring semester | NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  6. Teacher Resources – Patrisia Leaños
  7. Using Small-Group Concept Mapping for Active Learning « Notes on Teaching and Learning
  8. Top 15 student media creation projects | NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  9. Best tools and practices for concept mapping | ...
  10. Planning for the Last Day of Class « Notes on Teaching and Learning
  11. Try Coggle for concept maps | NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  12. Deep Tech » Mapping as Method
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  17. Best tools and practices for concept mapping | Nicola Losito
  18. Best tools and practices for concept mapping | DIGITAL EDUCATION |
  19. Best tools and practices for concept mapping | Representando el conocimiento |
  20. Best tools and practices for concept mapping « /home/kOoLiNuS
  21. Eleven+ ways NOT to use PowerPoint « NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  22. Concept Mapping: Best Practices | CAIT Knowledge Base
  23. E-Learning by pascalhouben - Pearltrees
  24. Nine strategies for teaching with Prezi « NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  25. Ten popular concept mapping tools « NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.
  26. Concept/Mind Mapping Resources

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