Use Concept Mapping to Map Your Understanding

 Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge.  They originated during the 1960s when scientists were trying to understand how infants learned, and there wasn't a tool available to map out the complex, interconnected processes.  It turns out concept mapping is an invaluable tool that helps people learn and also share knowledge efficiently with others.  This article presents important detail about what is knowledge, how we develop it, and how we represent it in concept maps.

Suggested Time: 60-90 min to read, take notes, and discuss article.

In essence, a concept map involves creating a network of nouns connected by action verbs.  Above is a high-level concept map of Earth Systems Science.  The arrows on the lines show what is acting on what.

The first step in creating a concept map is to identify the nouns associated with the topic.  "Creating a parking lot" is the process of listing all of the important nouns in one place (the parking lot).  And just as in a parking lot, the types of cars are not well organized throughout the lot.  Key is to get them in one place first.

Tips When Creating Concept Maps 

  • Try to minimize crossing links. 
  • Avoid "danglers" - these are concepts that are not connected to anything else following it.  This tends to mean it is not critical. 
  • Use action verbs that are descriptive about the connection between the two concepts.  "Is" and "has" are poor descriptive verbs. Deep learning (and so the biggest challenge) is creating useful and descriptive linking verbs.

Once you are done with the four activities on the right, try: 

Activity 5) Share your concept map with someone and have them look at it for several minutes without talking.  Then, discuss your activity.  Are you surprised how well they have a feel for why you like this activity of yours?

Suggested Time: 30-45 min.


1) Create a parking lot of one of your favorite activities (hobby, sport, something you find very enjoyable).  Try to create a thorough list of the nouns associated with the activity.  Use a pencil and paper, white board, chalkboard, notecards, scraps of paper, or Post-Its.

Suggested Time: 30-45 min.

2) Try to cluster your nouns into groups that have a common theme or relationship.  Most likely when you create your concept map, these will be close to each other to help minimize crisscrossing links.  If you used notecards/scraps/Post-Its, this makes it easier to move the concepts around.

Suggested Time: 30-45 min.

3) Download CMAP Tools, which is free and works on Macs and PCs.  There is a web-based version that will work on Chromebooks  and a version for iPads

Suggested Time: 15-30 min.

4) Create a concept map of your favorite activity.  

There are  tutorials available.  The key is to use the Style Palette to modify colors, boxes, lines, fonts, etc.  Make sure it is displayed - if not, go to Window in the File Menu and then click "Show Style Palette".

Suggested Time: 45-60 min.


Activity 6

 Above is an example of a rather complex concept map of Earth's radiation budget. Study it to identify processes that balance changes in the system and what processes amplify changes in the system.  What would happen if the Earth did not have greenhouse gases (GHGs)?  Explain your reasoning to your team or peer.

Suggested Time: 30-45 min.