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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1995 (Issue 93) - Science Teaching for Sustainable Development (UNESCO; 1995; 152 pages)
View the documentEditorial - Juan Carlos Tedesco
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View the documentIntroduction: New cultural and ethical frames of reference - André Giordan
View the documentThe Science, Technologies and Society (STS) Movement and the teaching of science - Gérard Fourez
View the documentThe aims of scientific education in the coming decades - Victor Host
View the documentThe purposes and methods of technological education on the threshold of the twenty-first century - Jean-Louis Martinand
View the documentScientific and technological training for traditional communities - Raúl Gagliardi
View the documentConcept mapping to facilitate teaching and learning - Joseph D. Novak
View the documentThe non-formal communication of scientific knowledge - Bernard Schiele
View the documentNew models for the learning process: beyond constructivism? - André Giordan
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Concept mapping to facilitate teaching and learning - Joseph D. Novak

Joseph D. Novak (United States of America)

Professor of Education and Biological Sciences at Cornell University. Primary research interests in learning theory, structures of knowledge and the theory of education. Author of nineteen books, over 100 papers in professional journals and thirteen book chapters. Consultant to over 300 schools, universities and educational projects, and to business corporations, including Kodak and Procter & Gamble. Most recent research work has been on the application of metacognition tools to improve corporate competitiveness.

What is a concept map?

Concept mapping originated in a research programme on children’s understanding of important science concepts (Novak & Musonda, 1991). Although the technique arose as a tool of educational research, its use can significantly help teachers in planning instruction, as well as aiding authors in planning textbooks, and learners in organizing their learning.

Fundamentally, a concept map is a way to represent the structure of knowledge. Knowledge can be perceived as being composed of concepts and the relationships between them, called propositions or principles, arranged in a hierarchical structure. We define a concept as a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label. Usually the label is a word, but it may also be a symbol such as + or Σ. While the symbols used to represent a given concept may vary from language to language, the regularity represented by the symbol is approximately equivalent. Since concept meanings derive from the context in which they were learned, culture and experience has an impact, so no two individuals conceive precisely the same meaning for any concept label. The differences can be larger between individuals in different cultures or speaking different languages; this is one of the problems in translation of text materials, since dictionary equivalents of words do not necessarily carry the same conceptual meanings.

Concept meanings are acquired early in our lives when we learn that events or objects possess a certain regularity and this regularity is usually labelled as words by adults and older siblings. In this way we learn concepts such as hot, cold, cup, love and birthday party. Once a basic store of concepts is acquired, these in turn can be used to teach us other concepts. Somewhere between the ages of two and four, children move from the discovery of concept meanings on their own (concept formation) to the acquisition of concepts by using language (concept assimilation). Most school learning is essentially concept assimilation, where the meanings of new concepts, and relationships between concepts, are acquired through the use of language, and hopefully with the benefit of direct experience with objects and events.

Concept maps can facilitate the preparation of lessons, the sequencing of topics presented in a lesson, and the sequencing of lessons by teachers and authors. When instructional materials are planned from concept maps, it becomes relatively easy for students to grasp the meanings of the materials, especially if the students themselves are asked to prepare their own concept maps of the topic (Novak, 1991/1993). It is essential for students to learn to prepare their own maps in order for them to profit from the use of this tool.

Concept maps also serve as a useful vehicle for discussion between students and between students and instructors. Since the concept maps prepared by any two individuals will show at least some differences in structure, they create the opportunity for negotiated meanings between students and between students and instructors. This is an essential element in the facilitation of learning. It also permits students to see errors in initial concepts and concept relationships, and offers them more powerful ways to look into a domain of knowledge.

Finally, concept maps can be used for evaluation to assess what students know, both initially as they begin study of a topic and subsequently as they progress through the study. The maps can represent their understanding of relationships between different conceptual domains. Figure 1 shows a concept map describing the nature of concept maps.

Preparing concept maps

Maps can be prepared from almost any knowledge source. The easiest way to begin may be to select a section from a textbook or syllabus that is rich in conceptual content. The first map prepared by students might involve only a single paragraph, though it is generally better not to select a paragraph dealing with structure of an object or a taxonomic discussion. Students begin by circling key words or concepts in the text material and creating a list of these key concepts. Since almost every word is a concept label, it is important for students to learn to distinguish between the ordinary language concept labels and those labels that deal explicitly with the knowledge being transmitted.

Once concept labels have been identified, these can be ranked in order from the most general and most inclusive concept in the text selection to the most specific and least inclusive. If the instructor chooses to build the first map with the students on an overhead projector, chalkboard or computer projection, discussion can help to reach some general consensus on the best ordering of the concepts. Of course, there is no perfect order or perfect structure for a concept map.

FIGURE 1: A concept map showing key features of concept maps.

Next the concepts are arranged in a hierarchical (pyramid-shaped) structure with the more general concepts at the top of the map and the most specific concepts at successively lower levels. Refer again to Figure 1 as an illustration. The next step is to create statements or propositions that convey the specific meaning of ideas presented in the paragraph. Lines are drawn between pairs of concepts, and labels are selected to indicate the relationship between these concepts. The initial line labelling may suggest a restructuring of the concept map. Since this is always desirable, it is helpful to use pieces of adhesive note paper, which allow easy repositioning of concepts to form new hierarchies. Ideally, students would be given the opportunity to create maps on a computer screen, and much software now exists that permits this.

Once a reasonable hierarchy of concepts is established, and linking words and lines are constructed between all pairs, it is important to look for interrelationships between concepts on different segments of the map. Cross-links should be marked on the map and the lines labelled indicating the relationship. Cross-links are not always easy for students to find initially, but they are important because they help students to integrate the meaning of the ideas in the entire text. Of course, it is possible to link every concept with every other concept in some way, but only the most salient cross-links should be recorded on the map.

Finally, the map should be re-thought and redrawn, preferably after a few days of further study and incubation.

Application of concept maps

As indicated earlier, concept maps are basically a tool for representing knowledge. They are highly condensed and possess a hierarchical structure similar to the structure in which knowledge is stored in our brain. Therefore, concept maps can be effectively used to facilitate the writing of a paper or an entire book. They help the writer to organize key concepts and relationships, and also suggest a sequence for the writing beginning with the most inclusive and more general concepts. Since the more general concepts are usually ones that other people may understand, the organization of the map is also an effective organization for communicating ideas to other people.

To ascertain what students know, we can use concept maps drawn by the students, perhaps with a list of ten to twenty concepts presented with instructions to add more related concepts and appropriate linking words. They can also be used to plan interviews, or for research or for teaching insights, and then serve as a kind of template to evaluate students’ understanding. Figure 2 shows a concept map used to plan and evaluate interviews with ten to twelve year-old students on the subject of photosynthesis.

It should be obvious from the above that concept maps can be effective for teachers in planning lessons or indeed an entire course syllabus. Once again, it is generally best to begin with the more general concepts and concept relationships and then proceed sequentially to the more specific concepts. One of the difficult challenges novice teachers face is how to move from topic to topic, and here concept maps can be helpful to both novice and experienced teachers. Of course, a very specific concept may be unusual and therefore a good way to capture students’ attention, so the art of teaching requires good judgement in sequencing instruction, while in general following the principle of moving from more inclusive concepts to more specific ones.

FIGURE 2: A concept map on photosynthesis used to plan and interpret interviews with 10-to 12-year-old children.

Concept maps can be effective in helping students organize knowledge so they can understand events in a laboratory or a field setting. The instructor might review some of the important concepts relevant to a given laboratory or field study, and create a list of these; the list can be used by the students in mapping their own knowledge prior to initiating the laboratory study. The maps might be more limited at this point, giving only the most salient concepts and relationships necessary to understand the observed events or objects. Following the laboratory or field activity, students could be asked to elaborate and modify their concept maps; this activity can serve both as a capstone to consolidate the knowledge gained in the observations and as an evaluation method.

Concept maps can also be used effectively in facilitating collaborative work between learners. When two or more students work together to create a concept map for a given domain of knowledge, there will be much lively discussion and exchange of ideas, often using language familiar and meaningful to the learners, language that even experienced teachers often have difficulty constructing. Concept mapping can facilitate co-operative learning or collaboration of students in small groups. It is also useful to have students prepare concept maps individually and then share these in a small-group setting. One approach I have used successfully is to follow the sharing of individual concept maps with construction of a group map. Subsequently, group maps can be posted on walls or cabinets around the room and students might be asked to rank the group maps from most to least communicative. This provides both motivation for constructing good group maps as well as an effective learning experience. It also serves as an evaluation of students’ thinking.

Students might also construct concept maps of other domains of knowledge, such as how to learn meaningfully (see Figure 3), or attitudes and values that are important in the learning of any subject matter. Concept maps can represent feelings and values as well as knowledge, if concepts are selected that express these ideas. The choice of linking words can also add feelings or values to knowledge structures by using such links as ‘very important,’ ‘trivial,’ ‘most significant,’ etc. In one of our recent studies, we found that concept maps dealing with working relationships, when shared between individuals and working groups, have been effective in resolving personal conflicts or obstacles, thus smoothing out work accomplishment (Fraser, 1993).

Evaluating concept maps

There is no one scoring formula that is most appropriate for concept maps, since concept maps may be used for a wide variety of purposes. In general, however, several features of concept maps can be evaluated and ‘scored.’

Firstly, one can count the number of correct or relevant concepts included in a given map for a domain of knowledge. One or more points could be assigned for each correct concept. Secondly, each of the relationships indicated on the map could be checked for accuracy and one or more points assigned for each. It may be useful to offer more points for those relationships that use linking words giving high precision or specificity to the relationship rather than a more generic connection. For example, there is greater information and precision in the statement, ‘photosynthesis - occurs in all - green plants,’ than in the relationship ‘photosynthesis - occurs in - green plants’. Of course, assigning variable points for the quality of propositions constructed on the maps is a judgement the teacher must form, much the same as evaluating essay exams or short-answer question responses.

FIGURE 3: A concept map showing some of the key ideas to be considered by teachers and learners.

The teacher’s judgement is also required to assess the quality of the hierarchy established in the map. This is very important, and I usually suggest that the quality of hierarchy receive at least as much credit as the relative number of concepts included in the map. Finally, it is important to look for significant cross-links or interrelationships on the map. These are very important and should receive more credit than simple relationships between two adjacent concepts.

One can deduct points for inappropriate or inappropriately-linked concepts. The degree of complexity in the scoring algorithm one chooses depends, in part, on the purpose of the work and the time and other concerns of the teacher.

The time required for grading concept maps is usually much less than for grading essay exams. Moreover, it is possible to cover a much larger domain of knowledge in the same amount of test time and with far greater precision.

Concept maps, when constructed by students, require that they not only have specific knowledge but that they be able to synthesize and evaluate this knowledge. Therefore, the maps represent the highest levels of evaluation and comprise what is now commonly called an ‘authentic evaluation’ tool (Novak & Ridley, 1988). After students are taught to use concept maps for learning, they are generally happy to be evaluated using concept maps, and they often express how efficiently the map represents their knowledge.

Facilitation of meaningful learning

Probably the most important objective in using concept maps is to encourage students to move away from rote memorization of information. The facilitation of meaningful learning, that is, the incorporation of new knowledge into the existing knowledge structure of the learner, is not easily done by students in most school settings. Preparation of concept maps requires that students seek out and understand relationships between concepts and domains of concepts, and this is an important way to facilitate and encourage meaningful learning. Students come to value concept maps as a learning tool, especially if these are also used in evaluation and constitute a substantial part of their course grade (Novak & Gowin, 1984).

It is easy to underestimate the difficulty that all learners have in reaching high levels of meaningful learning. Indeed, even experienced teachers find that when they begin to map domains of knowledge conceptually, their own less-than-optimal learning of the subject matter reveals ambiguity in their understanding of specific elements in the domain of knowledge. Concept mapping may not be the easiest tool to use for rote learning, but it is certainly one of the easiest tools to use to facilitate high levels of meaningful learning. In the end, this is their primary value and should be the primary goal of instruction.


Fraser, K. 1993. Theory-based use of concept mapping in organizational development: creating shared understanding as a basis for co-operative design of work changes and changes in working relationships. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University. [Unpublished Ph.D. thesis.]

Halpern, D.F. 1989. Thought and knowledge, 2nd ed. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jonassen, D.H.; Beissner, K.; Yacci, M. 1993. Structural knowledge: techniques for representing, conveying, and acquiring structural knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum.

Novak, J.D. 1991. Clarify with concept maps. The science teacher (Arlington, VA), vol. 58, no. 7, p. 45-49.

Novak, J.D. 1993. How do we learn our lesson? The science teacher (Arlington, VA), vol. 60, no. 3, p. 51-55.

Novak, J.D.; Gowin, D.B. 1984. Learning how to learn. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Novak, J.D.; Musonda, D. 1991. A twelve-year longitudinal study of science concept learning. American educational research journal (Washington, DC), vol. 28, no. 1, p. 117-53.

Novak, J.D.; Ridley, D.R. 1988. Assessing student learning in the light of how students learn. Washington, DC, American Association for Higher Education Assessment.

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