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What Is a Concept Map and How to Do Concept Mapping (Actionable Guide for Beginners)

What Is a Concept Map and How to Do Concept Mapping (Actionable Guide for Beginners)

How to make a concept map?

If you haven't got a clear answer to it, then this guide is for you!


This article is loaded with templates and best practices on each step of mapping. In short, to make a concept map, you need to go through: preparation, brainstorming, structuring, linking, and finalizing.

But first...

What Is the Concept Map, or Concept Mapping?

A concept map is a tool that visualizes relationships between concepts. It is useful to debunk complex information on a large scale. Research shows that it is helpful to create group mental model, identify gaps and loopholes, and enhance learning of science subjects.

Like many tools and methods, concept maps have style differences. The creator of concept mapping Dr. J. D. Novak, however, promotes hierarchical order and ONE focus question in one map. He also thinks that linking phrase is a must for every connection line.

An example of Novakian style concept map looks like this:

A Novakian style, top-to-bottom concept map, with concepts in different colors.

Simple Novakian concept map template - click to read full screen and download in XMind Share

There are various ways to classify concept maps. Quantitative vs qualitative, free form or fixed structure, collaborative vs individual, demonstrative or analytic, etc..

But when people say concept maps, they usually refer to the qualitative, free-style, and analytic type - the Novakian style.

This tutorial is about creating the Novakian concept map and works best for individuals. But tips for other types are included as well.

Differences Between Concept Maps and Other Graphic Organizers

They are different from other graphic organizers in their free-form structures and emphasis on knowledge connections, which is why concept maps allow many-to-many relationships.

Since the differences are mild, people like to mix their usage with charts, mind maps, flowcharts, and timelines, etc..

A concept map mixed with mind map in hierarchical order.

Concept map mixed with mind map: Career direction. Click to read full screen and download in XMind Share.

We compare more in-depth between mind maps and concept maps in this guide. You can access our free tool to check which diagram fits your projects.

Elements (Jargons) of Concept Maps

The major elements of concept maps are nodes, linking phrases(verbs), cross-links, structure and propositions.

(Fun fact: all the infographics in this section are made in XMind)


Every concept or idea is put inside a box (usually a rectangle shape.) These boxes are called nodes in concept mapping. Ideas and concepts should be as concise as a word or a short phrase.


Not every links are cross-links. Only the lines between nodes from different segments are called cross-links.

Each link has its own linking verbs/phrases to explain the node-to-node relationship.

The # of links is an important metric to identify major concepts. They should have more than 2 or 3 links connected to and from other nodes.



Proposition of a concept map entails two nodes and their linking verbs. A proposition is the smallest unit of a map. Even so, every unit is readable. That is, a proposition should form a meaningful sentence.

Proposistional structure is also a characteristic of concept maps.


Concept maps can be widly free-form. But the ideal form would be hierarchical structure.


Hierarchical structures put most important concepts at the visual center. It can be at the top, in the center, or on the left. Then align nodes according to their importance accordingly.

Focus Question (and Underlying Assumptions)

Focus question is the problem or issue that the map is aiming to debunk. Clarity of the focus question influences the difficulty of making and using of the diagram.

Underlying assumption is the model you use to analyze the focus question. It is nice to have, but hard to figure out at first. Skip it if you have no clues at first, but do think about it during revisions.

Underlying theory and focus question provide the context for a map. As concept maps are highly contextual, the clearer they are, the more fruitful is the concept mapping.

How to Make a Concept Map

Step 0 is choosing drawing medium. Paper is great for initial analysis and digital canvas is good for ongoing revisions. You can check out our article on the pros and cons between handwriting and typing for details.

Step 1: Prepare - Focus Question and Research

Pick one topic that you are interested in and ask a critical question about it. This is your central topic and focus-question, which typically starts with "How", "Why", and "What".

Remember, the concept map is free form (aka complicated). So better to be humble in choosing a question.

Do LOTS OF research if you are new to the topic, so that you prepare yourself with a decent number of ideas. If it is a casual study, scan through the top 5~8 results of Google search will do.

In the following steps, I will use "How to get work done when you are not motivated" as an example.

Best Practices

  • Manage a macro concept map by linking its nodes with micro diagrams. That way you can avoid to crowd the canvas by too many details. image
  • Start by a narrow AND interesting question. How to fall asleep within 5 minutes? Why am I so tired?

Step 2: Brainstorm - Concept Generation

List out all the related points you can come up with.

Notice that at the brainstorming phase, you should skip judging on redundancy, relationships, or importance of the listed items. The objective is on the number of concepts.   By the end of this phase, you may generate around 20~50 nodes. This number fits the most common sizes of paper/monitor screens.

You can document your ideas in spreadsheets, for that makes your large-scale concept scoring and ranking as smooth as a breeze.


Best Practices

Concept mapping is NOT note-taking in boxes. You should keep the concepts concise and clear.


If you write too much inside one node, the map has low readability. So be merciless to redundancy at this stage. Besides, I find splitting the notes into propositions very handy.

But, it is not good writing too little, either. For confusing concepts, you can put a brief definition in parens within the box and connect it to a node that states the importance.

If you create a map for public use, then consider the expertise of the audience. Readers' familiarity with the topics affects your word choices and the necessity of adding definitions.

Step 3: Structure - Concept Organizing

This step involves two actions: grouping and scoring. As these actions go back-and-forth to each other, I list them as one united step.

Concept grouping requires putting related or similar nodes into piles. You can achieve that by putting all ideas on one Post-It notes and organizing them on paper.

I prefer doing it in XMind in mind map structure, as it is very easy and quick to move ideas between branches.


After copying contents from spreadsheet to XMind, you can get all the concepts inside one canvas.

Then drag and drop similar items into one group and name their parent topics. In XMind, you can multi-select these topics and use Command+Enter (or Ctrl+Enter on Windows) to quickly create parent topics for them.


Connect to other parent topics if an item fits into multiple groups. Also highlight them, as they might be important topics.


Scoring requires weighing each of the concepts on some scale.

The nodes are rated upon a 1-5 range for their relative importance, with 1 meaning the least important and 5 the most.

While scoring, you can reorganize groups or put back omitted words.


Best Practices

  • Try to build up the visual hierarchy. Hierarchical order gives clarity to the map. Align nodes according to importance in (preferably) top-down order. Center-out order is acceptable. Visually separate important nodes by color or font size differences.
  • Document your marking rubrics for the concepts. When you become more experienced of the subject, you can re-examine the selection of ideas.


  • Mark highlighted topics at least at scale 3.

Find out connections between ideas and connect them with Linking Phrases.

The effort to select linking words helps you consolidate the relationship between nodes. Sometime you may find it challenging to find appropriate linking phrases. This difficulty is helpful, as it signifies your confusions on the link.

Examples of linking phrases include: "shows", "defined as", "covers", "as demonstrated by", "makes", "can be", "for example", "leads to", "determined by", "important because".

After you generate primary links, create cross-links that illustrate relationships between same-level nodes of different branches.


Best Practices

You have to be selective on link choices. Notice that two things are always connected, but only essential links are helpful to trigger insights and move the needle.

Step 5: Finalize - Continuous Revision

Congratulations! By this stage, you are close to the final!

Finalizing your map works like going through series of Q&As. It entails three types of evaluations: structure, content, and graphic design. The former two should take disproportionately more time than the last one.

Structure investigation has two parts: the visual clarity of the structure and accuracy of relationships.

  • Visual clarity of structure:
    • Are your central nodes easily identifiable? 
    • Sub-concepts branch appropriately from main ideas?
  • Accuracy of relationship: 
    • Are linking lines connect in right directions? 
    • Linking words accurately describe the relationship between concepts? 
    • (Optional, only for digital maps) Hyperlinks effectively used?

Content assessment looks on the logics of the propositions and completeness of the map.

  • The propositions make sense?
  • Include almost all critical ideas (at least 20)?

Graphic design evaluation includes handling of design elements and creativity in expression.

  • Do the nodes and links fit visual proximity and alignment principles?
  • Do you use contrast to highlight important from the other?
  • Texts are easy to read and appropriately sized to fit the page?

Concept map: How to get work done when you are not motivated.

Best Practices

Revisions go beyond what is presented on the map. To name a few: the underlying theory, marking rubrics, linking phrase choices, and grouping decisions.

Concept Map Templates

Chemistry Concept Map

Including the concepts of the Mole, Molar Mass and Empirical Formula.

Useful for maps containing: complex linking verbs and multiple cross-links, but small amounts of nodes.

Chemistry concept map Template: The Mole, Molar Mass and Empirical Formula

Nursing concept map

Concept map for nursing, includes concepts: nursing diagnosis, education and more.

More hierarchical, clean style. Suitable for diagrams containing: large numbers of concepts but simple connections.

concept map - Nursing Template, including: nursing diagnosis, education and more.


Literature review for concept map research.

Concept mapping from bad to good.

Marking rubrics for the concept map.

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Avinash Priya
Nov 21, 2019
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