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How Concept Maps Enhance Thinking and Step-by-Step Guide to Creating One

How Concept Maps Enhance Thinking and Step-by-Step Guide to Creating One

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Visual learning tools like concept maps enhance understanding and organization in education, business, and personal development. Concept maps are versatile and effective, allowing users to visualize relationships between ideas. This article explores the benefits, key elements, differences from other graphic organizers, and practical steps to create effective concept maps using powerful features of Xmind.

What Is a Concept Map?

A concept map is a visual diagram that shows relationships between concepts and ideas. These maps are typically hierarchical, with the most general concepts at the top and more specific sub-concepts arranged below. Each concept is usually enclosed in a box or circle and linked to related concepts with lines or arrows, often accompanied by linking words that describe the relationship between the concepts.

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.

Benefits of Using Concept Maps

Concept maps offer numerous benefits across different fields:

Enhance Understanding

By visually organizing information, concept maps help in grasping complex topics. They allow users to see the relationships and hierarchies between different concepts at a glance. This visual representation can make abstract or complicated information more concrete and accessible, helping overall comprehension of the subject matter.

Help Memory Retention

The visual nature of concept maps makes it easier to remember information. When concepts are visually linked in a structured format, they become more memorable. This is because visuals help engage multiple senses and cognitive processes, reinforcing learning.

Promote Critical Thinking

Creating a concept map requires analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information. As users determine how concepts are related and organize them into a coherent structure, they engage in critical thinking. This process encourages deeper understanding and helps in identifying gaps in knowledge.

Mind Maps vs. Concept Maps

While both mind maps and concept maps are used for organizing information visually, they serve different purposes and have distinct structures:

  • Mind Maps: Centered around a single central idea with branches radiating outwards. They are typically used for brainstorming and idea generation.
  • Concept Maps: Hierarchical and show relationships between multiple concepts, making them more suited for understanding and explaining complex topics.

👉 Detailed comparison.

Flowcharts vs. Concept Maps

Flowcharts and concept maps are both visual tools, but they are used in different contexts:

  • Flowcharts: Used to represent processes or workflows, showing a sequence of steps or actions.
  • Concept Maps: Focus on the relationships between different concepts rather than the steps of a process.
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How to Make a Concept Map?

Step 0: Key Elements of a Classic Concept Map

Before creating a concept map, it's important to understand its main elements:

  • Concepts: Main ideas represented as nodes.

  • Links and Cross Links: Lines or arrows showing relationships between concepts.

  • Linking Words: Phrases on the links explaining relationships.

  • Propositions: Statements formed by combining concepts with linking words.

  • Hierarchical Structure: Organizes concepts from general to specific.

  • Focus Question: The central question guiding the map.

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Step 1: Preparation - 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 a 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, scanning through the top 5~8 results of a Google search will do.


  • Manage a macro concept map by linking its nodes with micro diagrams. That way you can avoid crowding the canvas by too many details.
  • Start with a narrow and interesting question, like how to fall asleep within 5 minutes or why am I so tired?

Step 2: Brainstorming - 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.


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

In this step, Xmind would be the perfect tool for brainstorming and organizing your ideas. 👇

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Step 3: Structuring - Concept Organizing

This step involves two actions: grouping and scoring. As these actions go back and forth 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 note and organizing them on paper.

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.


  • 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 in the subject, you can re-examine the selection of ideas.

Find out links between ideas and connect them with Linking Words.

Proper linking words help you consolidate the relationship between nodes. Sometimes you may find it challenging to find appropriate linking phrases. This difficulty is helpful, as it signifies your confusion on the link.

Examples of linking words 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.


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.

In Xmind application, you can double-click the Relationship line to start editing the linking words. 👇

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Step 5: Finalization - Continuous Revision

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

Finalizing your map works like going through a 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 includes two parts: the visual clarity of the structure and the 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 connected in the right directions? 
    • Do linking words accurately describe the relationship between concepts?
    • Are hyperlinks effectively used? (Optional, only for digital maps)


The content assessment looks on the logic of the propositions and the completeness of the map.

  • Do the propositions make sense?
  • Does it include almost all critical ideas (at least 20)?

Graphic Design

Graphic design evaluation includes handling 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?
  • Are texts easy to read and appropriately sized to fit the page?


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

Real Applications and Concept Map Templates

Concept maps are used in various fields for different purposes. Here are some examples and templates at your hand:

Educational Use

Teachers use concept maps to explain complex subjects like photosynthesis. In this context, the central concept is the photosynthesis process itself, with branches leading to related concepts such as sunlight, chlorophyll, and oxygen. This helps students visualize and understand how these elements interact within the process. Concept maps in education can also be used to summarize chapters, outline research projects, or map out historical events, providing a clear and structured way to study and retain information.

Business Use

Concept maps help outline the project scope, tasks, and relationships in project management. For example, a project manager might create a concept map to visualize the stages of a project, from initial planning to execution and delivery. Each stage can be broken down into tasks, with links showing dependencies and timelines. This provides a clear overview of the project, making it easier to communicate with team members and stakeholders, and ensuring that all aspects of the project are accounted for.

Medical Field

Healthcare professionals use concept maps to understand and communicate complex patient cases in the medical field. For example, a doctor might create a concept map for a patient with multiple health issues, with the central node representing the patient and branches for each medical condition, treatment plan, medications, and potential interactions. This helps in visualizing the patient's overall health status and ensuring a comprehensive approach to treatment. It also facilitates communication among healthcare providers and patients and their families.


In chemistry, concept maps can be used to plan and organize different aspects of chemical topics. For example, a chemistry student might create a concept map to outline the concepts of the Mole, Molar Mass, and Empirical Formula, with the central node representing chemical calculations and branches for each concept. This helps in visualizing the relationships between these concepts, understanding complex linking verbs, and managing multiple cross-links with a manageable number of nodes. It ensures that all relevant components are interconnected and clearly understood during the learning process.


In nursing, concept maps can be used to organize and outline various aspects of patient care. For example, a nursing student might create a concept map to cover key concepts such as nursing diagnosis, patient education, and care plans, with the central node representing patient care and branches for each key area. This hierarchical and clean style is suitable for diagrams containing a large number of concepts but with simple, straightforward connections. It helps in visualizing the overall care strategy, ensuring all aspects of nursing are systematically addressed and easy to understand.


Concept mapping is a powerful tool that can enhance understanding, memory retention, and critical thinking across various fields. Whether used in education, business, or personal development, concept maps provide a clear and effective way to visualize and organize information. By following the steps outlined in this article, you can create your concept maps to simplify complex topics and achieve your goals. Start concept mapping today and experience the benefits for yourself!

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