Concept Mapping and Curriculum Design

What is a Concept Map?

Similar to an outline or a flowchart, a concept map is a way of representing or organizing knowledge. However, a concept map goes beyond the typical outline in that concept maps show relationships between concepts, including bi-directional relationships. Usually, a concept map is divided into nodes and links. Nodes (often circles) represent various concepts; and links (lines) represent the relationships (propositions) between concepts (Lanzing, 1997 ).  Words are used to label the links in order to explicitly depict relationships (Anderson-Inman & Zeitz, 1994 ).

Once completed, the concept map is a visual graphic that represents how the creator(s) thinks about a subject, topic, etc. It illustrates how knowledge is organized for the individual. In sum, "concept maps are two-dimensional representations of cognitive structures showing the hierarchies and the interconnections of concepts involved in a discipline or a subdiscipline" (Martin, 1994, p.11).

Concept maps were first used by Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University in the 1960s (Lanzing). Concept maps have their origin in the learning movement called constructivism. Concept maps identify the way we think, the way we see relationships between knowledge. The teacher who constructs concept maps for classes is interested in students understanding relationships between facts, not just "knowing" the facts.

Back to List

Concept Maps and Curriculum Design

Concept maps can be used as excellent planning devices for instruction. Edmondson, 1993 , describes the importance of using concept maps to develop the curriculum for a veterinarian program: "Concept maps are effective tools for making the structure of knowledge explicit, and our hope is that by using them in our planning...the material will be more accessible and more easily integrated by students" (p. 4). The type of curriculum described by Edmondson is based on constructivist principles. It is both problem-centered and student-centered. Instead of asking, "what do I want to teach," the emphasis is on, "what do I want students to learn?"

Martin, 1994, conducted a study in which he taught education majors to use concept maps to make lesson plans. The teachers in the study found the maps quite useful for the development of course plans. "Our students view concept mapping as giving teachers a more comprehensive understanding of what they are preparing to teach, eliminating sequencing errors, and enabling teachers to develop lessons that are truly interdisciplinary" (p.27). The following list of advantages in using concept maps for curriculum design was composed from the work of Allen, Hoffman, Kompella, & Sticht (1992 ), Dyrud , Edmondson , and Martin.

  • By constructing a concept map, you can see areas that appear trivial, that you may want to drop from the course.
  • You can discover the themes you want to emphasize.
  • You can understand how students may see or organize knowledge differently from you, which will help you better relate to the students and to challenge their ways of thinking.
  • The mapping process can help you identify concepts that are key to more than one discipline, which helps you move beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.
  • Concept maps help you select appropriate instructional materials. You can construct a map that incorporates teaching strategies as well as time and task allocations for various parts of the course.
  • You can visually explain the conceptual relationships used for your objectives in any course.
  • You can facilitate efforts to reconceptualize course content.
  • Rather than being a traditional course plan that assumes students will integrate learning, concept maps depict the intentions of faculty -- the integration you expect to occur.
  • You can use concept maps to provide a basis for discussion among students and to summarize general course concepts.
  • Concept maps support a holistic style of learning.
  • Mapping concepts can increase your ability to provide meaningfulness to students by integrating concepts.
  • Concept maps can increase your potential to see multiple ways of constructing meaning for students.
  • Mapping the concepts can help you develop courses that are well-integrated, logically sequenced, and have continuity.
  • Concept maps help "teachers design units of study that are meaningful, relevant, pedagogically sound, and interesting to students" ( Martin, p. 28).
  • Concept maps help "the teacher to explain why a particular concept is worth knowing and how it relates to theoretical and practical issues both within the discipline and without" (Allen, et al).

Back to List

Steps in Making a Concept Map

  • Write down major terms or concepts about a topic.
  • Identify the most general, intermediate, and specific concepts.
  • Begin drawing the concept map:
    • Concepts are circled
    • Place the most general concepts at the top
    • Place intermediate concepts below general concepts
    • Put specific concepts on bottom
  • Draw lines between related concepts.
  • Label the lines with "linking words" to indicate how the concepts are related.
  • Revise the map.

Back to List


As stated earlier, concept maps have their origins in constructivism. This section is design to provide some insight into the general principles of constructivism.

Constructivism is derived from the field of cognitive psychology. The constructivist paradigm is based on the work of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Howard Gardner, and Nelson Goodman (Fosnot, 1996 ).

The main assumption of constructivism is that knowledge does not exist "out there" in an objective reality. Knowledge is actively constructed from within by the learner (Hendry & King, 1994 ). Facts become facts because it is knowledge that is agreed upon by communities of learners. The learner comes into any new situation with prior knowledge based on past experiences. New knowledge is learned through integration with prior knowledge.

Several educational principles have been derived from constructivism:

  • Concept development and deep understanding are the goals of instruction, not behaviors or skills (Fosnot ).
  • Learning is a constructive activity that students have to carry out. Students are active learners. The educator's task is to provide students with opportunities to construct knowledge (Glaserfeld, 1996 ).
  • The teacher must provide meaningful, authentic activities to help students construct understanding relevant to solving problems ( Wilson, 1996 ).
  • Reflection of both content and the learning process is paramount.
  • Collaborative groups should be used so that students can test their understandings and expand understanding of particular issues ( Savery & Duffy, 1996 ).
  • Teachers need to establish explicit linkages for students between new information taught in class and students' past and future experiences.... Teachers summarize, review, and link main concepts at critical points throughout and at the conclusion of units and lessons" (Ennis, 1994, p. 167 ).
  • "Conceptual understanding is influenced by the prior knowledge brought by students to learning situations. This prior knowledge is ... labeled as 'preconceptions,' 'naive theories,' 'alternative frameworks,' or 'misconceptions'" (Kinnear, 1994, p. 6 ).
  • Teachers must challenge the learner's thinking (alternative frameworks, preconceptions).

Concept mapping fits well with the constructivist approach that learners "construct their own idiosyncratic understanding of concepts" ( Trowbridge and Wandersee, 1994, p. 460 ). The teacher can use a map as a basis for which to challenge student assumptions of how concepts are related. Russo, Scheurman, Harred, & Leubke (1995) maintain that most college faculty recognize that students will not remember specific facts from a course. What's more important is that students take away major themes or concepts and an understanding of how these concepts are related. Using a concept map design a course can aid the teacher in guiding the students to learn relevant concepts rather than trivial facts. Also, in knowing that students may perceive instruction differently from the way an educator intended, it can be helpful for the teacher to "construct a hypothetical model of the particular conceptual world of the students they are facing" (Glaserfeld, p. 7 ).

Back to List


  • Allen, B. S., Hoffman, R. P., Kompella, J., & Sticht, T. G. (1993). Computer-based mapping for curriculum development. In: Proceedings of selected Research and Development Presentations Technology sponsored by the Research and Theory Division. New Orleans, LA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 362 145)
  • Anderson-Inman, L., & Zeitz, L. (1994). Beyond note cards: Synthesizing information with electronic study tools. The Computing Teacher, 21(8), 21-25.
  • Dyrud, M. A.(1994). Mapping: A Collaborative Activity for fun or profit. The Bulletin of the Association for Business Communication, 57(2), 57-58.
  • Edmondson, K. M. (1993). Concept mapping for the development of medical curricula. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 360 322)
  • Ennis, C. D. (1994). Knowledge and beliefs underlying curricular expertise. Quest, 46, 164-175.
  • Fosnot, C. T. (1996) Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  • Glaserfeld, E. V.(1996). Introduction: Aspects of constructivism. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Hendry, G. D., & King, R. C. (1994) On theory of learning and knowledge: Educational implications of advances in neuroscience. Science Education, 78(3), 223-253.
  • Kinnear, J. (1994). What science education really says about communication of science concepts. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association conference. Sydney, Australia. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 372 455)
  • Lanzing, J. W. A. (1997). The concept mapping homepage. [On-line]. Available HTTP:
  • Martin, D. J. (1994). Concept Mapping as an aid to lesson planning: A longitudinal study. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 6(2), 11-30.
  • Russo, T. J., Scheurman, G., Harred, L. D., & Leubke, S. R. (1995). Thinking about thinking: A constructivist approach critical thinking in the college curriculum. River Falls, WI: Wisconsin University. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 390 353)
  • Savery, J. R. & Duffy, T. M. (1996). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. In Brent G. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publication.
  • Trowbridge, J. E., & Wandersee, J. H. (1994). Identifying critical junctures in learning a college course on evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31, 459-473.
  • Wilson, B. G. (Ed.). (1996). Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publication.

Other Reading

    • Herman, W. E. (1995). Humanistic influences on a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 393 814)
    • Reese, A. C., & Mobley, M. F. (1996). Academic success through quality managed course design. Innovative Higher Education, 20, 171-182.
    • Rogers, P. L., & Mack, M. (1996). A constructivist design and learning model: Time for a graphic. In: Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Presentations at the 1996 National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 397 831)
    • Roth, M. W. (1994). Student views of collaborative concept mapping: An emancipatory research project. Science Education, 78(1), 1-34.

Back to List