Concept maps are incredibly useful tools for learning and explaining new concepts. They help visualize information and organize it in a way that’s easy to understand and remember.
If you’re wondering how to create a concept map for any purpose, this post will help you get started on the right foot.
In this article, we’ll help you understand what a concept map is and how you can create one in 7 easy steps. We’ll also show you concept map examples and templates along the way.
Let’s get into it.
If you’re ready to create your concept map, use our concept map maker to get started for free. It’s quick, easy and works in your browser.
What is a Concept Map?
A concept map is a mind map-like visual diagram, or graphic organizer, that shows relationships between various ideas and concepts.
Since humans process visuals faster than text, concept maps are much more effective than traditional note-taking when it comes to understanding and recalling information.
Concept maps are widely used in education, engineering and even business. They promote clear thinking, better memory retention and improved understanding of complex concepts by helping you:
- Organize thoughts
- Dig into a topic in detail
- Visually show relationships between ideas and concepts
- Show the big picture by connecting thoughts, ideas and concepts
Here’s an example of a simple concept map explaining the solar system and how its different elements are related to each other:
This concept map would be useful for teachers trying to explain to their students how the solar system works and what it’s made of.
The Key Elements of a Concept Map
A concept map consists of several different features. Before you can create a concept map, you need to know the meaning and purpose of each feature.
The graphic below summarizes the various elements that make up a concept map. We’ll discuss each element in more detail below.
- Concepts: Technically called ‘nodes’, concepts are the central elements of your concept map. You can use ovals, boxes, squares or any fancy shapes to denote ideas and concepts.
- Links: Different concepts under one domain are linked together using lines and arrows.
- Cross-Links: Concepts under different domains are linked together using cross-links. These are also usually depicted with lines or arrows.
- Linking Words: Links and cross-links often have text written between or next to them. These words or phrases describe the relationship between the concepts. For example, linking words could be “includes,” “is part of” or “is caused by.”
- Propositions: Also known as semantic units, propositions are meaningful sentences made up of linking words and two or more concepts. A concept map essentially visualizes multiple propositions surrounding a specific topic.
- Hierarchical Structure: A good concept map follows a hierarchical structure that helps to read the diagram from top to bottom. This means that broader and more important concepts are at the top and the most specific ideas are at the bottom.
Now that you know what a concept map is and what it’s made of, let’s get to the step-by-step guide to making one.
Step 1: Identify the Focus Question
Choosing a topic for your concept map is more important than you’d think.
If you pick a broad topic or multiple topics, you might end up with a messy concept map with too many shapes and lines. This defeats the purpose of presenting information in an organized way.
You might already have a topic in mind for your concept map, but you need to narrow it down to the core concept — or focus question — to create a diagram that’s easy to understand.
This focus question could be:
- A business problem
- A research question
- A social issue
- A topic from the sixth grade’s biology book
Here’s an example of a concept map that focuses on one main issue: climate change.
Write down your focus question or topic once you’ve finalized it.
In the following steps, you’ll learn how to break down this main concept into related ideas, and then connect those ideas with other concepts and ideas using lines, arrows and text.
Step 2: Jot Down the Related Ideas
Now that you have your focus question ready, it’s time to write down all the related ideas and concepts you’ll be adding to your concept map.
It’s helpful to brainstorm and create a list of ideas before you start designing. This will save time and you’ll have a clear direction of what you want your map to include.
Otherwise, you might end up wasting time thinking while drawing or feel the need to go back and restructure your map over and over again.
Note that you might need to revisit this step at a later stage in case you miss something. But, for now, jot down all the related ideas and concepts.
So, for example, if you’re creating a concept map on energy sources, you can roughly write down the following ideas:
This is also called the parking lot of your concept map — a place where all your ideas are “parked.”
You can create a “parking lot” for your concept map by listing your ideas on paper, drawing a table on your computer or inputting the concepts directly into your diagramming tool.
In the next step, you’ll see how we organize these ideas into a concept map with the help of a diagramming tool.
Step 3: Choose a Concept Mapping Tool
Now, it’s time to pick up your medium of choice and create a concept map diagram using all the ideas and concepts you jotted down in the previous step.
You have two options:
- Draw a concept map on paper or a whiteboard
- Use an online concept mapping tool (e.g. Visme)
While you may have a preference for paper, working with it comes with some ugly downsides: your handwriting might not be accessible to all (even yourself once you revisit the visual representation) and you can’t share it easily with a remote team.
Not to mention, your concept map will see its natural death on a whiteboard as the ink starts to dull (we’re going to pretend like there’s no such thing as someone accidentally erasing the content.)
Using an online concept mapping tool like Visme can help you collaborate with your team on making the diagram in real-time. You can easily save the final visualization by downloading it or getting the embed link to feature it on your website.
Most of all: you’d never be out of space with a diagramming tool, so you can easily work on highly detailed, complex concept maps.
Visme also comes with concept map templates that are fully customizable, which speeds up the process of making a diagram. You can add or remove shapes, animate the concept map, and change the direction of arrows connecting different concepts among other things.
Pro-tip: Draw a rough sketch of the concept map you want to create on paper, then design the same in Visme or customize a similar-looking concept map template.
Step 4: Start Drawing Your Concept Map
Regardless of the medium you choose, the first step is to add your key concept.
Remember, it’s best practice to follow a hierarchical structure for your concept map, so make sure you start at the top.
Now, before adding ideas and linking them to your key concept, make sure you have a ‘parking lot’ ready. If you’re using a diagramming tool like Visme, you can create a parking lot of all your ideas on the side of your canvas.
Here’s an example of what that could look like:
If you’re using a pen and paper, or drawing your diagram on a whiteboard, keep the list of all your ideas close by. This will help you add the right idea at the right place.
Step 5: Link the Ideas Together
Now that you have your key concept in place, it’s time to drag and drop ideas from the parking lot onto your concept map and link them together.
Keep in mind the hierarchical structure. Start by adding the broader and more important concepts first and then move on to the more specific ones.
When linking your ideas together, you can use lines or arrows. We recommend using arrows to connect the concepts as they specify direction and make it easier for readers to grasp a proposition.
Pro-tip: If you’re making a concept map in Visme, you can add lines and arrows in different styles. You can also customize the colors, angles, directions and sizes of your lines and arrows to fit your unique design needs.
Once you’ve fleshed out your concept map and its various domains, try to find opportunities to connect concepts between different domains with cross-links.
Step 6: Describe the Relationships
Finally, make sure you add text (or, linking words and phrases) to describe the relationships between the concepts.
Here are some examples of connecting words you can use:
- Part of
- Can be/cannot be
- Type of/form of
- Such as/for example
- Leads to
The text you add along the connecting lines should be short. Ideally, it should be one word or two words — never a sentence.
This way, you can focus on the relationships among complex ideas while keeping the concept map visualization clutter-free.
You’re almost done with your concept map!
Step 7: Revise Your Concept Map as Needed
Finally, it’s time to carefully scrutinize the concept map you have in front of you and look for opportunities to improve and fine-tune it.
Ask yourself the following questions when examining your diagram:
- Are there any concepts that are too similar to each other?
- Can I group some ideas under a broader concept?
- Can I use a better word to describe this relationship?
- Do any of these ideas fit better under a different domain?
You can also look for opportunities to add more cross-links to your concept map. This might require you to rearrange some of your nodes, but it will help you create a comprehensive concept map without any clutter.
You might even find that you left out some important ideas that you didn’t think of when you were creating your parking lot. This would be a good time to fit those into your diagram.
Step 8: Customize Your Concept Map Design
At this point, your concept map is almost ready.
To finalize it, you might want to customize its design so it matches the rest of your visual brand identity. This is especially relevant for businesses looking to create concept maps to share with their team or for marketing purposes.
For example, you can give your concept map a nice, bold header, like this:
This makes your concept map ready to be used on its own — print it out, embed it in a web page, add it to a document, report or presentation, or share it on social media.
If you’re making your concept map in Visme, you can also:
- Tweak the colors of the shapes and lines
- Change the fonts, text size and styling
- Add a solid, gradient or image background
- Add animated icons and illustrations to your diagram
- Make your concept map interactive with links and hover effects
Another design idea is to add your company logo to your concept map. This is useful for generating brand awareness if your diagram is going to be shared on social media.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up your brand kit in Visme. This allows you to upload and store your brand fonts, colors and logo, and use them in any design project.
Concept Mapping Best Practices
If you stick to the step-by-step guide above, you’ll be able to create a fully functional concept map to use for virtually any purpose.
But if you want to take your concept map from good to great, here are tips and best practices you can follow:
1. Stick to one key concept.
Sure, you can add more than one key concept to your concept map. But would we recommend it? Probably not.
Your key concept is based on your focus question. It’s the first thing you add to your hierarchical concept map, with all the other ideas branching out from this one main concept.
If you add more than one key concept, you might end up with a very complex (and messy) diagram that your audience might have difficulty understanding.
So, try to stick to a single key concept. If you have two or more key concepts you want to visualize, it’s best to just create two separate concept maps for each of them.
2. Group similar concepts together.
If you’re finding that your general concepts are branching out into too many smaller, more specific concepts, try to find similar ideas and group them under a sub-concept.
For example, if you’re making a concept map of planets, you might want to make two main groups of “Inner” and “Outer” planets, and then create sub-groups within these groups.
Grouping similar ideas will not only make your concept map look cleaner and less cluttered, but it will also make it easier for readers to absorb the information and recall it later.
3. Color-code your concept map.
Colors can help distinguish between the different domains in your concept map.
This not only makes it easier to read the diagram, but it also helps readers remember the information for longer by associating each domain with a specific color.
Here’s an example of a color-coded concept map of energy sources:
Notice how renewable sources are color-coded in various shades of green, while non-renewable sources are color-coded in various shades of red.
The concept map above is also a great example of how you can color-code a hierarchical diagram. How? By incorporating different shades of the same color based on an element’s position in the hierarchy.
4. Use images and icons to visualize concepts.
Make your concept map more engaging by adding images or icons in place of text when describing your concepts.
Here’s an example of a concept map that does exactly that:
In the diagram above, the concepts of “coffee beans” and “hot water” are visualized using outline icons.
If you look closely, even the impact of caffeine on mental alertness and sleep is depicted with the help of arrows pointing in different directions.
Adding visuals aids faster learning and better recall as your brain is able to make stronger associations with images as opposed to plain text.
4. Add meaningful linking words.
When adding linking words or phrases to describe the relationships between different concepts, make sure they make sense.
This means when someone reads your concept map, they should be able to form a meaningful sentence out of just the linking words and the two concepts.
For example, take a look at this concept map about Trees:
With the help of the linking words, you can quickly form the following sentences or conclusions:
- Trees give wood, which is used to build houses, furniture and paper.
- Trees give oxygen, which is important to animals, humans and plants.
In some cases, you might not need to use any words at all to help readers make a complete sentence. You can also use symbols like + or – to indicate addition or subtraction of ideas.
5. Make your concept map interactive.
If you’re planning on sharing your concept map online, you can make it interactive and turn it into an engaging experience for the readers.
For example, you can make a node pop out, spin into place or add any of the variety of animations that Visme offers.
You can also add links to your concept maps. So, for example, clicking on a node labeled as “Rising Sea Levels” in a Climate Change concept map might take the reader to an external web page that discusses rising sea levels in more detail.
You can also add additional resources and further reading at the bottom of your concept map. Or, link to various online sources you used to extract the information for your diagram.
Ready to Make a Concept Map?
Creating a concept map is not as difficult as you may think. All you need are the right tools, some research, and a solid purpose in mind.
Follow the systematic approach illustrated in the steps above to easily make a concept map from scratch or with the help of pre-designed concept map templates.
If you’re ready to create your own concept map, try Visme’s concept map maker to get started for free. It’s quick, easy and comes with drag-and-drop diagramming and design tools.
The post How to Make a Concept Map: Beginner’s Guide (& Templates) first appeared on Visual Learning Center by Visme.