Concept Mapping Theory

Concept mapping is an essential visual brainstorm strategy for organizing knowledge and conveying difficult complex ideas. This powerful technique is mainly used in scientific study, education, business, and engineering. 

Over the years, concept mapping has proven to be an incredibly useful technique that helps people recognize their knowledge and understanding about a particular discipline. Additionally, it facilitates an author for the presentation of thoughts and ideas in a clear and logical manner, allows people to evaluate their level of expertise, and, subsequently, expands learners’ understanding. 

Concept mapping allows for a structured, hierarchical representation of knowledge. Students have used this technique for years to interpret and understand key concepts through visual representations of concepts and subconcepts that are related to one another and connect back to the main idea.

This article focuses on the Concept Mapping Theory, its benefits, uses, and ways to map ideas. 

Read our article on 11 Tips for Engaging e-learning Videos for more details on creating an interactive video. 

What is Concept Mapping?

Concept mapping is a kind of brainstorming strategy that helps people organize and understand concepts and ideas. The concept map illustrates the relationships among ideas and concepts. The content (keywords) is often laid out in circles or boxes, and sentences or phrases are used to illustrate the link between different concepts. This assists users in organizing and structuring their thoughts, enhancing understanding, and discovering new connections.  Visual cues can be used to support the communication and understanding of ideas.

concept mapping idea visualizing video content map

The concept map is based on constructivism, a philosophical approach to knowledge.  In particular, followers of constructivism think that knowledge is something that students construct themselves. Constructivists believe that preexisting knowledge serves as a framework for learning and understanding new knowledge.

Concept mapping is different from mind mapping - another famous visual learning strategy - which focuses the user's attention on a singular concept or topic for optimum learning.

Concept Mapping Theory

Joseph D. Novak, an American professor and science researcher from Cornell University, developed concept mapping in the 1970s along with his team. 

Theoretical Foundations

The purpose of a project map, based on David Paul Ausubel's meaningful learning theory, was to organize, structure, and present knowledge related to a specific subject.

Interestingly, before Novak came up with the concept map, Ausubel was searching for a way to present information in order to facilitate learning. His theory holds that a learner's knowledge is the most influential factor in their efforts to learn.

Later, Ausubel's theory was expanded by Novak, who asserted that meaningful learning is about integrating new ideas into the existing cognitive framework.

Meaningful learning involves linking new knowledge to concepts we already understand to integrate new knowledge into our cognitive knowledge structure. Our cognitive structure is represented visually through a concept map.

The use of concept mapping is particularly beneficial to learning and teaching. Initially, they designed maps to enhance and facilitate science learning. Novak used concept maps as a means of analyzing data during his twelve-year study.

As part of his research, he devised concept mapping as a method for demonstrating how children's interpretations of scientific concepts change over time. Novak also taught this powerful technique to students in primary and elementary school that helped them to formulate answers to basic questions. Different subjects were covered in these questions, for example, ‘What is Earth?’, ‘What is air?’, ‘How does rain happen?’, etc.

Physiological Foundations

Concepts are attained by children between the ages of birth and three years as they learn to identify the labels or symbols that represent regularities in their environment. This is called the discovery learning process. When the children are three-years-old,  they begin their reception process, which involves asking questions and learning how old and new ideas relate. Concepts are not defined by the learner but described by others and transferred to them.

Besides exploring both of these aspects of learning, Ausubel distinguishes rote learning from meaningful learning. Rote learning occurs when little or no prior information exists relevant to the new information and no internal commitment to integrating the new and existing information. Consequently, the learner easily forgets the information. It is not possible to rectify faulty ideas within the cognitive structure.

The following three conditions must be met for meaningful learning to take place:

  1. The new information presented needs to be clear and must relate to the learner’s existing knowledge. Concept mapping can be beneficial here, as it identifies the general ideas that learners have, allowing them to build upon them.
  2. Having prior knowledge that is relevant to the new information is essential for the learner.
  3. Particularly when attempting to grasp detailed knowledge in a particular subject.
  4. Direct control can be exercised by the instructor over the first two conditions. The third, however, is not possible because it depends on the learner's decision to engage in meaningful learning. In other words, the students attempt to understand and assimilate information rather than simply memorize it.

There is a continuum between meaningful and rote learning since individuals have different levels of motivation and relevant knowledge for learning. Creativity is among the highest levels of meaningful learning.

Short-term and working memory plays a key role in storing information in long-term memory. Interaction between working memory and long-term memory contributes to the processing of information; however, working memory is only capable of handling a few units at once. However, by grouping these items together, it is much easier for people to recall. Repeating information in working and long-term memory is key to organizing a large amount of information. 

For effective learning, concept mapping is invaluable as it helps in organizing and structuring knowledge, though the structure needs to be built over time using small sections of interconnected ideas and propositions. As a result of this process, knowledge can be applied in different contexts, and retention is increased. Furthermore, researchers have found that our brain likes to organize information in a hierarchical manner - a characteristic of concept mapping.

Epistemological Foundations

A branch of philosophy called epistemology focuses on how knowledge is acquired and created. In recent years, it has been seen that, when it comes to creating new knowledge, both knowledge and our emotions are involved. In Novak’s view, the creation of new knowledge is the result of highly meaningful learning by people with an organized knowledge structure about a particular topic and a strong drive to discover new meaning.

Learning theories like constructivism emphasize active participation rather than passive consumption of knowledge are readily associated with concept mapping. In order to learn new concepts, learners must put effort into bringing new meaning to their existing information. In order to understand anything, we need concepts and propositions. Creating a concept map is part of the creative process.

Basic Steps for Concept Mapping 

Concept maps can be constructed in a few simple steps. If you'd like more details on how to prepare a concept map, we have a more in-depth article with instructions on how to do that. 

Concept Mapping Theory

  1. Determine your main topic or focus question - that is, the issue, problem, or concern you want your concept map to solve. Each idea on your map should be connected to every other one and function as a guiding principle for the hierarchical structure.
  2. Determine every key concept related to the major idea you determined. Place the most general ones first and the more specific concepts last. Typically, this is called a parking lot list.
  3. Link the concepts together in a preliminary concept map. You should include linking words and phrases on the lines to illustrate the relationship between the concepts.
  4. Use cross-links for connecting concepts in separate domains.
  5. Keep revising the concept map when needed.

Key Characteristics of Concept Mapping

A concept map is also called a conceptual diagram. Concept maps are distinct from other visual tools, whereas other types of diagrams may look similar.


A concept may be defined as “observed patterns or regularities in objects or events, or a record of an event or object, indicated by a label”. Diagrammatically, these are shown as shapes.

Linking words or phrases

Phrases or linking words are present on the lines that connect the objects of your concept map. These words or phrases explain how the two concepts are related to one another. They need to be as concise as possible and should have a verb. A few examples can be: 

  • Has a
  • Includes
  • Makes
  • Requires
  • Leads to 

Propositional structure

A proposition is a statement composed of more than one idea linked with linking words. Propositions are also called units of meaning or semantic units. Creating new knowledge in a domain depends on concepts and propositions. In general, concept mapping shows propositions about a particular topic in a visual format.

Hierarchical structure

A hierarchical structure is one of the key features of concept mapping theory. At the top of a concept map are the most inclusive and general concepts, followed by more exclusive and specific concepts. Concept mapping is done in such a way that it can be read from top to bottom.

Focus question

Focus questions define the problem or issue that a concept map must resolve. When you design a concept map with a focus question in mind, your concept mapping remains guided and maintains a particular direction. In a hierarchical structure, place the focus question at the top of your concept map so it can act as a reference point. 

Parking lot

You may find it a good idea to create a list of key concepts before you begin designing your concept map. Create a list by placing the general concepts first, followed by the more specific ones. It is called a parking lot because items are moved into the map as you determine their locations.  


Cross-links indicate relationships between ideas within the different domains of concept mapping, providing a visual representation of how ideas are interconnected. These cross-links and hierarchical structures promote creativity, and they often signal when creativity occurs.

Benefits of Concept Mapping

A concept map is a diagram that visualizes knowledge in a hierarchical and structured manner and can be used to explain complex ideas.

Benefits for Knowledge Experts

The knowledge expert or instructor can do the following:

  • Analyze and model knowledge
  • Develop new knowledge
  • Transfer of expertise
  • Preserve knowledge
  • Clearly convey complex ideas
  • Analyze how well a learner understands a topic

Benefits for Learners 

Concept mapping helps learners to:

  • Identify knowledge gaps and prior knowledge
  • Take notes during the research process, summarizing key concepts, their relationship, and hierarchy
  • As their knowledge about a topic evolves, they can model and analyze it
  • Visually demonstrate their knowledge of a subject
  • Developing a metacognitive skill (learning to learn)
  • Retain knowledge
  • Brainstorm new concepts

Uses of Concept Mapping

Concepts maps are used in the following scenarios:

  • Learning the concepts, terms, and facts associated with a particular subject
  • Categorizing information in a meaningful way
  • Integration and synthesizing of ideas, information, and concepts
  • Understanding concepts in the "big picture" and making connections between them
  • Considering a subject in a creative way
  • Enhancing long-term memory for easy access to information
  • The development of strategies, thinking skills, and habits at the higher levels
  • Effective use of graphics
  • An easy-to-read overview of the entire topic at once
  • Establishing new relationships between previously known knowledge.
  • Looking for new solutions and exploring new questions
  • As a tool for solving problems


Concept mapping and mind mapping have been extensively discussed over the years; however, precisely due to their differences, both strategies will continually be used across a wide range of situations.

Concept mapping is an educational tool that can be practiced individually or in a group. Nevertheless, in both situations, a concept map tends to be created using a concept map tool.

When they are created using authoring tools, concept maps simplify the way ideas and concepts are presented. Cinema8 facilitates users to create concept maps that not only make complex ideas easier to grasp but are visually appealing as well. Also, you can easily add these brain maps to your interactive video to visualize ideas with cinema8’s unique features. 

Read our article on A Guide to Interactive Videos With 5 Stunning Examples for more information.