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Concept maps

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Concepts maps is a graphical means to organize and represent knowledge (see Novak, 1991, 1998). The maps include the following features:

  • Concepts, such as "flexible and adaptable" or "expensive", usually enclosed in circles or boxes, and representing some perceived regularity or pattern in events or objects

  • Relationships between concepts, usually represented by a line and an accompanying phrase, such as "precedes", "causes", "includes", "is part of", "amplifies", and "is the opposite of"

    The concept map usually pertains to a specific issue, called the focus question, such as "How do managers decide which employees to recruit?" Three characteristics of these maps generate insight and creativity. First, most concept maps are hierarchical, with the broadest concepts at the top. Second, specific examples of events or objects are often included to exemplify a concept. These features are summarized in the concept map below, a hierarchical map presented by Novak and Cañas (2008).

    Lord, Desforges, Fein, Pugh, and Lepper (1994) demonstrate the construction of a concept map, associated with a common cold. The author began with a blank paper, with the concept "the common cold" written at the top. First, the author thought of symptoms, such as chest congestion and runny nose. A line was drawn from a circle labelled common cold to a circle labelled symptoms. Lines were also drawn from this circle labelled symptoms to smaller circles, each specifying a particular symptom. During this process, thoughts of other symptoms were entertained, and hence additional smaller circles were added accordingly.

    Next, the author thought of treatments, such as bed rest, cold pills, doctor, and so forth--and again a circle was created to represent treatments and smallers circles created to represent each treatment, and so forth. Other sets of concepts were later added, such as types of individuals who are most likely to experience colds, and so forth. In addition, a +, 0, or - was added to each node, to represent whether the concept was positive or negative.

    Types of concept maps

    The format of concept maps can be divided into several principal types, such as hierarchy, systems, spider, and landscape maps. Examples, derived from http://classes.aces.uiuc.edu/ACES100/Mind/c-m4.html, are presented below. Other maps include flowcharts and multidimensional maps.

    History and philosophy of concept maps

    Concept maps were derived from the learning psychology of Ausubel (1963;; 1968). According to this perspective, learning involves the assimilation of novel concepts and propositions-that is, statements that relate to or more concepts together-into the extant concepts and propositions of individuals. In this context, concepts are sometimes equated to atoms, whereas propositions are equated to molecules. Concept maps were then developed by Novak (1972) to represent these cognitive structures.

    According to this underpinning, children begin to recognize regularities in their environment from birth, called the discovery learning process. After age 3, this awareness of regularities becomes mediated by language, in which the begin to ask questions that integrate new concepts and propositions and their extant concepts and propositions. This phase, called the reception learning process, entails an interchange between themselves and other individuals.

    Concept maps were designed to facilitate this learning process. For example, learning is more meaningful if the material to be acquired is related to the prior knowledge of learners. Concept maps can thus be utilized to clarify this knowledge base. Second, concept maps can highlight that relationship between new and old concepts or propositions, which fosters meaningful rather than rote learning (see Chularut & DeBacker, 2004), even if teachers are reasonably prescriptive. In contrast, rote learning does not extend knowledge appreciably. Third, concept maps can uncover misconceptions and are occasionally used to assess student learning (see Rafferty & Fleschner, 1993).

    In addition, concept maps can facilitate memory, by forming larger units of information and organizing knowledge coherently, hierarchically, visually, and spatially-characteristic that facilitate memory processes (Einstein, McDaniel, Bowers, & Stevens, 1984;; Novak & Wandersee, 1991;; see also www.mlrg.org). Fifth, concept maps facilitate collaboration in the learning domain, which expedites the acquisition of knowledge (see Boxtel, Linden, Roelofs, & Erkens, 2002;; Preszler, 2004).

    Novak (1977, 1993, 1998) argues that two factors facilitate the creation of new knowledge. First, the individuals must have formed an organized, comprehensive knowledge structure in some domain. Second, they must experience the emotional motivation to pursue new meaning. In other words, progress is a function of both knowledge and emotion or drive.

    Other forms of concept maps present other benefits. Trochim and Kane (2005) discussed a form of concept maps that combine the perceptions of multiple participants. This procedure can be used to analyze qualitative data, overcoming limitations with other approaches.

    Developing a concept map to represent personal knowledge

    Concept maps can be derived from personal reflections or empirical studies. To derive concept maps from personal reflections, several phases need to be implemented (for examples, see Lord, Desforges, Fein, Pugh, & Lepper, 1994).

    First, choose a domain with which you are familiar-a topic you know well, such as an issue that you often need to solve. Second, specify a focus question, which is a question that specifies the topic or issue that you would like to resolve, such as "What is wellbeing?" Third, list a series of concepts, between 15 and 25 words for example, that you feel are related to this question. The questions what, where, when, who, why, and how are generate some responses. Fourth, rank these concepts from the most general and inclusive to the most specific or concrete, at least roughly. Fifth, construct a preliminary map, placing the more general concepts towards the top-either using Post-it notes or a software package. Sixth, specify links or draw lines between concepts;; use words to describe these relationships, such as "in part of", "is near", "will prevent", and so forth. Seventh, change the position of concepts to improve clarity and appearance. Finally, continue refining the map.

    Developing a concept map from research

    Trochim and Kane (2005) enumerate six phases that can be implemented to create a concept map, representing the knowledge structures of groups rather than individuals, from the responses of participants to open questions (see also Jackson & Trochim, 2002;; Trochim, 1989). Usually, the participants are individuals who have been exposed to the topic of interest. For example, to improve a health care system, participant might include health care workers or patients.

    First, participants are asked to generate a series of answers to a focus question, such as "What factors affect wellbeing at work?", called brainstorming. They might generate between 10 and 100 answers, such as mood of supervisor, physical space, excessive workload, and so forth. Similarly, they might generate 20 benefits and drawbacks to answer the question "Should the organization introduce affirmative action?", such as "Reduces credibility of females" or "Improves culture".

    Second, each of the answers is presented on separate cards. The role of participants is to sort these cards into groups, according to any classification system. They can sort the cards into as many categories as they feel are appropriate. For example, one participant might sort mood of supervisor, morale, and motivation in the same category. Another participant might sort these answers into separate categories.

    Third, this classification of cards is subjected to statistical analysis, often using Concept Mapping Software for multivariate statistical analysis, to create a concept map. All the answers appear on a map. Answers that tend to be placed in separate categories appear farther away from each other. Answers that tend to be placed in the same category appear close to one another. Indeed, if very close to each other, these answers are assumed to reflect the same concept, called a cluster. Usually, multidimensional scaling is used to place the answers on the map and cluster analysis is used to uncover the clusters (Jackson & Trochim, 2002).

    Fourth, after this concept map is created, participants are then granted an opportunity to name each cluster. A cluster that includes mood of supervisor, morale, and motivation might be labeled "Emotional factors" for example.

    Fifth, participants consider whether any of the answers perhaps should do not align to the cluster in which they appear. These answers could be shifted to another cluster.

    Sixth, participants might rate the various answers. They might, for example, rate the extent to which each answer is important. For example, they could evaluate the degree to which these factors affect wellbeing. Second, they might rate the effect of each answer-in this instance, whether the factors enhance or compromise wellbeing. Later, researchers can then calculate, for example, the mean importance and effect of each answer or each cluster.



    This software, which can be downloaded from http://cmap.ihmc.us, presents many benefits. For example, when individuals create links, the software can reposition the concepts to promote clarity and organization. Second, even individuals located in different places can collaborate to create the concept map. Third, individuals can then link resources, such as images, videos, web pages, and tables, to the maps, which other internet uses can access and utilize. Thus, concept maps provide a form of indexing.

    The software also includes many other features. For example, the process of constructing a concept map can be retraced. Second, the maps can be presented in a piecemeal fashion, to organize oral presentations.

    Other packages

    For other packages, see:


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