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Concept maps

Using concept maps to measure learning

As our comprehension and understanding of a topic develops we increase the number of concepts and ideas that we have about the subject and develop more links between them creating a mental network. Concept maps are representations of this conceptual understanding. A concept map should show the way in which we organise knowledge, ideas and concepts and the hierarchy of concepts within our mental map. It should also show how we relate and link the concepts together. On the map, which is two dimensional diagram, the links will be shown by arrows and the direction of the arrow [which can be one- or two-way] show the links, relationships and hierarchy within our understanding. Typically we use keywords to represent the concepts and ideas rather than elaborate and detailed language; the aim is to show the network of ideas and concepts and relationships between these rather than the detail that sits below these.

Concept maps showing greater understanding of a topic are likely to:

  • have more links between concepts which demonstrate that students have made more connections and thus have a more integrated understanding
  • be arranged hierarchically showing an understanding of the structure of knowledge with concepts and sub-concepts
  • include specific examples of concepts. 

concept maps

What can concept maps assess?

Concept mapping can be used as a form of assessment but it is also a useful skill to have for the purposes of learning, note taking and structuring ideas. Concept mapping is best suited to disciplines where conceptual knowledge is valued and so much of the literature relates to science and engineering subjects but there are many other areas where concept mapping may be usefully employed. As concept maps are graphical representations it might be more difficult to follow some common academic conventions around referencing and academic writing in this context. Thus there is a need to think carefully about how subject or assignment specific marking criteria and grade descriptors are written.


Prior to using as an assessment approach students will need to be introduced and have an opportunity to practice concept mapping. While some students will be familiar with the approach as it is sometimes used in schools as a revision strategy, they may be more familiar with mind mapping (Buzan, 2009). It will be necessary to ensure that they understand the two approaches are different because mind mapping typically starts with a main idea from which all other ideas emanate and is mainly about associations (perhaps creative associations) so does not address where the understanding of one idea is dependent upon another.

Different types: In the first use of concept maps in a module or course there might be a focus on the basic elements of the map: two concepts and a link to make a proposition. Later on the assessment might take into account cross-links between concepts, hierarchy and inclusions of examples. Cañas, Novak, and Reiska (2012) explore different conditions under which students complete concept maps with different amounts of support. For example students could be given freedom to complete a map, be given a focus question and / or be given a partial map to complete.

Individual / group? Concepts maps which address a particular focussed question can be produced individually and each map may be idiosyncratic but at the same time potentially correct. The group preparation of a maps would require that students discussed the nature of the concepts to be included, the links between them and possible hierarchies of concepts. This co-construction could be beneficial as a learning experience in itself.

A basic way of assessment a concept map would be to look at how ‘interconnected’ the maps is - basically a superior map is one where there is a robust set of connections between concepts. This is contrasted with maps that are ‘chain’ where concepts are simply linked onto a single different concept in linear fashion, or ‘hub and spoke’ where the map has a single central concept with a set of radials that emanate from it. There are a range of strategies that might be used to assess a map included in subject-specific literature. One detailed by McClure, Sonak and Suen (1999) focuses on the relational part of a map where one mark is given for a (correct?) link, two is given for a link plus a label for a possible relationship and three marks is given for a link, a possible relationship plus a correct arrow direction showing a hierarchical, causal or sequential relationship.

Diversity & inclusion

Consideration will need to be given to students who use assistive technology and whether they are able to use this in ways which allow them to read and produce concept maps.

Academic integrity

It is possible for students to produce different concept maps on the same topic which are at the same time different and correct. Thus for the same focussed question or overarching concept there could be any number of different concept maps including different concepts, different links or hierarchies. Thus it would be expected that each submitted assessment would be substantially different. This expected difference can be helpful in identifying possible instances of plagiarism.

Student and staff experience

A potential strength of the use of concept mapping for purposes of assessment is that a maps can be produced and assessed near the start of the topic to given an indication of prior learning. These maps can then be revisited and added to over time potentially demonstrating learning during a module or course. Thus concept maps have a useful formative assessment function as well as summative. There are a large number of examples of how concepts maps have been used in HE over the last 20-30 years in particular disciplines; a quick search should reveal these.


Some student may find concept maps difficult at first because it challenges them to think in ways where multiple connections between concepts are required which is somewhat at odds with conventional linear thinking. Some students may not like the inherent ‘messiness’ of maps where a hand-drawn map will have progressively more links between concepts which required lines crossing the map. It might be helpful to explore with students ‘success criteria’ for a map so they can understand that while it is necessary that a map can be read, the interconnectedness of a maps is a desirable if somewhat messy feature.


Students could spend a long time ‘polishing’ a map - making it look good - rather than improving the links and hierarchy. Time could easily be wasted in this way.

McClure, Sonak and Suen (1999) found that the time to assess a concept map was comparable with assessing an objective test.



Useful resources

The CMap software developed by IHMC is free and includes some useful features such as the potential to add propositions which are then automatically added to the existing map and can be automatically formatted into a sensible arrangement. There are some very helpful documents, links and videos available on the site too.

Morgan State University has some helpful materials about concept mapping including a good tutorial