The importance of concept mapping

Every section of this guide includes a concept map and concept mapping has been discussed in relation to almost every aspect of learning so far. By now you should have a good idea about how to concept map and hopefully you will be able to see how helpful it can be. The purpose of this section is to consolidate this information and to clarify the important features of concept mapping.

The term concept mapping is sometimes used interchangeably with mind mapping, while they are sometimes used as distinct terms. What you call them is less important than what you do with them and how you construct them. Concept mapping is probably the single most important tool you can have as a tertiary learner because of the way it helps to clarify thinking and because it can be used in so many different ways.

This guide promotes a particular type of concept mapping which for the most part is refined, hierarchical and designed to improve thinking and understanding. In my opinion, “concept maps” that look like this diagram below with different ideas written in each of the bubbles are of little use, although you will see them from time to time.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 12.43.05 pm

All that a map like this will tell you is that everything is connected. This may be true, but will not help much in terms of really clarifying thinking and understanding.

There are plenty of good reasons why concept mapping is an important skill to learn. Have a look at the map below and try to “read” it. Start in the centre. Each of the main branches (or legs) is an answer to the question in the middle. The ideas that are linked to each of the main branches are an explanation or further detail about the idea above it. So for example, at the centre is: Why should we concept map? The top left branch answer is: Because it is a “whole brain” activity. The branches linked to “whole brain” are “left” and “right” and the words coming off left and right explain what the left brain does and what the right brain does.

Why Concept Map? png fixed

Here is a quick explanation of this map starting with “Whole brain”. We have two sides of our brains. Of course we use both sides all the time, but some people have a tendency to use one side more than the other in terms of how they think and problem solve. As discussed in the section on learning styles, you will most likely remember that the left brain tends to analyse ideas into component parts and to look for structure, order and detail, whereas the right brain tends to be more creative and looks for relationships between ideas by understanding the “whole”. Now look at the word “Active”. The branches off this word explains that it is impossible to daydream while making a concept map or to be simply writing without thinking (being on automatic). Next the map explains that concept mapping improves understanding and memory. It improves understanding by promoting thinking and questioning and it improves memory because it is visual. When we “see” what we think, we can manipulate it. Finally it is efficient because you save time by only using keywords rather than full sentences and you use less paper as well. You can use A3 paper for maps, and if you always use the paper landscape, you will fit a lot of information onto just one page.

Different concept maps for different purposes

Brainstorming maps represent all your ideas on a topic without excluding any ideas (no censoring). They have many legs and are not well organised.
In the brainstorming map below, the student had to write an essay:

Discuss how the role of the manager in business has changed over the last ten years.

This is the map the student produced during a brainstorming session:

Manager's Role Change png

The student simply put the key words from the topic in the centre of the map and then tried to write all the possible issues that might answer the question or need to be considered when answering the question. Notice that at first there is only one idea on each branch and there are no sub-branches. It is often best when brainstorming initially not to worry with sub branches because when you start to worry about different levels of ideas (sub-branches), it sometimes stops your creativity from flowing quickly and easily.

Brainstorming vs listing

Students sometime ask why it is better to brainstorm around a central idea rather than writing ideas down in a list. There are two good reasons: firstly writing ideas in a top down or list structure often pre-empts one to think about ideas in sequence, so first, second, third and so on. Trying to order information can also limit the flow of ideas. Writing in a circle is more likely to enhance wide and creative thinking with no limitations. The second reason is that once you have quickly captured your brainstorm, you can look at each of the items and try to elaborate them further along each of the branches. If you have written your ideas “top down” there is often no space to further elaborate the ideas.

Consider the map about the manager’s role. If the words had been written top down, it would be difficult to find space to write any further ideas. However, when the ideas are in a circle, it is easy to add further ideas. So, for example with “organisation characteristics” on the brainstorm map one could elaborate this idea further by ask questions using the 5W’s+H (Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?).
Here are some examples of these questions:

• What is it about organisation characteristics that have changed?
• How have changes in organisations affected the types of managers that are employed?
The answers to these questions might then be written as second level ideas off the branch “organisation characteristics”. See the map below:

Manager's Role Change 2 png

It is possible to elaborate further for each main idea and to provide further elaboration and detail up to third or fourth level ideas or as far as you want to go. If you do this when brainstorming, take care that you do not go off topic.

The planning map is like a detailed draft in key words outlining the ideas, references and points you want to cover in an essay or piece of writing. It is usually best to concept map the ideas that you will address in the body of the essay first. As you do this, you should be asking yourself: what are the key ideas I want to cover in this section of the body in order to answer this question? Once you have mapped the main ideas in the body of your essay, you can plan what you will say in the introduction and conclusion.

The map below is the plan for the essay on the manager’s role change. Notice that it looks different from the brainstorming map. At this point, each major branch or leg is one section or one set of ideas that are going to be covered in the essay. Coming off each of these legs are further issues, including references that will be covered in that section. Notice that a section (for example, “Climate”) could be a few paragraphs or just one paragraph, depending on how much you wanted to write in each section. If the student were going to write three paragraphs under “Climate”, they would be: Technology, Globalisation and Politics. Each paragraph would have a topic sentence of its own. For example, the paragraph about technology could have a topic sentence like this: The technological climate in organisations has changed markedly over the last ten years. On the other hand, if the student were going to write one paragraph about climate, the topic sentence would include all three ideas of technology, globalisation and politics, for example: There have been significant changes in businesses in terms of technological, global and political climate over the past ten years.

Manager's Role Change proper png

Consider the following paragraph on technology (under the “climate” branch) and see if you can see how the map has been used to construct the paragraph:

The technological climate in organisations has changed markedly over the last 10 years. This has had serious implications for organisations and staff. According to Brown (2009, p. 34) the “technological revolution” has meant that deadlines are shorter, expectations are higher and workloads have increased markedly. Brown argues that this has affected both managers and staff alike, but it has also provided managers with a justification for increasing workloads beyond those that technology would dictate. Brown argues that this has meant that managers, instead of becoming more democratic, are in fact more autocratic, and are more likely to use technological arguments as a reason for increasing staff workloads.

Here is the beginning of the next paragraph on global pressures. Notice how the plan serves as a guide for the construction of the paragraph. Also take note of the connecting sentence between the previous paragraph on technology and this paragraph on global pressures:

While technology has changed the role of the manager, so have global pressures impacted on styles of leadership used by managers. According to Richards (2007) and Brown (2009) globalisation has brought new demands in the areas of…..and……

Remember that when you make a planning map, it is important to include detail and references. As you organise the material for your writing, it is like creating a first draft of your writing in keywords. Once you have organised the keywords well, you can use them to help you to structure your writing.

This is a concept map you would create to summarise the key points in a reading. When making a concept map of a reading, it is usually best to read the whole text and as you go to underline or highlight the keywords in sentences that are important. Never underline or highlight whole sentences! Choose only the words that are important. As you read, identify what each paragraph is about with your own annotation or key word next to the paragraph. Then, when you have finished reading, think about the most important overall ideas or themes that are present in the article and use those to map the information. Sometimes you can decide on themes by looking at all the words you have underlined or highlighted and your margin annotations and decide on some good general headings that can be used to organise all those ideas. To do this, you will come up with some major concepts or ideas or headings that you can use to organise the information (hence the name concept map).

Here is a concept map made from a reading on Australian Aborigines (taken from the internet).

Australian Aboriginies 2 png

Notice that, like a planning map, it has a limited number of main branches (legs) and it is developed beyond first level ideas. As you look at a branch, for example “Culture”, you will see at the next level of ideas both language and beliefs, because in the student’s view language and beliefs are examples of culture. Under “language”, there are two branches (75 left and Walpiri). Under Walpiri there are a number of words that give more detail about the Walpiri language.

The text box below contains the information that is summarised in the map above.

The original inhabitants of the continent of Australia took up residence there at least 40,000 years before Europeans landed at Botany Bay in 1788. In 1788, the Aborigines were clearly the majority, numbering around 300,000. In the late 1990s, they were a minority struggling to claim rights to their traditional lands. They also seek money for lost lands and resources. Relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia have not been very good. There is a great deal of resentment on the part of many Aboriginal people for the treatment their ancestors received from the European colonists. Australian Aborigines face many of the same problems that Native Americans face in the United States.
Australian Aborigines traditionally lived throughout Australia and on the island of Tasmania. In the Central and Western Desert regions of Australia, Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They had no permanent place of residence, although they did have territories and ate whatever they could either catch, kill, or dig out of the ground. In the southern parts of the island continent, winter is cold and Aboriginal populations had to shelter themselves from the cold wind and driving rain.
There were approximately three hundred different Aboriginal languages spoken in 1788. Now, there are only about seventy-five remaining. Some of these, like Walpiri, spoken in and around Alice Springs in the center of the continent, are well established and in no danger of being lost. Walpiri is taught in schools, and a growing body of written literature is produced daily in the language. Other languages such as Dyribal are nearly extinct. The largest language in terms of number of speakers is called the Western Desert language, spoken by several thousand Aboriginal people in the Western Desert region of the continent. Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. In parts of Australia, distinctive kinds of English have developed within Aboriginal communities. In the Northern Territory there is a kind of English called Kriol that is spoken by Aboriginal people.
Over their long history, a complex and rich Aboriginal mythology has evolved. It has been passed down from generation to generation. This mythology is known as the Dreamtime (Alchera) Legends. The Dream-time is the mystical time during which the Aborigines’ ancestors established their world. These myths from ancient times are accepted as a record of absolute truth. They dominate the cultural life of the people.

Try to make your own concept map of this text. First, read the information in the text box, underline or highlight the key words and then write down what you think each paragraph is about. When you have done this, choose some overall ideas or themes to map out the information in the text. When you have finished, have another look at the map (above) of the text. Remember there are multiple ways to map any text and you will most likely emphasise aspects of the text that are of interest to you, or you will focus on the features which reflect your unique understanding of the text. When you decide on the main ideas for the main branches of your map, you need to choose concepts that are general enough for a number of ideas to be clustered around. Sometimes a word you use, may not appear in the text, but you choose it because it captures a lot of ideas in the text. For example, in my map, the word, “Loss” (which does not occur in the text) has been used as a heading to talk about a number of issues in the text, including language, resources, land and connections.

Here is the text again, including suggested highlights and keyword annotations:

   
The original inhabitants of the continent of Australia took up residence there at least 40,000 years before Europeans landed at Botany Bay in 1788. In 1788, the Aborigines were clearly the majority, numbering around 300,000. In the late 1990s, they were a minority struggling to claim rights to their traditional lands. They also seek money for lost lands and resources. Relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia have not been very good. There is a great deal of resentment on the part of many Aboriginal people for the treatment their ancestors received from the European colonists. Australian Aborigines face many of the same problems that Native Americans face in the United States. Historical context
Australian Aborigines traditionally lived throughout Australia and on the island of Tasmania. In the Central and Western Desert regions of Australia, Aboriginal groups were nomadic hunters and gatherers. They had no permanent place of residence, although they did have territories and ate whatever they could either catch, kill, or dig out of the ground. In the southern parts of the island continent, winter is cold and Aboriginal populations had to shelter themselves from the cold wind and driving rain. Hunter gatherers all over Aus and Tas
There were approximately three hundred different Aboriginal languages spoken in 1788. Now, there are only about seventy-five remaining. Some of these, like Walpiri, spoken in and around Alice Springs in the center of the continent, are well established and in no danger of being lost. Walpiri is taught in schools, and a growing body of written literature is produced daily in the language. Other languages such as Dyribal are nearly extinct. The largest language in terms of number of speakers is called the Western Desert language, spoken by several thousand Aboriginal people in the Western Desert region of the continent. Most Aboriginal people speak English as their first or second language. In parts of Australia, distinctive kinds of English have developed within Aboriginal communities. In the Northern Territory there is a kind of English called Kriol that is spoken by Aboriginal people. Language
Over their long history, a complex and rich Aboriginal mythology has evolved. It has been passed down from generation to generation. This mythology is known as the Dreamtime (Alchera) Legends. The Dream-time is the mystical time during which the Aborigines’ ancestors established their world. These myths from ancient times are accepted as a record of absolute truth. They dominate the cultural life of the people. Beliefs

 

Notice that only one of my paragraph annotations became a major branch of the map (History). Most of the other key word annotations that identify the topic of each paragraph were used as second or third level ideas in my map (for example, language and beliefs which were grouped under a more general heading of Culture). Clearly it is not possible to make each paragraph keyword a new branch of the map. This is because there are usually too many paragraphs in a text to do this. What you do need to do is to identify the key ideas or themes in the text and organise paragraph keywords and the highlighted words or ideas around them. As you do this, you have to really think about the text, and this will help you to understand it more clearly. As you organise your map the most general ideas will be the key ideas on the first level (main) branches and the most specific ideas will be furtherest from the centre of the map.

There are a number of examples of these in the sections on improving memory and preparing for exams. The map below is one of these examples. Remember that memory maps often draw information together from a variety of sources so that there is an overall one page summary which outlines how the ideas fit together and what the most important issues are. It is often helpful to use colours for the branches and pictures that will help you to remember the key ideas. Make at least one map per lecture topic and close to exams make maps across topics by anticipating the types of questions you might be asked.

General advice about making maps

• Use unlined paper in a landscape direction (you will optimise space this way). Paper up to A3 size is usually best.
• Write the keywords from the topic or the reading in a box in the middle of the map.
• Do not use multiple bubbles and boxes (it is not easy to see clearly the different levels of ideas because the whole page ends up full of boxes and circles).
• Keep the lines on the maps horizontal. This makes them easier to read and shows the flow of ideas clearly.
• Write on the lines so that each word is underlined. Dangling words soon merge and the map loses clarity.
• Try to use one or maybe two keywords on each branch. This kind of summarising forces you to think about the essence of the idea and makes the map easier to read.
• For all maps (except brainstorming maps) use no more than around 4 to 6 main branches (otherwise the map loses clarity).
• Develop the ideas along the branches with the most general ideas at the middle of the map and the most specific ideas at the extremities.
• Make sure that there is a logical connection along the path and that each idea fits well under the word to which it is attached.
• A map should reflect your unique understanding and thinking. It should not simply follow headings in a text (see the map on Australian Aborigines).
• While you are making a map, you should be thinking and questioning: What do I want to say or show here? How do I understand this material? What level is this idea? Is it general or specific? Is it relevant to the topic? Does this idea fit on this branch? Is this idea relevant to this topic?
• Use colours and images to enhance the map (for example to clarify ideas or help you remember).
• Use block capitals and fonts (eg bold and italics) to help show different levels of ideas.
• Practice making maps often – the more you practice, the more adept you will become.
• As you are making a map, be prepared to change it until you are satisfied that you have the ideas correctly organised (use pencil or a software package that will enable you to make changes easily).

Software packages

There are a number of software packages for creating mind maps, such as MindManager, Visimap and Inspiration. Many of these have a free trial, but you will have to pay for the software once the trial expires. There are also many freeware packages, for example mind42 (see http://mind42.com) and freemind. Simply google their names or go to wikkipedia and type in concept mapping or mind mapping and you will find plenty of suggestions. You will also find many concept mapping apps. Some of these free mapping packages have banks of maps that other people have made. While it might be useful to look at these, remember that the whole point of concept mapping is actually to make the map and in doing so to develop your thinking and understanding. In other words it is the process, not the product that is most important, so use other people’s maps with caution or not at all. In my opinion it is not necessary to use a software package at all. Many people find that actually drawing the map themselves seems to further promote their understanding. If you decide to use software, make sure it is a package that is designed for concept mapping because they are quicker and easier to use than trying to do them with software like Word or Excel.

Summary table of the different types of maps

Type of map Purpose Features and hints
Brainstorming • Good for getting started on assignments • Lots of legs
• No order initially
• Use questions 5W’s+H
• No censoring!
Planning an essay • Is your first draft in key words
• Write from your map
• 4 to 6 legs
• Do body first, introduction and conclusion later
• Order later
• Include references
Reading map • Helps understanding
• Clarifies how ideas fit together
• Conceptualise main ideas (themes) for yourself
• Select important issues
• Not too many legs!
• Don’t necessarily use text headings
Memory map • Visual, concise, easy to revisit
• Use with memory strategies
• Make maps across topics close to exams
• Organise so you can learn it easily
• Focus on main ideas and relationships
• Use colours, pictures, arrows
• Not too much detail

Reflection and Conclusion

Try mapping yourself

Consider the information under the heading “General advice about making maps” and try to map the advice in the space below. Then look at this example and compare it.

How to make a concept map png

Remember, no two people’s maps will ever look the same. This is good because it means that the map reflects each person’s unique understanding.

Application

What is the most important thing you have learnt in this section and how do you think you will apply this information to learning?

• To help you to consolidate the information discussed here, make your own concept map of the information in this section. Remember, write on the lines, keep the lines horizontal and conceptualise the information under a few main headings. Be prepared to make changes until you are satisfied with your map. Enjoy!