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Concept Mapping to write a literature review

Updated on November 13, 2016

How do I write my Literature Review?

Writing a literature review is the next task in progressing with my Ph.D. Yes, I know, I should have been writing this all along! I have been reading and taking notes and I "know" that it all has to fit together somehow but how? This has been worrying me for some time because it's important to ensure that all the items fit in together, with cross references if necessary, and also to ensure that you are not just plagiarising someone else's structure! Copying someone else's structure is as much a form of plagiarism as copying their words. Sometimes, you just get lucky in finding a method that works for you. And I think I have found one that will work for me, maybe it will help you too.

I already have one paper published in conference proceedings and am currently (slowly) revising it for submission as a journal article. While revising it, I drew out a concept map of what needed to be included and suddenly realised that, with a few additions, the concept map gave me a structure for my literature review for that section! And a further realisation hit me - that I could use this method to create an outline for my entire literature review. Whoopee! So I am going to share this with you in case it helps you too. And even if you are not doing a Ph.D., the process of creating a concept map is fun, easy and makes a great way of structuring any writing at all that you want to do.

Not organised in writing

You first have to understand that I was never an organised person in terms of writing. I was brought up in the days before the concept of a personal computer was even thought of! My idea of writing an essay for school was to take the topic and sit and write until it was finished. This was before the days of computers, so reorganising an essay was a lot of work, unlike the use of cut and paste these days, as well as spell checkers. And I never did figure out the best way to write an outline, it just seemed a waste of time to me, because the outline was the same as the essay order that came straight out my head. I did science for senior school and my bachelor’s degree, so essays were not a big thing. It wasn’t until I was an adult, with children of my own that I found out about mind mapping and how brilliant it was, both for fun and for work, and that my children could use it to outline essays in a way that I had not known about. After that I found other graphical ways to map out thinking, including concept mapping.

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Concept Mapping

My first introduction to Concept Mapping was through a book by Joseph D Novak. You can see a paper on concept mapping in the link list below. He created the idea of concept maps back in 1972 when he was working on a research program studying children. He found that he could teach the ideas behind concept maps to children, even young ones, so the idea behind them is simple, however, the ideas that you can use them for can be as profound and complex as you wish. Since then, a number of others have expanded on their uses.

Further information on concept mapping and other useful info

More information and diagrams on concept mapping and writing a literature review and the software you can use to create it.

Concept Maps

Simplest concept map of all
Simplest concept map of all

There are just 2 basic items you need to know about concept maps in order to create one. First you need to know what a concept is and secondly, you need to know how the concepts are linked. This is pretty simple - a concept is an idea that we can label. It could be a noun, such as "cars", or "stars" or a description, such as "bright" or "fast". There are many other concepts we could add but they are all just "ideas" that we can think about. The links are what join two concepts together. So, if we have the concepts of "cars" and "fast", we could link them together with the words "can be". Concepts are drawn inside circles or boxes and the linking words are written on the line that joins these two concepts.

So you could write the word "car" inside one box, write the word "fast" in a box BELOW the first box and join them with a line that says"can be"

Together, the two concepts and the linking words form a "proposition", that says "Cars can be fast".

This may seem too simple but concept maps can be expanded greatly and express very complex sets of relationships. For instance, there is a link to a concept map about concept maps in the link module above.

The only other important thing to know about drawing a concept map is that you need to start it with a question. So I might have started the concept map on “cars” with the question, “What is a car?” A concept map that included the “stars” and “bright” concepts could have started with the question, “What is astronomy?”, or “What can you see in the night sky?”. There are many different questions that can be asked and a concept map can be used to explore the meanings and relationships between the concepts and to develop an understanding of what you actually know about cars and stars, or anything else.

How to write a literature review using a concept map

I am not going to use my own research for this example but will create an outline literature review using information about something I have NOT researched, so if your research is in this area and I get things wrong - please forgive me - and use my mistakes to improve your own literature review.

You will probably have a thesis title that you are working towards. For this example, I have created this possible one:

Assessing children's playgrounds to investigate reasons for accidents and injuries, especially in older children

Remember, I am a student (even if an old one), so this may not necessarily be a "good" thesis title but I am using it only for an example.

First you need to work out your "Themes" (that is the subject(s) that need to be covered) and then you need to work out your research questions. I have covered "research questions" in my lens on Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls. You can find the link to that in the link lens above. If you need to review this, go there now, before going any further.

The themes in this thesis title appear to be: “Children’s Playgrounds”, “accidents and Injuries to older children” and “assessing playgrounds”. The research questions on these themes that I could extract from the thesis title above are:

1. Characteristics of children’s playgrounds that contribute to accidents

2. Safety assessments of children’s playgrounds

3. Frequency and types of accidental injuries in older children

Again, I have not gone through a full process (as described in Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls) to develop these research questions, so they may not be the best ones for someone who was writing on this topic. The reason I chose these questions was to (a) look at playgrounds in general (b) consider any different methods of guidance available on safety assessments and (c) look at how older children get injured in general (not just in playgrounds).

If I were writing a literature review on this topic, I would now have my research questions and thus my 3 major divisions for my literature review. I can now take each of these research questions in turn and use a concept map to illustrate the relationships between the various concepts. This then gives me an outline for my literature review in this area.

Creating the Concept Map

starting a concept map
starting a concept map

First, I take a piece of paper and turn it to landscape view and write my research question across the top. I am going to take "Characteristics of children's playgrounds that contribute to accidents" as the example. (This may not look like a question for starting a concept map, so you could change it to be "What are the characteristics of children's playgrounds that contribute to accidents", if you wish.) This can be handwritten on a piece of paper (this is how I usually start out) or you can use PowerPoint or any other graphical ability software that you have access to. I generally do most of mine in PagePlusX6 and there is a free starter download available for PagePlus. You can find the link to this in the link module above.

Next, I choose my starting concept. For this, I think there is no other choice than "Children's Playgrounds"!

Now, having used them as a child, some 60 years ago; as a parent, about 30 years ago and now as a grandparent, I have a lot of thoughts about them from the user's point of view but none from an engineer's or a public authority's perspective. My concepts in those areas may be quite wonky or faulty. Use them only as a guide.

Having got my starting concept, I now need to consider what other concepts I have on children's playgrounds. These may be "surfaces", "equipment", "location", "inspections", "funding", and "usage". There may be others but it will be easy enough to add these later. I now write my new concepts below the top one and connect them with linking words, such as "have", "are subject to", etc.

That means I now have several propositions, such as "Children's Playgrounds are subject to Inspection", or "Children's Playgrounds contain equipment",etc.

Adding to the Concept Map

Adding to the concept map
Adding to the concept map

I might now look at the concept of “location” and realise that these could be “urban” (in towns) or “rural” (in more country areas) and my research has identified that there are differences between these, so I add both concepts and the linking words. And I then realise that these two concepts are also related to “usage”, in that my studies have shown that “urban” playgrounds are more likely to be used by children in the local area, whereas the “rural” playgrounds are used more by children who are being brought there by car, possibly from some distance away. That then prompts the thought on the concept of “supervision”, which I add, together with linking words because my “research” has found that children using “urban” playgrounds are more often likely to be there unsupervised, than those in the “rural” playgrounds.

More work on the Concept Map

Developing the concept map further
Developing the concept map further

I now look at the types of surface in the playgrounds and recall that there are 3 types of surface – soft asphalt, bark chippings and sand.

Changing the Concept Map round - As your ideas develop, you may need to change the map around

Sometimes the concept map needs to be changed around
Sometimes the concept map needs to be changed around

I continue on this way, developing a concept map and then realise that I don’t have a concept included for “children’s accidents”. So, I have a think about this and may decide that I need to have it near the top and that I may need to redraw the concept map! So I add in the concept of “children’s accidents” and link it into some of the other concepts, with appropriate linking words. For instance the accidents may be related to the equipment or the surface or to (lack of) supervision. Because I have used a graphical program, I can move the concepts around to fit more easily into the available space. But I often start these out on paper, just to get the ideas flowing.

Moving from the Concept Map to your Literature Review

Once the concept map is complete, I can use it to form an outline for that section of my literature review. Each concept can form a heading or subheading in the literature review. Concept maps have a hierarchical structure from top to bottom, so the concepts at the top of the concept map form the headings and the concepts lower on the map form the subheadings. And because the relationships shown on the concept map can also be horizontal as well as vertical, the areas that I need to cover in different parts on my literature review are all visible and can be picked up on as necessary. For instance, I may need to talk about accidental injuries in the equipment section, the surfaces section and the supervision section and consider whether there are more or fewer accidents in the rural playgrounds because (a) they are used less or (b) they have more supervision (from carers).

With 3 concept maps, one for each research question, I have an outline for the WHOLE of my LITERATURE REVIEW!

Several Concept Maps for the same thing! - Doing more than one concept map for the same question can improve your perspective.

I travel to University by train, which gives me thinking time. And I tried redrawing the concept map for "children's playgrounds" on paper and realised that it was a bit different from the first one I drew out for this lens and I realised that I had some different ideas the second time around. . I had realised that there was another safe surface - "grass", apart from the first three I had on the original concept map and I had also added in a lot more about the types of equipment. Combining the two maps would give me the opportunity to refine the literature review without having to go through reams of linearly written pages and ensure that I did not miss out any important relationships between different areas (concepts). This is VASTLY different from my original attempt at creating a structure for my literature review.

My original attempt at creating a structure for my literature review

A lot harder to create a literature review in linear format
A lot harder to create a literature review in linear format

It's a lot harder to create a literature review using a linear format. It's more difficult to show relationships.

An alternative method of creating a Concept Map - working from the bottom up, instead of top down

Are you having difficulty creating a concept map? Try this alternative approach. Get your research question (as above), now think of as many words and phrases relating to it as you can and write each word or phrase down on a piece of paper and draw a box around it. Once you have as many words and phrases as you can think of at first go, cut out the boxes and lay them out in front of you. Now shuffle them around to see if you can get them into related groups. This is a bottom up approach, whereas the concept map idea can be thought of as a top down approach. So with this alternative, you need to start with the most SPECIFIC concepts and see if you can group them together into a larger concept. Yellow sticky notes (the kind that come in square pads) can be useful for this

progressing with the alternative method for developing concept maps

Once you have some related groups, see if you can think of a higher concept that would include all of those groups. For instance, I started out with sand, grass and mud, which could be gathered into the concept of "soft surfaces" and I also had the concepts of "falls" and bruises", which fitted into the concept of "injury types". These two higher concepts of "soft surfaces" and "injury types" seemed to fit into an even higher concept of "Injury prevention".

Whichever way you find easier, top down or bottom up, I hope you will find that drawing out a concept map will help you create your literature review much more easily and much more comprehensively, with the ability to change it without feeling overwhelmed by all the attendant changes that this would need.

Good luck with your literature review and please let me have any comments or additions you think should be made. Have you used a concept map? Has this helped you get down to creating your literature review?

Concept Mapping to create a Literature Review - How to use free software to create a concept map

How to get started on your Literature Review for your doctoral studies by creating a concept map using free software.

Get the VUE free download of concept mapping software

This is where you can download the concept mapping software for free.

your thoughts on concept maps and literature reviews

Now you have read the lens, what are your thoughts?

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What are your thoughts on this?

Concept Maps and Literature Reviews

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    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 7 weeks ago

      You can do it either way around. Some people prefer to write first, THEN concept map what they have written and then use the concept map to extend or improve their first draft. Thank you very much for your kind words.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 7 weeks ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for sharing a very useful way of concept mapping. My writing would be a lot better if I created a concept map before putting my ideas on paper. I really admire you for getting a Ph.D. at this stage in your life.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 14 months ago

      Thank you very much. Concept mapping can even be used by children in school, for instance, by asking a question such as "How do I know it's a cat?" or "What is water?".

    • Happymommy2520 profile image

      Amy 15 months ago from East Coast

      This is a very informative Hub. I never knew this concept. It seems like it can be applied to different forms of writing as well. Great article, very well written.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Thank you very much. I also enjoy using them for all sorts of uses.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting organizational technique.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
      Author

      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Thank you for visiting and for your comment

    • anglnwu profile image

      anglnwu 2 years ago

      Very detailed information. I like the concept mapping idea. Thanks for sharing.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      It's certainly hanging over me at the minute! I have a poster presentation on Wednesday, so hope that goes ok. Thanks for visiting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I completed my Ph.D. about 15 years ago. The dissertation can hang over your head like a dark storm cloud, threatening to sentence you to the status of "ABD forever." Your hub will definitely help kick start those doctoral students who are having trouble with the lit review.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      There is a similarity and there are many ways of graphically illustrating content. I like concept mapping because I know how to do it. Others may prefer their own methods. I also like mind mapping.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      your charts reminds me of the tree branching that we learn in school

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Thank you so much.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 2 years ago from Georgia

      Good morning, RoadMonkey; first congratulations on going back to finish your degree. Second, thank you for an excellent presentation on concept mapping.

      As someone who loved diagramming sentences and writing in pre-computer days, I would be comfortable with any of your formats. I've used something similar in my recovery curriculum to help people make sense of their lives; the interconnectedness of certain patterns, events, and people. So, it has multiple applications. ~Marilyn

      voted up, awesome, interesting and Tweeted

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Thank you

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Concept mapping can start from very simple things

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I can see how this could be helpful for an extremely complex topic, or maybe even as a way to keep things organized in a novel. Great hub!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      Wow! This looks pretty tough for me. I've never worked on a thesis (thank goodness), but my son is majoring in English in college. I sent him the link to this Hub.

      I'm of the "old school" where I just outline my work, though.

      Voted UP, etc. and shared.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      Some people prefer outlines for creating an article. What the graphical methods do is help you work out how all the pieces fit together. Concept mapping, as a subject, was actually tested out on primary school children by Joesph D Novak in the USA and I have an idea in my mind for a book for small children that would introduce the idea in a very simple way

    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 2 years ago from Templeton, CA

      This seems like a pretty complex process to me. I think I still prefer the old fashioned outline method in my own writing. Of course, I've never had to write a thesis, since I never needed a higher degree. I settled for a teaching credential.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @norma-holt: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 3 years ago

      Certainly a helpful and well presented lens for writers in general.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @SteveKaye: Thank you for commenting and visiting. Concept maps are great. They are simple enough for children to learn and can be as complex as you want.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      Having read some of your answers to the comments, I can see why you say this is different o mind mapping but I am not convinced that mind mapping is not hierarchical. Yes it is drawn as a radiating sketch but each branch could easily be considered as a top down construction. It simply is a different way to present the info. I still think they are the same but different. There is no reason why the connections in a mind map cannot be assigned a label or action. Both are simply ways of organising and filtering info.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 3 years ago

      Wonderful, valuable approach to organizing information. Thank you.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @John Dyhouse: Yes, they are similar. I find both useful but mind mapping is easier to learn, I think. Sometimes the "concept" of concept mapping is harder to explain.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @goldenrulecomics: Thank you and thanks for visiting.

    • goldenrulecomics profile image

      goldenrulecomics 3 years ago

      Interesting. I'll show it to my wife who is an English teacher...

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @paperfacets: Concept mapping can even be used by small children, as well as adults. It is a fantastic tool for checking out everything you know on something and finding the missing areas. I once thought of writing a children's book on concept mapping but haven't (yet) got round to it. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 3 years ago from La Verne, CA

      I always wondered about the Ph.D. thesis and how one would go about writing an important paper. It can easily be used for the Squidoo article.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @mel-kav: Thank you and thanks for visiting.

    • mel-kav profile image

      mel-kav 3 years ago

      Very interesting concept!

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @lesliesinclair: You're welcome. Thank you for visiting and commenting

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 3 years ago

      My writing style would be very perplexing to anyone who requires such structure as you present here, so I believe I can learn much from you. Thanks for the generous tutorial.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @Lee Hansen: Yes, there are a lot of similarities. Sometimes I prefer mind mapping and sometimes concept mapping. I suppose i use mind mapping when I am trying to think of a structure and brainstorm ideas and I use concept mapping when trying to tease out the relationships in a complex area. Thank you for visiting and commenting.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 3 years ago from Vermont

      Reminds me of what we learned in the tech world, Mind Mapping, to create end user documentation, training and software environments.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @favored: I think nursery age children could learn it too and yet it is still useful for people doing a doctorate! Thank you for visiting and for commenting.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      I used to teach this to my classes (a toned down version) for their writing assignments. It still works with anything. So glad you brought it here for others to read and learn.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @TanoCalvenoa: That's great that you can hold everything in your head. Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      TanoCalvenoa 3 years ago

      I like this method, but I personally wouldn't use it because I do everything in my head (never took notes in school, I do math in my head, etc). I think though that this could benefit most people.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 3 years ago

      @aesta1: Yes, it's great isn't it? I use it a lot. It really helps to get thoughts organised before getting into the detail of expanding the concepts. Thanks for visiting.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I use concept mapping a lot. It organizes my thoughts.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Thank you for visiting.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Very interesting concept for literature reviews.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      @kimark421: Thank you for visiting.

    • kimark421 profile image

      kimark421 4 years ago

      Interesting lens. I enjoyed the read. Thanks!

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      @AngeloOrtiz: That's great. Glad you liked the lenses. Good luck with your bachelor's and whatever else you go on to.

    • profile image

      AngeloOrtiz 4 years ago

      Love your lenses, I'm doing my bachelor's at the moment and plan to go on and do a masters. After that, who can tell. This lens and the ones on writing abstracts and developing a hypothesis are fantastic. In fact I've printed them out and they are going in the front of my resources folder.

      Thanks again,

      Angelo.

    • RoadMonkey profile image
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      RoadMonkey 4 years ago

      @OnlineSuccessor: Thank you very much.

    • OnlineSuccessor profile image

      OnlineSuccessor 4 years ago

      great inspirational lens, Love it, thumbs up.