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Concept Maps

Updated on September 24, 2015
Fugure 1.   A concept map focusing on team unity created using ConceptDraw PRO
Fugure 1. A concept map focusing on team unity created using ConceptDraw PRO
Figure 2. This map design using ConceptDraw PRO uses color and concept node shape to indicate hierarchical structure.
Figure 2. This map design using ConceptDraw PRO uses color and concept node shape to indicate hierarchical structure.

Concept mapping has a history that begins with the sciences, and a researcher named Joseph D. Novak, who developed concept maps as a teaching tool to help define student's scientific knowledge. Starting with an original thought or question, a concept map expands on this by offering all known knowledge or influencing factors surrounding this subject, while also describing the internal relationships between concepts.

Soon concept maps were being employed as a diagramming technique by knowledge workers from a wide variety fields — their hierarchical structure is suitable to tackle almost any idea, question or system that relies on logical dependencies and factors of causation. Ideas branch down or outwards from the original concept, roughly positioned in order of influence or specificity. Links between ideas can cross in any direction over the map, and are labelled to show the form of relationship — propositions such as 'is due to', 'caused by' or 'is required to', for example.

In an educational setting, the benefit to the student is being able to visualize and conceive relationships between concepts, to view how parts of an idea make up the whole. From a teacher's point of view, they can be used to spot gaps in a student's knowledge; psychologists can take this idea further by asking a patient to design a concept map, that helps profile that individual's personality.

Outside of being used as learning materials, concept maps can also be used to describe pre-existing systems that follow a similar hierarchy, such as websites or computer systems. In the case of the latter, a standardized language such as Unified Modeling Language (UML) can be used in conjunction with the diagramming style to define computer ontology for software engineers. For website design, a concept map is flexible enough to allow extra pages or data sources to be added at a later date, with hyperlink structure and other relationships updated accordingly. Here are a few of the fields in which concept maps can be put to effective use:

  • Business
  • Education
  • Software design
  • Science
  • Knowledge management
  • Training
  • Psychology

While visually similar to mind maps, concept maps are distinguished by being more appropriate for knowledge sharing, given the level of concept relationship detail they are able to provide. Mind maps on the other hand are more suitable for brainstorming a single topic, commonly showing only one or two levels of sub topics from the main idea.

Concept maps differ again by generally using labelled arrows to link the concept nodes on the page. Each arrow is assigned a 'linking phrase'; one advantage of this is being able to show a single concept or idea within multiple contexts in regards to other ideas.


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