How to make a concept map?

If you haven’t got a clear answer to it, then this guide is for you!

Concept mapping requires brainstorming, structuring, linking, finalizing. It helps demonstrate tacit knowledge and has greater ability in showing complex analysis.

This article is loaded with templates and best practices on each step of mapping. In short, to make a concept map, you need to go through: preparation, brainstorming, structuring, linking, and finalizing.


What is the concept map, or concept mapping?

A concept map is a tool that visualizes relationships between concepts. It is useful to debunk complex information on a large scale. Research shows that it is helpful to create group mental model, identify gaps and loopholes, and enhance learning of science subjects.

Like many tools and methods, concept maps have style differences. The creator of concept mapping Dr. J. D. Novak promotes hierarchical and linking phrases packed diagrams. They look like this:

(Simple Novakian Concept Map Template – click to read full screen and download in XMind Share)

A Novakian style, top-to-bottom concept map, with concepts in different colors.

Concept maps are different from other graphic organizers in their free-form structures and emphasis on knowledge connections. They allow many-to-many relationships and require linking words on EVERY lines. Concept maps work best under hierarchical orders and around ONE focus question.

But these differences are mild. So people like to mix their usage with charts, mind maps, flowcharts, and timelines, etc..

(Concept Map Mixed with Mind Map: Career Direction. Click to read full screen and download in XMind Share.)

A concept map mixed with mind map in hierarchical order.

There are various ways to classify concept maps. Quantitative vs qualitative, free form or fixed structure, collaborative vs individual, demonstrative or analytic, etc..

When people say concept maps, they usually refer to the qualitative, free-style, and analytic type – the Novakian style. It is named for its creator Dr. Joseph D. Novak.

/This tutorial is for creating the Novakian concept map and works best for individuals. But tips for other types are inside as well./

The major elements of concept maps are nodes, linking phrases(verbs), cross-links, structure and propositions. Other elements are focus questions and underlying assumptions.

Nodes, linking verbs, and cross-links

Often having ideas inside boxes (nodes), concept maps show relationships between nodes by linking verbs on the arrows (cross-links) between them. 

Nodes are boxes and links are lines in between.

Important concepts should have lines to and from several other boxes forming a network. And each idea should be as concise as a word or a short phrase.

Structure and proposition

Ideal in a hierarchical structure, the concept map might be wildly free-form in the first attempt. 

Hierarchical structures are putting most important concepts at the top or in the central.

The smallest unit of a map is two nodes and the cross-link in between. Every unit is readable. That is, the words inside these units or propositions form a meaningful sentence for the focus question.

Proposition of a concept map entails two nodes and their linking lines.

Focus questions and underlying assumptions

The focus question is the problem or issue that the map is aiming to debunk. Clarity of the focus question influences the difficulty of map-making and the usefulness of the diagram. 

The underlying assumption is the model you use to analyze the focus question. It is nice to have, but hard to figure out at first. Skip it if you have no clues but do think about it during revisions.

Underlying theory and focus question provide the context for a map. So they come as the first step and require re-examination. 

Because they are context-based, concept maps are “notorious” for low usability and iterative nature.

How to make a concept map

Step 0 is choosing drawing medium. Paper is great for initial analysis and digital canvas is good for ongoing revisions. You can check out our article on the pros and cons between handwriting and typing for details.

Step #1: Prepare – Focus question and research

Pick one topic that you are interested in and ask a critical question about it. This is your central topic and focus-question, which typically starts with “How”, “Why”, and “What”.

Remember, the concept map is free form (a.k.a. complicated). So better to be humble in choosing a question.

Do LOTS OF research if you are new to the topic so that you prepare yourself with a decent number of ideas. Finishing reading the top 5~8 results of Google search will suffice to kick start analyzing a casual topic.

Bonus tips

Create a macro map and link sections or nodes with micro diagrams. If you cannot help being ambitious…

Start by a narrow AND funny question. “How to get work done when you are not motivated”, “How to fall asleep within 5 minutes”, or “Why am I so tired”. 

/In the following guide, I will use “How to get work done when you are not motivated” as an example./

Step #2: Brainstorm – Concept generation

List out all the related points you can come up with.

Notice that at the brainstorming phase, you should skip judging on redundancy, relationships, or importance of the listed items. The objective is on the number of concepts. 

By the end of this phase, you may generate around 20~50 nodes. This number fits the most common sizes of paper/monitor screens.

You can document your ideas in spreadsheets, for that makes your large-scale concept scoring and ranking as smooth as a breeze.

Concept generation is a stage for you to brainstorm items.

Bonus tips

Concept mapping is NOT note-taking in boxes, you should keep the concepts concise and clear. 

If you write too much inside one node, the map has low readability. So be merciless to redundancy at this stage. Besides, I find splitting the notes into propositions very handy.

Concise concepts with definitions in propositions are better than lengthy phrases in just one box.

But, it is not good writing too little, either. For confusing concepts, you can put a brief definition in parens within the box and connect it to a node that states the importance.

If you create a map for public use, then consider the expertise of the audience. Readers’ familiarity with the topics affects your word choices and the necessity of adding definitions.

Step #3: Structure – Concept organizing

This step involves two actions: grouping and scaling. As these actions go back-and-forth to each other, I list them as one united step.

Grouping requires putting related or similar nodes into piles. You can achieve that by spreading all the ideas on Post-It notes and organizing them on paper. 

I prefer doing it in XMind in mind map structure. After copying and pasting sheet cells to XMind, you can get all the concepts inside one canvas. Then group similar items and name their parent topics. Highlight those topics that fit into multiple groups.

During grouping, you can create sub-groups within the same parent and omit redundancy.

Using mind maps for preliminary grouping of concepts during concept mapping

Scaling requires weighing each of the concepts on some scale. The nodes are rated upon a 1-5 range for their relative importance, with 1 meaning the least important and 5 the most.

While scaling, you can reorganize groups or retrieve omitted words.

Regroup the concepts after marking and scaling during concept mapping.

Bonus tips

Try to build up the visual hierarchy. Align nodes according to importance top-down (preferable) or center-out (acceptable). Visually separate important nodes with color or font size differences. Hierarchical order gives clarity to the map.

Document your marking rubrics for the concepts. Later, when you are more experienced in the context, you can re-examine the selection of ideas. 

You can be assured to mark highlighted topics (mentioned above) at least as scale 3.

Document the marking rubrics of concepts for later revisions references.

Step #4: Link – Linking words and cross-links

Find out connections between ideas and connect them with linking phrases. 

The effort to select linking words helps you consolidate the relationship between nodes. When you find it challenging to provide appropriate words for the connections, it signifies your confusions on the link.

Examples of linking phrases include: 

“shows”, “defined as”, “covers”, “as demonstrated by”, “makes”, “can be”, “for example”, “leads to”, “determined by”, “important because”.

Some preliminary links and concepts inside a concept map.

After you generate primary links, create cross-links that illustrate relationships between same-level nodes of different branches.

Cross-links illustrate relationships between same-level nodes of different branches.

Bonus tips

Notice that two things are always connected. You have to be selective on link choices. Like scaling the concepts, only include essential links.

You can check out our article to know how to visualize concept maps in XMind at this point. Or you can use other digital tools you prefer.

Step #5: Finalize – Continuous revision

Congratulations! By this stage, you are close to the final!

Finalizing your map works like self Q&A. It entails three types of evaluations: structure, content, and graphic design. 

The former two should take disproportionately more time than the last one.

Structure investigation: the hierarchy of concepts and accuracy of relationships.

Questions for hierarchy:

  • Are your central nodes easily identifiable? 
  • Sub-concepts branch appropriately from main ideas?
Questions for accuracy of relationship: 
  • Are linking lines connect in right directions? 
  • Linking words accurately describe the relationship between concepts? 
  • (Optional, only for digital maps) Hyperlinks effectively used?
Content assessment: logical processes of propositions and completeness of the ideas.
  • The propositions make sense?
  • Include almost all critical ideas (at least 20)?
Graphic design evaluation: handling of design elements and creativity in expression.
  • Do the nodes and links fit visual proximity and alignment principles?
  • Do you use contrast to highlight important from the other?
  • Text easy to read and appropriately sized to fit the page?

Concept map: How to get work done when you

Bonus tips

Revisions go beyond what is presented on the map and to the behind. To name a few: the underlying theory, marking rubrics, linking phrase choices, and grouping decisions.


Concept map templates

Freeform, dark style. Useful for maps containing: complex linking verbs and multiple cross-links, but small amounts of nodes.

Chemistry Concept Map

Chemistry Concept Map Template: The Mole, Molar Mass and Empirical Formula

More hierarchical, clean style. Suitable for diagrams containing: large numbers of concepts but simple connections.

Concept Map – Nursing

Concept Map - Nursing Template, including: nursing diagnosis, education and more.

Academic resources

Literature review for you to grasp an overview and find milestone papers.
The theory from Dr Novak.
Concept mapping from bad to good.
Marking rubrics for the concept map.