Bonus: Self-checker Tool for Testing When to Use Which Mapping

Concept map has more complex structure and more accurate demonstration of knowledge. Mind maps are tree charts and flexible to make, good for brainstorming and note-taking.

You find out concept mapping on the internet.

You think it’s good to help you sort out the messy info of your projects, but then you hear about mind mapping.

Much confused about which to choose, you head to Google in search of an answer. 

But articles after articles, your questions grow like a snowball. Some blog posts say that,

Mind map does not work for real-world info, as it’s in a hierarchical structure. Real-life is interconnected and complex.

Then the next one has the same conclusion but with a different reason to above!

A mind map is more personal and flexible than concept maps. The concept map has a much better hierarchical structure.

You’re wondering, is there a clear and practical answer? I just want to map these piles of messy info!

Luckily, that’s precisely what I’m going to tell you. 🙂

Difference between concept maps and mind maps


Concept map

The technique of concept mapping (webbing) was developed by Dr. Joseph D. Novak from Cornell University. He defines concept maps as,

Graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, also called nodes, and relationships between concepts indicated by a line and words on the line. Words on the front are linking words or linking phrases.

(Believe me, buddy, I already shorten the sentence. The original definition is much longer…)

In plain English, the concept map is a network of interconnected concepts.

Novak’s team has multiple suggestions on making a decent concept map. To name a few:

  1. Align the concepts in a hierarchical structure (general topics on the top and specific ideas lying bellow);
  2. Start around a focus question. 

There are best practices in making Novakian concept maps. Learn more about those tips in this tutorial.

A Novakian concept map looks like this:

A concept map in a clean style analyzing how to get motivated at work. Solutions include both internal and external, motivation-focus and non motivation-focus methods.

Mind map

The term Mind Mapping was developed and firstly popularized by psychology author Tony Buzan in the 1970s.

The definition of mind map goes:

A mind map is a diagram used to organize information visually. A mind map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole.

(My first reaction to it: That can be any diagram, dude…)

In plain English, the mind map is a tree chart for organizing information.

Buzan suggested that all mind maps should have only one central topic. Major ideas connect to this topic directly, and child topics branch out from the major ones.

A Buzan style mind map is in a radial structure, like this:

A mind map in a clean style summarizing XMind's main features.

Visual structure and characteristics

Characteristics are related to the compositions. So I put them into the same section.

Concept map

  1. Topics and connections are both important. So apart from listing out items, you also invest effort in relationships between ALL of them. That is time-sucking but often rewarding. As it forces you to analyze the question in depth.
  2. Topics can be cross-linked. So you can display many-to-many relationships.
  3. Every proposition is a statement. That means every two connected nodes and their linking phrases form a sentence. For example, “Topic A includes Topic B” is a proposition. So you can read and verify the map.

Mind map

  1. Topics are more important than the relationship. So it excels in gaining the number of ideas but pales in clarifying relationships. Mind mappers tend to make it up by mixing a bit of concept mapping. Like this:Mind mapping combining with concept mapping. The mixed method helps to combine both flexibility of mind maps and accuracy of concept mapping.
  2. The core structure is a tree. That means mind maps are adaptable to quick content creation and constant updates. Like note-taking in classroom or discussions in meetings

Pros and cons

The characteristics above lead to the following pros and cons.

Concept map


  • Fewer ambiguities for the audience.
  • Ideal for displaying tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is hard to be explicitly written or verbalized, like some consensus or mental models of a corporate.
  • Capable of hard-core knowledge modeling.
  • Helpful for content gap analysis. Researchers found concept webbing is beneficial to identify research gaps. But to best achieve it, you need help from data analytic tools.


  • Unfriendly for collaboration. Due to its high learning curve and complexity of rules.
  • Hard to make. Lines are overlapping. Connections are complicated. On top of it, you have to organize them!
  • Low readability. When you have more than 20 nodes, that’s even worse.

Mind map


  • Adaptable for both academic and business environments.
  • Useful for brainstorming. All you focus on is just putting topics out.
  • Easy to make. Low learning curve. No fussy many-to-many relationships, just tree charts. 
  • Flexible to change (in mind-mapping software). Connections and layout are auto-generated. And you can attach or detaching topics with just a drag-and-drop. Mind maps are capable of constant updates.
  • Easier to read. No hopping from one corner of the paper to another.


  • More ambiguities to the audience. Due to the lack of linking phrases.
  • Incompetent in articulating tacit knowledge. Due to lack of link-phrases and simple relationships. 
  • Not suitable for in-depth analysis. Mind maps push you less in taking a thorough look at the listed concepts.

Okay, done with comparison, now it’s time for making a choice!



When to use which: The spreadsheet quiz

In total, I found that four factors govern your choice between concept mapping and mind mapping. They are audiencescenariousability, and content characteristics.

I compile a quiz for you to test yourself:


  • Do you have a broad audience for your map (like, across age groups, industries, and education background)?
  • Is it okay for your audience to have some level of confusion about your map?


  • Do you need to discuss or brainstorm about your map (at some stage)?


  • Are you looking for something quick and easy to make?
  • Do you require a high readability of your map?

Content characteristics

  • Is your content under constant updates (at some stage)?
  • Are the types of relationships between topics similar and straightforward?

And by ticking Yes or No in the spreadsheet, boom! You get a suggestion of the diagram. You can download this spreadsheet by clicking the image. 

Self-checker tool for testing which diagram to use: mind maps or concept maps.

This checker is far from perfect… But I will keep on updating. Keep an eye on it. 😉


If you are fearless and want to dig a little deeper. You can continue checking the following Q&As. 

Nice work! 😉

Concept maps out-compete mind map in having more than one central topic?

This claim is a bit suspicious for two reasons. 

  1.  The concept map is best to have the most inclusive or general topics on the top, based on Novak’s suggestion. Often that general topic is ONE focus question. 
  2. Mind map is open for multiple central topics by adding floating ones.

Mind maps are better in generating new ideas than concept maps?

Hmmm…. Dubious again. 

Mind maps focus more on topic generations, but not necessarily “new” ones. Concept maps are arguably better in bringing new angles and perspectives by cross-linked structures and linking phrases.

Mind maps are only capable of showing one-to-many relationships?

Mind maps can have many-to-many relationships by using labels, adding links, summaries, etc. But what I’m stressing is that the core of the mind map structure is a tree. Tags, boundaries, and relationships are more like embellish of the main structure.

To some extent, mind map and concept map is like two ends of one spectrum. They have differences, but they can evolve to become more like each other.

Concept maps have far more robust research to support than mind maps?

Concept map does have more support from academics. However, both techniques have many pieces of research to back up. 

Mind maps have an average effect size of 0.63. The effect size of concept maps is 0.66 and increases when participants use the mapping well.

Notice that the average impact of all teaching methods is only 0.4! 

But we also need to admit that most of these studies suffer from inconsistency in experiment settings and small sample sizes.

So the takeaway is a concept map is slightly more effective in teaching and learning than mind map, but neither is a silver bullet.

Final thoughts

Concept map or mind map, does it really matter to make a choice?

Yes… and no. 🤪

Yes, if you have already created something and you want to improve. 

No, if you are digging for hours before creating even the first information map.

Bear in mind that either mind map or concept map is just a model of diagramming, they don’t have an absolute right or wrong form.

They are tools, and you are the creator. Tools serve you, not in the opposite way. The #1 lesson for real productivity is also action, not over-thinking.

Plus, concept mapping and mind mapping are mixable! Learn more about combined mapping in this post.


Let me know in the comments or tweet me if I missed anything.   

Happy diagramming~