Concept Map v/s Mind Map: What to Use for Your Project

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

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.

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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 seems to think the opposite!

A mind map is more … 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. 🙂

In this post, I am going to tell you the difference between them and when to use them in different projects.

Difference between concept maps and mind maps

TL;DR:

Concept Map Mind Map
A network of interconnected concepts. A tree chart for organizing information.
Good for knowledge map and content gap analysis Ideal for brainstorming, idea generations, and quick note-taking
Mapping for tacit knowledge and contents that have many-to-many relationships. For nodes that have simple relationships, majorly one-to-one.
More logical More flexible
Verifiable due to its connection words. Non-verifiable
Hard to modify if more than 20 nodes Easy to modify even for large maps

Definition

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.

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.

In plain English, the concept map is a network of interconnected concepts. Novak’s team has multiple suggestions on making a decent concept map. We elaborate more in this tutorial .


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

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

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.

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.

Visual structure and characteristics

Concept maps look more complicated, while mind maps are tree charts in essence. They have different focus on different elements.

  • Concept map values both topics and connections. While mind maps look more on topic themselves. That’s why, if you look closely, you think that concept maps explain more clearly on why certain nodes are connected. On the other hand, when you just want to jot down as many topics and information as you can, the mind map is a better option.
  • Concept map topics can be cross-linked. But mind map topics cannot. So you can display many-to-many relationships in concept mapping.
  • Every proposition in concept maps is a statement. While mind mapping does not entail the concept of proposition. In concept maps, 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.

Due to their similarities and different advantages, people naturally mix them up in one map. 👇 Like the below:

Mind mapping combining with concept mapping. The mixed method helps to combine both flexibility of mind maps and accuracy of concept mapping.

Pros and cons

The characteristics above lead to the following pros and cons.

Concept map

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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!

FURTHER READING


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 audience, scenario, usability, and content. I compile a quiz for you to test yourself:

Audience Scenario Usability Content
Do you have a broad audience for your map (e.g, across age groups 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?
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. 😉

FAQs

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?

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! Check our our guide about combined mapping here.

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

Happy diagramming~

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