Concept maps

Concepts maps or graphic organisers are a great way to activate learners prior knowledge and reveal the structure of their schema.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

Concept maps structure concepts and show the relationships between them -hierarchy, causation, overlap etc. etc. These map often show concepts bounded by circles/boxes, with lines to indicate the nature of the relationship. Here's one example from Oliver Caviglioli, expert on visual teaching strategies.

Why use concept maps?

Asking learners to create a concept map of the topic can reveal the underlying structure or organisation of their schema. This is helpful for them, in that they're making visible their storage system for what they already have or are about to learn.

Here's a wonderful animated GIF from Oliver Caviglioli showing how this process works.

From Hidden to Visible Schema

This is also helpful for those facilitating the course as it highlights the difference between a learner's schema and their own expert schema. It can give facilitators ideas for better building on learner's schema and/or how to "correct" them or make them more organised or efficient (helping learners to better retain concepts).


  • A concept map is not a brainstorm. Brainstorms are more often about generating a range of ideas or related concepts, they are unstructured, the important thing is surfacing concepts. In contrast, the very purpose of a concept map is structure. We want to show hierarchy, relationships and causation.

  • Flick through the slideshow of Oliver Caviglioli's graphic organisers to see a whole range of examples.

  • See How to Create Concept Maps for a more detailed how-to and tips on setting them up.

  • You could use a range of task types for this:
    - File upload: Take a picture/scan of a drawn concept map
    - Video: Present and explain a concept map (sharing screen or with drawn concept map)
    - Image shading: Blank white image or part-filled framework that learners can draw on
    - Image dropdown: Filling out which concept fits where, and the structure is given.


  • Have learners create a concept map at the beginning and end of a topic, then ask them to reflect on what they've learned and how the concept maps differ.

  • Give learners the framework for a concept map and some of the terms, and have them fill it in.

  • Give learners two concept maps (that you've created) and ask them which one is a better fit for the topic (and why).

  • Ask learners to compare their concept map to an "expert's" concept map. Not focusing on "correctness", but comparing structure and organisation.

  • Give learners a concept map with "mistakes" in it and ask learners to identify what doesn't fit and/or describe what needs to change (or re-draw the map).

  • Before getting into the course content in earnest, give learners the learning outcomes for the course, and have them think about (and make some guesses) about the course structure and why it might be structured that way (e.g whole to parts, issues to solutions, historical to current to future).

  • Find a widely understood topic that could have a similar concept map to your topic. Then show learners concept maps from both topics and have them compare and contrast.

Make it social

  • Have learners co-create a concept map. This could be face-to-face, in a video conference or using a collaborative tool like Mindmeister or Google drawings.

  • Have learners share or present their concept map.

  • Have learners present one aspect of their concept map and explain it in detail.

  • Get learners to share concept maps and look at things like: In what ways are they similar/different? Is there concepts or connections they forgot they knew that they can add now?

  • Give learners a pulse to poll them about which of two concept maps you've created is a better fit for the topic.

  • Give learners a pulse to poll them about where "mistakes" are in a given concept map.

Concept maps are just one way of activating prior knowledge, be sure to check out the rest of the articles in this set.

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