Tips on Teaching

Concept Mapping and the Constructive Learning Process

jean_piagetby Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Scientific thought…is not momentary; it is not a static instance; it is a process (Piaget, 1968).  This notion of thought as a process is the basis for certain pedagogical techniques. One such technique is concept mapping. Reasons for using this technique become clear when we reflect on the differences between acquiring information and achieving knowledge. The latter of which leads to deeper more situated understanding.

Teaching approaches that emphasize the achievement of knowledge can look very different from those that emphasize information acquisition. To understand this distinction, consider a child’s first understanding of the term dog. A child does not simply acquire this term from a single explanation. Rather, the child’s understanding involves an integrative process in which the child actively gives structure to the dog concept by classifying it within a larger system of interrelated concepts – dogs are animals, which are unlike reptiles; they consist of golden retrievers, poodles, and collies, etc. In other words, the child gradually understands that dogs are a concept among other concepts that relate to each other in some way. According to Novak and Canas (2008), knowledge involves a constructive process in which individuals make connections between concepts, often using what they already know. This notion of knowledge construction has pedagogical implications. Moreover, it encourages educators to make course material relatable to students so that they can integrate it into their existing systems of knowledge in meaningful ways.

Developed by Novak and Musonda (1991) as a way to visually observe changes in students’ conceptual understandings, concept mapping is a method that teachers have used to encourage deeper, more layered understanding. It is a tool used to represent relationships between concepts in a visual way. Lines that represent propositions connect to circles that represent concepts. The end result is a web of concepts linked by propositions, which reveals a lot about a phenomenon in a comparatively small space.

Concept mapping has since made contributions in and outside of the classroom, as researchers have used it to study various phenomena, just as educators have used it to support and assess their learning objectives. As a pedagogical tool, concept mapping has shaped the context of group work, allowing students to collaboratively work to coordinate and integrate each other’s ideas, thus learning from each other.  As an assessment tool, concept mapping has offered flexibility in its variety of forms. Teachers can use the parking lot format, which places concepts in a “word bank” that students select from when creating a concept map (i.e., linking concepts with propositions). Teachers can also use partially filled concept maps, requiring that students “fill in the blanks,” providing either the names of concepts or the linking propositions. In addition to the traditional concept map, educators can use flowcharts to show the linear relationships between concepts. They can also use systems to represent the relationships between concepts, as organized in terms of inputs and outputs (see below for an example of a concept map).


Importantly, the format of such an assignment depends on individual teachers’ learning objectives. Whereas a history course might require an understanding of the sequence of important events, a science course might require an understanding of certain processes. As such, history students might benefit most from constructing flowcharts that delineate the sequence of events, whereas science students might benefit most from  constructing  systems of inputs and outputs. Whether you want students to produce all (or some) of the concepts in a concept map, or to produce the propositions, might also depend on your learning objectives and the students’ current understandings.

In short, concept mapping is a flexible method grounded in the assumption that people construct knowledge. Unlike multiple-choice tests, which tend to limit the manner in which students convey knowledge, concept maps tend to introduce new possibilities; they lead to inventive ways of thinking. Students develop skills of analysis, synthesis, and application, as they construct meaning by defining relationships between concepts, often with the structure and guidance of teachers (i.e., providing partial concept maps or “word banks”).  Concept mapping can be inserted in different ways within a classroom setting in order to support specific learning objectives and accommodate students’ individual needs. Essentially, concept mapping scaffolds the constructive process that leads to knowledge.



Novak, J. D., & Musonda, D. (1991). A twelve-year longitudinal study of science

concept learning. American Educational Research Journal28(1), 117-153.

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008). The theory underlying concept maps and how to

construct and use them. Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition Pensacola Fl,[ UnderlyingConceptMaps. htm]284, 16.

Piaget, J. (1968). Genetic Epistemology, a series of lectures delivered by Piaget at

Columbia University, Published by Columbia University Press, translated by Eleanor Duckworth.