ETP - Using Concept Maps and Other Visualization Tools

learning objectives


Students need to effectively organize their knowledge to be successful learners. It’s not enough to learn the information. Students must be able to connect and understand the meaning of the facts, concepts, and skills. Concept maps and other visual tools can provide the opportunity for students to make those crucial connections, thus deepening their understanding (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010Angelo & Cross, 1993Nilson, 2010Novak & Cañas, 2008).

Learning Objectives

In this module, we’ll discuss practices you can use to help students organize their thinking and deepen learning using concept maps and other visualization tools. You will learn to:

  • Integrate visual tools in class sessions or online presentations
  • Use concept maps to explain course and unit organization
  • Develop course overview concept maps to help students understand the organization or requirements of your course
  • Have students answer questions with visual tools (timelines, flowcharts, coordinate axes, visual metaphors)
  • Have students generate concept maps
  • Use concept mapping to prepare for exams
  • Deepen learning online through multimedia timeline activities

Skeletal Outline

Download a skeletal outline to take notes on the key practices included in this module.

Course Demonstration

This video shows instructors effectively demonstrating the evidence-based practices presented in this module. Through this authentic classroom observation, you can begin to consider how you might implement these practices and techniques with your students.

The instructors featured in the video include Ashley Rhodes, PhD, from Kansas State University; Viji Sathy, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Anthony Crider, PhD, from Elon University; and Paulette Reneau, PhD, from Florida A&M University.

Download the transcript for this video.

Expert Insights

In this video, you’ll hear Derek Bruff, a scholar in teaching and learning, discuss the specific nuances of and the research support for the teaching techniques and practices presented in this module.

Download the transcript for this video.

Common Challenges & Misconceptions

In this section, you’ll read about some common challenges and misconceptions associated with techniques designed to help you use concept maps and other visualization tools. Click on each statement to read research-based clarifications and suggestions aligned to each challenge or misconception.

MISCONCEPTION: Students should be able to understand the course organization from my syllabus; I shouldn’t need to provide a visual tool.


Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010) state, “When students are provided with an organizational structure in which to fit new knowledge, they learn more effectively and efficiently than when they are left to deduce this conceptual structure for themselves” (p. 53). Ambrose et al. (2010) advise instructors not to “assume that your students, especially those who are new to the content area, will see the logical organization of the material you are presenting. They may not see basic relationships or category structures. Therefore, providing students with a view of the ‘big picture’ that presents the key concepts or topics in your course and highlights their interrelationships can help students see how the pieces fit together” (pp. 60-61).


Produce your own concept map detailing how the course is structured into topics. Then, “walk your students through your own concept map as a way of orienting them to the organizational structures . . . and to illustrate the principles and features around which you want your students to organize their own knowledge” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 59). In addition to presenting the concept map during the first week of the semester, periodically return to it to “remind students of the larger organizational framework and situate particular class days within it (for example, ‘If you’ll remember, the first unit of this course focused on developing basic negotiation skills. Today we will be starting the second unit, in which we will see how those skills apply to real world work situations’)” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 60). You can also post your course concept map to the home page of your online course site and on your syllabus to serve as a visual reminder of where each module fits into the bigger picture.

MISCONCEPTION: Concept maps should not be assigned as a formative assessment because they are too difficult to assess.


According to Nilson (2010), “Concept maps are quite easy to write instructions for and to assess, which is why they make good gradable assignments and tests” (p. 244). Nilson (2010) provides five evaluative dimensions for assessing concept maps:

  • The number of concepts included, unless you provide them
  • The number of valid propositions (links between concepts)
  • The number of valid levels in the hierarchy
  • The number of valid cross-links
  • The number of valid examples (p. 244)

Assign students the task, whether individually or in small groups, of drawing or using an online concept map application to create a concept map

with a given number of concepts interrelated with a given number of links, spanning a given number of hierarchical levels, with a given number of cross-links and examples. Novak and Gowin (1984), who devised the leading scoring model for concept maps, recommends giving one point for each valid link, five points for each valid level, ten points for each valid cross-link, and one point for each valid example. (as cited in Nilson, 2010, p. 244)

As an alternative, you might consider using a rubric to assess students’ concept maps, like this example by Karen Franker (2015) from the University of Wisconsin–Stout

MISCONCEPTION: Some of my students are not visual learners, so integrating visual tools into my class sessions will not help them.


Research substantiates the idea that visuals promote learning. Nilson (2010) explains that “it is less taxing on the mind to derive meaning from graphics than from words” (p. 238). Using multiple senses heightens students’ retention and understanding of information. Nilson (2010) states, “As the left side of the brain processes verbal symbols and the right side visuals, material presented in both modes activates both sides of the brain, roughly doubling the number of neurons firing and synapses forming” (p. 240).

CHALLENGE: Many students are unfamiliar with concept maps, so they are not effective in creating maps that will assist them in better understanding the course material.


Teach students to use concept maps, and help them to see the value before asking them to create a concept map. Newbury (2010) writes, “Students will not generally engage in an activity if they can’t see why it’s useful to them. Concept maps need extra motivation because they are usually different than anything the students have done before or been tested on” (p. 2). Edel-Malizia (n.d.) provides these tips to ensure students can successfully create concept maps:

  • Be sure students are prepared with prior knowledge so they understand how to create accurate links between concepts.
  • Articulate a clear question that explains what should be mapped.
  • Provide and review a sample concept map with students before asking them to create their own.
  • Create a partially constructed map first, and then ask students to add to it.
  • Ask students to revise their maps over time, so they can see new connections as they acquire new knowledge throughout the semester.

MISCONCEPTION: Concept maps are a low-level activity and too simplistic to assign to college-level students.


The act of creating concept maps provides valuable college-level learning. Angelo and Cross (1993) state, “By literally drawing the connections they make among concepts, students gain more control over their connection making. The concept map allows them to scrutinize their conceptual networks, compare their maps with those of peers and experts, and make explicit changes” (p. 195). According to Nilson (2010), “Many researchers have found that concept maps facilitate students’ mastery of content and development of cognitive skills. In fact, concept maps have proven their value in some of the most challenging subjects, such as accounting, applied statistics, biology, chemistry, conceptual astronomy, geoscience, marine ecology, mathematics, medicine, and nursing, among others” (pp. 244–245).

CHALLENGE: I want to assign students the task of creating their own concept maps, but I’m not sure what activities would be most useful.


The Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center (n.d.) proposes the following ideas for using concept maps throughout the semester:

  • Ask students to create a concept map at the beginning of the semester to assess the knowledge they have coming into a course. This can give you a quick window into the knowledge, assumptions, and misconceptions they bring with them and can help you pitch the course appropriately.
  • Assign the same concept map activity several times over the course of the semester. Seeing how the concept maps grow and develop greater nuance and complexity over time helps students (and the instructor) see what they are learning.
  • Create a fill-in-the-blank concept map in which some circles are blank or some lines are unlabeled. Give the map to students to complete. You can see an example of this type of concept map exercise at

Provide students with opportunities to create multimedia concept maps and visual presentations. Digital stories, podcasts, or videos can be used as a summative assessment tool in lieu of traditional research papers (Boettcher, 2011; Bruff, 2018).


In the Observe & Analyze (OA) section, you’ll view the video(s) depicting developing practice, where an instructor implements some of the module techniques effectively while other techniques may need slight adjustments or improvements. As you analyze the video(s), you will gain a deeper understanding of the module techniques and gain insight into some common pitfalls.


Download the transcript for this video.
Download the transcript for this video.


  • Instructional Practices

  • Online Instructional Practices

  • Additional Resources

This section includes resources and handouts to support your implementation of the techniques and practices presented in the module.

Download all of the implementation resources for this module.

Implementation Resources

Download or print the following resources to practice using concept maps and other visualization tools:

The module learning objectives and aligned online practices are listed below. Each resource offers step-by-step instructions and examples of effective online teaching in text and/or video.

Use concept maps and other visual tools to present class material

Integrate visual tools in online presentations

Engaging visuals help students understand complex relationships or patterns connected to key course concepts, principles, and/or ideas. Internet resources and software applications provide a multitude of options for instructors to integrate engaging visuals into their online presentations. Instructors can access freely available digital images on the internet.

Download a resource for integrating engaging visuals into your online presentations.

Develop course overview concept maps to help students understand the organization or expectations of your course

Posting a course overview concept map to the home page of your course helps students better understand how the topics addressed in the course fit together. You can also create a concept map for individual modules to help students visualize how the module concepts fit together and connect to the overall course objectives. Another type of concept map that helps students understand how the coursework is structured to meet learning objectives is an overview map that illustrates the various assignments, assessments, and requirements for the course. Upload the concept map to your course home page so that students see it when they log in to the course.

Download examples of course overview concept maps.

Have students use concept maps and other visual tools to organize thinking and deepen learning

Deepening learning through multimedia timeline activities

Engage students in creating interactive timelines to organize thinking, demonstrate understanding of complex course concepts, and to contribute to their learning community. Timeline assignments can help students develop digital literacy skills by searching for, evaluating, and organizing digital media to illustrate course concepts. Timeline-based assignments can meet a variety of learning objectives including the analysis or comparison of different time periods, developing historical contexts, illustrating complex processes, etc. (Picard & Bruff, 2016). As an individual or group assignment, students can search for, upload, or link to appropriate multimedia resources including videos, images, graphics, research articles, blogs, etc. to demonstrate understanding. In small groups, these assignments also support student development of other career-ready skills including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

Download a resource for creating interactive timeline activities.


Judith V. Boettcher, PhD
Online Learning Consultant and Author
Designing for Learning

Randyl Rohm, MS
Supervisor, Office of Instructional Technology
Purdue University Northwest

Below are additional resources to further explore the module topics.

Resources for Further Reading

Community Connections


Anthony Crider, PhD
Associate Professor
Department of Physics
Elon University

Ashley Rhodes, PhD
Teaching Associate Professor
Department of Biology
Kansas State University

Derek Bruff, PhD
Director, Center for Learning
Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Mathematics
Vanderbilt University

Jennifer Szelag
Language & Communications Instructor

Paulette S. Reneau, PhD
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
Florida A&M University

Viji Sathy, PhD
Senior Lecturer
Dept. of Psychology & Neuroscience
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010).
How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993).
Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boettcher, J. V. (2011, February 23).
Evidence of Learning Online: Assessment Beyond the Paper. Campus Technology. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J. V. & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).
The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015).
The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.)San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bruff, D. (2013, November 1).
Show and tell: More visual presentations [Prezi slides]. Retrieved from

Bruff, D. (2015, March 16).
Mapping a discussion with clickable image polls [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Bruff, D. (2018).
Students as (Podcast) Producers. Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. (n.d.).
Using concept maps. Retrieved from

Chase, B., Germundsen, R., Cady Brownstein, J., & Schaak Distad, L. (2001).
Making the connection between increased student learning and reflective practice. Educational Horizons, 79, 143–147.

Edel-Malizia, S. (n.d.).
Concept mapping. Sites at Penn State. Retrieved from

EDUCAUSE. (2007, January 15).
7 Things You Should Know about Digital Storytelling. Retrieved from

Franker, K. (2017, February 21).
Rubric for graphic organizers – Inspiration diagrams/concept maps. University of Wisconsin-Stout. Retrieved from

Newbury, P. (2010, August).
Concept mapping in Astro 101. Paper presented at Cosmos in the Classroom, Boulder, CO. Abstract retrieved from

Nilson, L. B. (2010).
Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Novak, J. D., & Cañas, A. J. (2008).
The theory underlying concept maps and how to construct and use them, technical report IHMC Cmap 2006-01 rev 01-2008. Retrieved from Institute for Human and Machine Cognition website:

Ortega, R. A., & Brame, C. J. (2015).
The synthesis map is a multidimensional educational tool that provides insight into students’ mental models and promotes students’ synthetic knowledge generation. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14(2), 1-11.

Picard, D., & Bruff, D. (2016, June).
Digital timelines. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from

Robin, B. R. (2008).
Digital storytelling: A powerful technology tool for the 21st century classroom. Theory Into Practice, 47, 220–228.

Schau, C., Mattern, N., & Zeilik, M. (1995).
Solar system fill-in concept map. Retrieved from