Concept Maps in the Trenches

While helping my students work through their essays and presentations, I find myself thinking over and over again, quarter after quarter, semester after semester, how import tools like free writing, drawing, and concept maps are to thinking. However, I find that not all tools are created equal – especially when used in the wild.

I have written a lot about concept maps in this blog in the past. Each year, I take a few moments to revisit digital tools and research into concept maps. I have consistently used a number of software tools: C-Map Tools (a hands-down favorite of mine), Inspiration (a k-12 favorite grand-daddy), Lucid Chart (which I have abused for years by using and re-using my free “three” maps), and, of course, paper and pencil. What is new (for me, anyway) is that I will be working with CMap Cloud – which is a free, online concept map creation and sharing tool. The research that CMap has done not just on the CMap Tools but on concept map applications is impressive and very useful. The research suggests many different ways to use CMap Tools. There are a number of other tools out there for creating concept maps but CMaps is very clear about being a “knowledge modeling kit” which is different than being “fast” or “easy.”

For myself, I think that CMaps is the way to go for large, complex projects – everything from developing a workshop to plotting a novel. When I am sitting in front of a computer or a laptop, it just makes sense. Sometimes when I am out and about, I will begin a concept map in a notebook and wind up expanding it in CMap. I have yet to successfully use concept mapping tools on my phone. Is the screen to small? My fingers too big? I am still experimenting which is exciting because it means that I will be writing about this again at the end of the year or so.

Each one of my “essay” assignments in my Adult Basic Education classes begins with an assignment sheet (where the student develops the topic), a concept map, an outline, a rough draft, a paper, and a presentation. In other words, it is not a paper generating class. It is about teaching a process and exploring how we think and express ourselves. I was sitting down with a student last quarter who had no idea where her thesis statement was going: her topic was overly-broad, too much detail in the first paragraph, and no central focus. I asked her to show me the assignment sheet and the concept map. She said that she thought that concept maps were a waste of time. She wanted to get on with the writing. But we worked through the concept map together and she began to see what it was she wanted to say. The best tool for that job was a pencil and a piece of paper. It was not just a hoop to jump through to get on with the writing – it became a record of a conversation that we had about her topic. That record then becomes a jumping off point for deeper thinking and research later.

I had another student with physical and learning disabilities who could not sit down and use a pencil to make concept maps. He was able to proficiently use a computer and took to creating online concept maps using Lucid Chart. It made a huge difference in his writing and thinking. Or maybe just the ability for him to express his thinking. It was okay that he had attention deficit disorder because he could come back and work on the map at any time. This was the right tool for this student.

There is nothing earth-shattering about this idea – that different times, people, or circumstances require different tools to be successful. That is what is so valuable about instructional design – it can analyze the instructional moment and suggest tools for a particular case.

This is a presentation that I give on concept maps and visual thinking:

Do you use concept maps in the classroom? How do you teach students how to use them? Do you use concept maps personally or professionally? I would love to hear your thoughts on tools and processes. Comment down below or email me at

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2 Responses to Concept Maps in the Trenches

  1. I miss a comfortable import method in CMap. With my teachers can provide a simple list of terms and statements, and the students can arrange and connect the items like sticky notes but with glued strings.

  2. Kristina Young says:

    Geoff, I’ve recently started working with concept maps (i.e. last five years). Have you tried Mindomo? It has expanded capabilities for links, reconfiguration, and presentation mode.
    Here’s an example:

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