Concept Mapping Tools

Parts of speech

Concept mapping tools allow you and your students to visually depict a system of relationships by creating a map in which nodes represent ideas or facts, and lines or connectors between nodes represent relationships (for example, cause-and-effect relationships, category and sub-category relationships, and so on). 


Concept maps have been around for many centuries: some prehistoric petroglyphs appear to be concept map the third-century philosopher Porphyry of Tyre advocated their use as a means of visually representing knowledge; Carl Linnaeus used them in the eighteenth century as a basis for his taxonomy of plants and animals; and they came to be formally studied as a learning tool in the 1970s at Cornell University by Joseph Novak, who based his work on the learning theories of David Ausubel. Since then, software programs have come to facilitate the creation and sharing of concept maps; some programs also allow several users to collaborate on the same concept map.

Concept maps can have varying degrees of hierarchy or structure, as seen in this video


Concept mapping forces students to identify connections, and apprehend them more deeply, than traditional approaches such as reading or writing about a concept.

Additionally, concept mapping makes use of dual coding; that is, the students learn the material both from the text labels found on the concept map as well as the visual structure of the map.

For some students, concept mapping can ease their cognitive load by allowing them to focus on essential relationships, rather than on decoding a written text. 

Concept maps are a form of visual thinking. Most people are better able to remember a visual representation -- such as a chart or graph -- than a chart full of numbers:


Versus this:

chart of numbers

Best Practices

Here are some effective learning activities that use concept maps:

  • Every week, have student build concept maps that visually represent the ideas and information that were covered in that's week's class. Students can do this individually or in small groups. Chris Ray, a student at Waterloo, explains how he used a concept mapping tool to take class notes here
  • Have students build a concept map of the course content over the entirety of the term. They can use their weekly concept maps, described in the previous bullet, as components in this ongoing concept map project. By the end of the term, each student will have created a complex visual representation of the knowledge they have acquired. 
  • When lecturing, give your students a partially finished concept map, rather than full or partial lecture notes. The concept map that you provide them includes the "map" component, but the nodes lack labels: the students must supply them. Alternatively, provide the students, at the beginning of your lecture, a list of the terms that they need to form into a concept map as your lecture proceeds. 

​Other strategies: 

  • Concept mapping should be fully and continually integrated into a learning experience, not just tacked on.
  • Having students collaborate on developing concept maps is often effective.
  • Before giving your students a concept map assignment, decide how you are going to assess it and share that assessment approach with your students.
    • You might, for example, assign 1 point to each appropriate node in the concept map, 2 points for each appropriate link between nodes, 3 points for each level in the map’s hierarchy, and so on.
    • Alternatively, you might take a more “subjective” approach: rather than counting numbers of nodes and lines, you simply aim to gauge the overall quality of the concept map, as you might do with an essay.
    • A rubric such as the one found at this CTE Teaching Tip can also help in the assessment of concept maps. 

Evidence of Efficacy

  • "Concept maps have been successfully used in education for over 25 years and a growing body of literature indicates that their use in medical education is increasing. The vast majority of articles in this review indicate that concept maps foster the development of meaningful learning, critical thinking and problem solving in the learner. As indicated in these studies, meaningful learning occurs when the student links new knowledge with previous knowledge, thereby creating more integrated cognitive knowledge structures. The studies indicate that through the use of concept maps, students were able to integrate basic and clinical science information, move from linear thinking patterns to more integrated holistic patterns, and demonstrate critical thinking abilities within their disciplines. Ertmer and Nour indicate that this type of meaningful learning was also achieved using concept maps online." - Daley, Barbara et al. "Concept maps in medical education: an analytical literature review," 2010. 
  • "Across several instructional conditions, settings, and methodological features, the use of concept maps was associated with increased knowledge retention." -- Nesbitt, John. "Learning With Concept and Knowledge Maps: A Meta-Analysis," 2006. 
  • "There is some evidence that low-ability students, perhaps specifically those with low verbal ability, obtain greater benefit from instructional diagrams than do high-ability learners."  Nesbitt, John. "Learning With Concept and Knowledge Maps: A Meta-Analysis," 2006. 
  • “The meta-analysis found that, in comparison with activities such as reading text passages, attending lectures, and participating in class discussions, concept mapping activities are more effective for attaining knowledge retention and transfer. Concept mapping was found to benefit learners across a broad range of educational levels, subject areas, and settings.” — Nesbitt, John. "Learning With Concept and Knowledge Maps: A Meta-Analysis," 2006. 
  • “Efficacy studies reveal that when Concept Mapping is used in a course of instruction, it is better that it be an integral, on-going feature of the learning process, not just some isolated add-on at the beginning or end. In this regard, Concept Mapping appears to be particularly beneficial when it is used in an on-going way to consolidate or crystallize educational experiences in the classroom, for example, a lecture, demonstration, or laboratory experience. In this mode, learners experience an educational event and then use Concept Mapping in a reflective way to enhance the learning from the event.” — Canas, Alberto. "A summary of literature pertaining to the use of concept mapping techniques and technologies for education and performance support," 2003. 
  • In an applied health sciences course at the University of Waterloo, students responded favourably to their concept map assignments:
    • “…very beneficial in showcasing what I had learned over the semester”
    • “… the concept mapping forces you to engage more directly in your work and seek a deeper understanding … I found the concept mapping to be a very valuable exercise.”

Specific Tools

Four tools are recommended, depending on your needs. 


If you or your students simply need to create effective concept maps, then CmapTools is the best choice. 

  1. PC-based: you download the free program and install it onto your own computer.
  2. You create nodes and connecting lines by simply clicking and dragging. Nodes can have labels, images, roll-over notes, and hyperlinks.
  3. Maps can be saved locally on your PC or uploaded to a CmapTools server so that they can be accessed from any location. Saving them on the CmapTools server also means that several people can collaborate on the concept map (even simultaneously).
  4. Clusters of nodes can be “nested” so that they collapse into a single node until you re-expand them.
  5. Maps can be saved in HTML format so that they can be viewed as a web page, but in doing so you lose some of the functionality of the map (for example, the nesting capability). To experience the map with its full functionality, others users need to have CmapTools installed on their PCs.


If you or your students want to create a concept map, and then use that concept map as a presenting tool, then VUE is the best choice. VUE is also very good at incorporating images into concept maps. 

  1. PC-based: you download the free program and install it onto your own computer.
  2. You create nodes and connecting lines by simply clicking and dragging. Nodes can have labels, images, roll-over notes, and hyperlinks.
  3. Maps can be rendered in a “presentation mode,” which reveals the nodes of the map one by one, in whatever sequence or "pathway" you determine. For example, instead of showing your students the complete map all at once, you could show them one branch, then another, and another, and so on. This video explains the presentation mode feature of VUE.  


If you need to create a very large or very complex concept map, then MindMeister is the best choice: it allows you to open and close branches of the concept map. Try doing so with this MindMeister map

  1. MindMeister is a cloud-based tool: you don’t need to download or install anything to use it.
  2. You create nodes and connecting lines by simply clicking and dragging. Nodes can have labels, images, roll-over notes, and hyperlinks.
  3. MindMeister’s key feature is that it allows you to hide or reveal any branch (and sub branches) of a given map with a single click. This is useful for very large maps. It’s also useful when using the concept map to make a presentation: you can hide branches until you need to refer to them.


If you need to draw a diagram, then Draw.Io is the best choice. You create diagrams by dragging and dropping pre-existing icons and shapes from a menu. 


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.

More Resources

  • Comprehensive Guide to Concept Mapping
  • In this 28-minute screencast, Dr. Mark Morton explains how instructors can use concept mapping tools to support student learning. 
  • concept map about concept maps.
  • In this 40-minute screencast, Dr. Mark Morton explains how to use three different concept mapping tools: CmapTools, VUE, and MindMeister.
  • six-minute video in which Dr. Karen Rohrbauk Stout explains how she uses concept maps as a learning and teaching tool to help students overcome specific instructional challenges.
  • In this 50-minute video, Waterloo instructor Josephine McMurry explains how she has her students use concept maps in an ongoing manner in several of her courses.  


Contact Dr. Mark Morton

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Concept Mapping Tools. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.