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Author: Rebecca Stobaugh

Making meaning is the key to deep understanding. One instructional strategy that helps students reach understanding is concept maps. Concept maps display information through various forms, including charts, timelines, tables, and graphic organizers.The benefits of concept maps include aiding students in establishing relationships between ideas, supporting higher-level thinking skills, and helping to clarify and structure information.

Often teachers develop graphic organizers that can support students’ understanding, but if students can on their own select which type of concept map best represents information learned and then develop it, students can stretch their thinking even further. With more complex readings, students can create diagrams depicting interactions between concepts and ideas. Various concept maps can depict different methods to organize information, including hierarchies or cause and effect (Stobaugh, 2019). Students can use the organizers to analyze, brainstorm, compare and contrast, sequence, or visualize information.

Types of concept maps

First, select a concept map that is appropriate for your learning task. Venn diagrams, bubble maps, cause and effect charts, and the Frayer model are all types of concept maps that can enhance learning.

Venn diagrams

While familiar to most students, Venn diagrams guide students as they compare and contrast information as they examine challenging topics.Venn diagrams have overlapping circles with students recording a concept in each circle and then identifying ways the two concepts are similar in the overlapping center (example 1; example 2; example 3 [slide 8]). More advanced learners can compare three concepts with a three-circle Venn diagram. If you prefer more space for recording information in the organizer, other compare and contrast organizers include rectangular boxes. With Venn diagrams, students can compare different theories, literary themes, or processes. They could use the graphic organizer to gather their initial thoughts, and it could result in a debate, written paper, or presentation as a final assessment.

Bubble maps

Another type of concept map is a bubble map. Bubble maps have the concept in the middle, with lines extending to smaller outside circles, or bubbles. Students can use this tool to brainstorm ideas or topics. For example, students in a poetry class might use a bubble map to identify all the examples of caesura in a poem. In an entrepreneurship class, after reading an informational article, students could detail aspects that influence the business and are influenced by the business in the bubbles. A cluster web is similar to a bubble map but with ideas grouped. Philosophy students could read about existentialism and then identify four of its most important ideas. For each idea, they would then identify two key subpoints. A concept wheel is another similar organizer with the students recording an idea in the center and up to eight supporting points. In a music history unit, students might listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and use the concept wheel to describe how it adheres to sonata form. This word web template is similar, but you can easily customize it to include additional or fewer secondary ideas by deleting or adding text boxes.

Cause and effect organizers

Students can also use cause and effect organizers to sequence information visually (example 1; example 2; example 3 [slides 11–14]). If you prefer students to have more written space for recording their causes and effects, this cause and effect chart might be more helpful. If there are multiple effects, this cause and effect chain provides boxes for students to record several causes or effects. With these organizers, students identify the cause and the subsequent effects of the action. For example, students might observe some usual results of an experiment. Students then document those effects and ascertain the potential cause. In a history class, students can read about a historical event and then predict possible effects. Students could then research whether their predictions were accurate.

Frayer model

The Frayer model is a concept map that organizes information into four squares (example 1; example 2; example 3 [slide 7]). Students define the concept, record facts or characteristics of the concept, and provide examples and non-examples of the concept. Because of this breakdown, the Frayer model is especially effective for complex concepts that students may find confusing. Some Frayer models are slightly altered for different purposes. In this Frayer model (slide 2), students record the definition, an example or synonym, an antonym, and an image. The Frayer model is a tool to introduce a new word or summarize big ideas, such as diversity or migration.

Technology tools

The first step to using a concept map is selecting a medium. There are several digital tools to support students’ creations. In the templates linked above, Google Drawings or Google Slides are predominately used. With these technologies, students can easily collaborate with one another, contributing on multiple devices simultaneously. If you prefer starting from scratch, Mindomo, Mindmup, and Lucid Charts integrate seamlessly with Google products and provide sophisticated tools for students to customize their maps. More advanced students might enjoy tailoring one of Canva’s suggested templates to design a concept map. A benefit of using digital tools is that both teachers and students can easily edit and share them.

Student-developed concept maps

If students are developing their own concept maps without using a teacher-provided template, students would first determine the central idea then select associated concepts. These associated concepts will support the central idea. This process requires students to be selective, identifying only key information. Next, students would organize associated concepts. Students might select a hierarchical format, with general ideas leading to more specific ones at the bottom. Students could use shapes and lines to group similar associated concepts. Students can depict connections and relationships with larger text sizes, different colors, or shapes. They can also use images instead of text. Finally, students will refine their concept map by examining the linkages to see whether they accurately represent the content or idea. Students might want to trade their maps with other groups for peer feedback to refine their work.Each group’s ideas should be different but accurate. 

Concept maps aid students in organizing information based on knowledge learned or readings.Through this instructional strategy, students learn to identify and sort important information promoting deeper understandings of content. For more resources on online graphic organizers, see the Control Alt Achieve and Driving Digital Learning.


Stobaugh, R. (2019). Fifty strategies to boost cognitive engagement: Creating a thinking culture in the classroom. Solution Tree.

Rebecca Stobaugh, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Teacher Education and a faculty fellow in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Western Kentucky University.