Introduction to Concept Mapping

Concept mapping, mind mapping, tree diagrams, organisation charts, spider diagrams are all terms used to describe graphical organisation methods.

Concept mapping, mind mapping, tree diagrams, organisation charts, spider diagrams are all terms used to describe graphical organisation methods. These are used for storing, processing, organising and presenting information graphically and have been found to improve performance across the curriculum particular for those students with dyslexia. A number of software packages are available which help draw these diagrams and output them in various formats.

What is concept mapping?

What is concept mapping exactly? Why are these mapping techniques useful? Who uses them and why are they so popular?

A concept map is a diagram where each node contains an idea, concept or question which are linked together by branches to show their relationship to each other. A concept map does not always have to take the form of a web they can be presented as a tree diagram or organisational chart, as an input or output tree or as a flow chart. Mind mapping is a distinct technique from concept mapping. Mind maps take a particular, prearranged web form. They were developed from psychological theories by Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Combining keywords, images and colour, this highly structured method of concept mapping has become popular with all ages for note taking, brainstorming and creative thinking. Other types of concept maps have been developed for particular uses: tree diagrams for structured hierarchical diagrams such as organisational charts, input and output trees for showing processes.

Why are concept mapping techniques so useful?

Concept and Mind mapping have been used in education for over 30 years for a variety of tasks including visualising a concept, note taking and revision. In fact a study by the Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education, which examined 29 scientifically-based studies on the use of such techniques in schools, found that they can lead to improved performance in many areas including:

  • Vocabulary
  • Writing
  • Reading comprehension
  • Note taking
  • Critical thinking
  • Higher order thinking
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Problem solving, particularly in maths
  • Comprehension and retention of scientific material and concepts
  • Retention and recall of information

Outside education mind and concept mapping is used for time management, project planning, web site development and decision making as well as for many other tasks.

If we look at the list above, we find that all the areas improved through the use of concept maps have also been identified as areas of difficulty for learners who have dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. In addition:

  1. Concept mapping can also help with time management, planning and organisation – additional issues that may cause concerns for those with specific learning difficulties.
  2. Visual thinking is preferred by many people with dyslexia and seeing information graphically can increase both creativity and retention. Images can be used instead of words and features such as changing colours; re-sizing and spatial position can be used to convey information on topics, importance or actions to be taken.
  3. Structuring a linear piece of work can be made easy by enabling ideas and concepts easily rearranged in a map which concept mapping software can convert into a linear document or presentation without having to worry about sentence structure or grammar.
  4. Concept maps enable large amounts of information to be stored graphically making them a useful memory and revision tool. By using keywords on branches you can quickly get an overview of a subject. Images and colour can trigger ideas, categories or subjects. Add links pointing to files, references or web sites for further information.
  5. Presenting a concept or problem graphically can help many learners understand links and relationships making concept maps a great tool across the curriculum. As concepts and problems can be analysed without requiring good literacy skills they provide an inclusive learning tool for learners of all literacy abilities.
  6. Generating ideas and getting them down on paper can be difficult for those with Specific Learning difficulties. Concept maps facilitate this task: start with a problem or topic. Note ideas, concepts, keywords, processes or images relating to it. These form the “nodes” of the map. You then add further ideas, branches, to start building up the diagram. This can also introduce hierarchy into your map as some ideas will be a subset of others or can be grouped together. It quickly becomes a map.

Why use software applications to create concept maps?

Traditionally, concept maps were created on paper with coloured pens. However this method provides particular problems for dyslexic users poor spelling and handwriting can make a map difficult to read while organising the map to fit on to the limited size of the paper can also be difficult. Also, when a concept map is drawn on paper, once completed it can only be used as a reference. Ideas cannot be re-arranged or expanded on nor can the information be changed into a different format such as text version of a map or presentation slides.

With a concept mapping computer program you are not limited to a certain size. Moreover you have access to additional tools such as images and pictures, spell checkers and text-to-speech which can help overcome difficulties and make the map much more usable and presentable. Most concept mapping applications also have import and export functions; information can be converted from a visual map (which the creator may prefer to work on) to a linear, text based format for communication to others. Alternatively teachers and support workers may prefer to create text-based outlines but have them automatically converted to a concept map which their students may prefer. For example, you could import a text file of notes, then expand and sort your notes to form the map. Add images and colour to help create a visual adaptation of your notes. Export the map outline back into a word processor to expand it into a full document or export it to a presentation program to create a slide show. You can even create a web site from your map by saving it as an HTML file. If you are planning a project or wanted a visual to-do list then you can import tasks from Outlook and then develop a project.

Available software packages – which is the best for you?

There are numerous concept mapping programs but we will focus on the 3 most popular packages with dyslexic users or for use in education. Whilst they each have similar core functions, they have different procedures for creating and laying out the map. There is also a lot of variation in the export and import functions, which are important if you want to use them for planning and outlining presentations, essays and other documents. The comparison will show how it is important to look beyond just features when it comes to concept mapping tools and will also highlight ways in which they can be used to get the most of your chosen package.

Inspiration: a flexible concept and Mind mapping program, designed for education, which allows you to switch between a linear-text view and a map view. Image banks enable pictures to be easily added to maps.

MindGenius: a flexible Mind Mapping program with an automatic brainstorming mode which enables the map to be viewed in a variety of layouts. Closely integrated to MS Office it allows text outlines and images of maps to be easily imported and exported to many common applications as well as time and project management tools through Outlook.

MindView: a powerful and comprehensive mind mapping tool that encourages efficient and accurate management of ideas.

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