6 ways to use concept mapping in your research


Joseph Novak developed concept mapping in the 1970s and ever since, it has been used to present the construction of knowledge. A concept map is a great way to present all the moving parts of your research project in one visually appealing figure. I recommend using this technique when you start thinking about your new research topic all the way through to the end product, and once you submitted your thesis, dissertation or research article, you can use concept mapping to plan your next project. If you prefer to watch the video explaining the 6 steps, scroll down.

What is the purpose of concept mapping?

You may wonder what the purpose of a concept map is. A concept map shows the different “ideas” which form part of your research project, as well as the relationships between them. A concept map is a visual presentation of concepts as shapes, circles, ovals, triangles or rectangles, and the relationships between these concepts are presented by arrows. Your concept map will show the concept in words inside a shape, and the relationship is then presented in words next to each arrow, so that each branch reads like a sentence. What is the difference between a mind map and a concept map? A mind map is different from a concept map in that a mind map puts much less emphasis on the relationship between concepts.

How to use a concept map in your research

Don’t wait to put your concept map together until only after you have, what you consider, “all the knowledge” and have read “all the literature” (anyway, with two million research articles published each year, will that day ever come?). In the very early stages, when you start thinking about your research project, draw your concept map to get your thoughts organised. Then, as you become more and more abreast with the research out there, modify your concept map.

The process of creating a concept map is an iterative one and you will find that it feels like you have drawn and redrawn the map over and over so many times that you wonder if you are ever going to get to a final version. This process in itself is a learning experience and is vital to sort the concepts out for yourself. If you have clarity in your own head, it is easier to explain what your research is all about to someone else. In addition, including a concept map into a dissertation, thesis, or research article (where relevant) makes it easier for the reader (including the examiner or reviewer) to understand what your research project is all about. There are several instances in your research journey where a concept map will come in handy.

#1 Use a concept map to brainstorm your research topic

When you are conceptualising your research topic, create a concept map to put all the different aspects related to your research topic onto paper and to show the relationships between them. This will give you a bird’s eye view of all the moving parts associated with the chosen research topic. You will also, most probably, realise that the topic is too broad, and you’ll be able to zoom in a bit more to focus your research question better. But before you settle on a specific research question, do a bit of reading around the topic area. Your concept map will show you which keywords to search for.

#2 Use a concept map when planning the search strategy for your literature review

Jumping right into those databases to do a search for articles to include in your literature review can really take you down the deepest darkest rabbit hole. One of those where you find an appropriate article, then gets suggested a few related articles and then you find another few related articles to the related articles, and after 4 hours you can’t even remember what your actual focus was. To avoid this situation, draw your concept map first. You can use the concept map you drew when you brainstormed your research topic to give you guidance in terms of the keywords to search for. Planning your search strategy before you jump in will ensure that you remain on the well-lit path.

#3 Add a concept map to your completed literature review chapter

As you read more about your research topic, you’ll get a better idea of the relationships between the current concepts, and you’ll find more concepts to add to your concept map. Adapt your concept map as you go along, and once you have the final version of your literature review, add your concept map as a figure to your literature review chapter. This will give the reader a good overview of your literature review and it will make their hearts happy because we all know how nice it is to be rewarded with a picture after reading pages and pages of text.

#4 Use a concept map to plan your discussion

Once you completed your data analysis and interpretation, developing a concept map for your discussion will give you clarity on what to include in your discussion chapter or section.

#5 Add a concept map to your completed research project

Once you have completed your entire research project and you want to show how your findings filled a gap in the literature, you can indicate this by modifying the concept map which you created for our literature review. This is a great way to show how your research findings have added to the existing concepts related to your research topic.

#6 Use a concept map to show your research niche area

You can use a concept map to visually present your own research niche area and as your career progresses and you create more knowledge in a specific niche, you can add to your concept map.

How to make a concept map for research

Go to a place where there are very few distractions, a place that is conducive to letting those creative juices flow freely. Seeing that we all function differently, shall I rather say, a place which you perceive as having few distractions. It may be in a park, in your garden, at a restaurant, in the library or in your own study.

Take out a blank piece of paper and start thinking about your research project. Of course, you can do it on a blank page on your laptop as well. One of my students used sticky notes with each sticky note presenting a concept, and with smaller strips of sticky notes showing the relationships between concepts. You can even get all fancy and use concept mapping software. But as a start, a blank piece of paper is more than enough.

Jot down all the ideas that come to mind while you answer the following questions: What is your research about? Why is your research important? What gap does your research fill? What problem will your research solve? What influences your research outcome? Just jot all your thoughts down. Then, once you have all your thoughts on paper, see if you can identify some relationships between the concepts which you noted down. What comes before what? What is a consequence of what? What is associated with what?

Once you are happy with what you have put together, present it to a friend, preferably at a time when both of you are not in a hurry to get somewhere. At a bar with loud music may not work well, and on a first date may also not be a good idea. Explain what is going on in the concept map and give your friend a chance to ask some questions. As you explain it to someone, as well as through fielding your friend’s questions, it will start to make more sense to you, and you will most probably move some concepts around and add new ones. Repeat this process with someone else when you feel you need some more input.

If you are planning to feature your concept map in your thesis, dissertation or research article, now is the time to turn your rough concept map into something more presentable. One can easily get totally lost when it comes to choosing software to create a concept map. Some of the software out there is paid for while others give you a free version for some basic concept mapping. Be careful of that software which only gives you free access for 30 days, remember, you are going to change your concept map quite a few times as time goes on. If you prefer to use software which you are already familiar with, why not just do it in PowerPoint or Word? On the other hand, Lucidchart is really user-friendly. Watch the video below to see how easy it is to create a concept map with Lucidchart. Explore a few options and see what works for you, but be careful, this exploration can take you down that 4-hour rabbit hole and when a proposal submission deadline is looming, that rabbit hole is a dark place to be in.

We'd like to acknowledge Coffee Machine Cleaning for the image of the coffee cup and notebook used in this blog post. 

Examples of concept maps

Here are a few examples of concept maps that show the concepts and the relationship between the concepts well. Click on the image to visit the original source. Go and enjoy developing a concept map for your research!

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Example 1 Little Red Riding Hood

Example 2 Nursing Management

Example 3 Operations Management

Example 4 Cup of Coffee

Example 5 Flexibility

Example 6 Human Body Systems

Example 7 Simple Concept Map Template

If you prefer to watch the video, here it is:

We'd like to acknowledge Coffee Machine Cleaning for the image of the coffee cup and notebook used in this blog post. 


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