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Conceptual Maps
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 141]

Conceptual Maps are simple and practical knowledge representation tools that allow you to convey complex conceptual messages in a clear, understandable way. They facilitate both teaching and learning. Moreover they are represented naturally as graphs. 
Graph.png (12740 bytes)
Conceptual Map about the definition of a Graph
Fuente: by the author using CmapTools.
Click on the image to enlarge it. 

Conceptual maps are artefacts for organising and representing knowledge. Their origin lies in the theories about the psychology of learning by David Ausubel enunciated in the 60s.

Their objective is to represent relations between concepts in the form of propositions. Concepts are included within boxes or circles whereas the relations between them are explicated by means of lines connecting their respective boxes. The lines, in turn, have associated words describing the nature of the relation that links the concepts.

In this context, Joseph D. Novak in the articleThe Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them” defines concept as “a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label”. The label of a concept is usually a word.

Propositions are “statements about some object or event in the universe, either naturally occurring or constructed. Propositions contain two or more concepts connected with other words to form a meaningful statement” They are also called “semantic units”.

Concepts correlated by relations, boxes and linking lines… Doesn’t this appear familiar to us?. Indeed, like many other things conceptual maps can be represented, and in fact are represented, as graphs (see issue number137  ), where the nodes are concepts and the arcs the relations between them.

Conceptual maps are structured in a hierarchical way, where the most general concepts lie in the root of the tree and, and as we descend the structure, we find the more specific ones. 

Probably the best way to understand them is to look at a conceptual map about conceptual maps like the one you can see here. 

CmapTools.gif (94068 bytes)
Conceptual Map about conceptual maps. Map inspired in the article "The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them" by J.D.Novak, as it can be seen in the website of CmapTools. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Said map has been made from the one existing in the above mentioned article using the tool CmapTools developed by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition associated to the West Florida University (USA). This is a freely downloadable tool, very versatile and easy to use. 

There’s also a free, web based, similar tool in Spanish created in the Universitat Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona, Spain, by Cristòfol Rovira that automatically generates the necessary code to include the map in XML format using the Topic Maps standard (see issue 26 about the semantic web). It’s very commendable to play with these tools to see how easy and instructive it is to put our ideas in the form of conceptual maps.

For this type of map was developed to understand the changes in time of the knowledge that children had of science. Ausubel’s idea is that learning takes place thanks to the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into propositional frameworks already existent in the learner’s mind.

In contrast to the purely rote learning, Ausubel considers that meaningful learning needs three conditions:

  • The content has to be conceptually clear and presented in a language and with examples the learner can relate to his/her existing knowledge base.

  • The learner has to have relevant prior knowledge.

  • Motivation. The learner must choose to learn meaningfully.

These types of tools, when they are well designed, taking into account the context and motivation of their audience, constitute both a teaching and a learning instrument that facilitates understanding and assimilation of the concepts and their relations. 

Although their origin is bound to learning, their application to Information Visualisation configures them as useful tools to convey complex messages in a clear way. I would dare to say that, moreover, they contribute most notably to clarifying the ideas of the one that is building the message.


I owe the inspiration of this article to the PhD thesis “Interacción Persona Ordenador en Interfaces de Recuperación de Información” by Dr. Ma. Carmen Marcos.

Other Readings

  • Ausubel, D. P. (1963). The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning. New York: Grune and Stratton. 
  • Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D. and Hanesian, H.. (1978). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 
  • Novak, J.D. and Gowin, D.B. –Learning How to Learn.- New York an Cambridge, Cambridge Universisty Press 1984. 

Links of this issue:

http://cmap.coginst.uwf.edu/info/   The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How To Construct Them
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=137&lang=2   Issue 137 about Graphs
http://cmap.ihmc.us/   CmapTools
http://www.ihmc.us/   Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
http://www.mapasconceptuales.com   Tool in Spanish to create conceptual maps.
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=26&lang=2   Issue 26 about The Semantic Web
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