Excellence and elegance in concept mapping

Concept mapping is a simple tool to learn. Kids in kindergarten can learn how to make a concept map. But just as those kids can also paint, few of them will produce a masterpiece. Similarly with concept maps. There are many available on the web, but few of them demonstrate excellence or elegance. This abundance of ‘less than excellent’ material supports those who feel that the claims for the value of concept mapping have been overstated. But like any tool, if it is not used well, it will not yield results. Just as a poor research interview will not provide high quality data, it is not a case of saying that ‘interviews don’t work’. They have to be refined and used with some skill. So too with concept maps. We have to reflect on what makes an excellent map.

Cañas, Novak and Reiska (2015) have raised this as an issue, and propose that we should be looking beyond ‘good’ or ‘correct’ as descriptors for concept maps to consider what makes a map both excellent and elegant. Elegance is a characteristic that we should perhaps put more at the fore-front of our students’ minds, i.e. presentations that are concise but capture the complexity of the content involved. Just like a lecture that drones on for too long, or an essay that rambles back and forth through the content, so too a concept map should get to the point, and the mapper needs to consider when is the best place to stop, and crucially, what does not need to be included. The, ‘if it is connected put it in’ mentality has meant that in the past some extensive concept maps would have scored very highly even though they may not have been concise or clear.

So what makes an excellent map? Cañas, Novak and Reiska (2015) highlight a number of interrelated qualities that would confer excellence:

The map needs to have some explanatory power. Purely descriptive maps often fail to answer a focus question that provides the context for the map. It is a bit like asking a student to write an essay about World War 2. Where to start?

The map needs to be clear and concise. So many maps that are available on the web indicate a muddled view on an issue with numerous crossed links and sections that are difficult to follow. But to be concise and elegant, the mapper has to select the key concepts to be included.

The map should be balanced and well-structured. A map of the circulatory system that has 24 concepts related to arteries and only one related to veins is evidently not balanced.

These characteristics may not be easy to quantify. An ‘elegance ranking’ of 1 – 10 may not be helpful. But perhaps that lack of simplicity will encourage colleagues to engage with the mapper, and develop a dialogue about the content rather than simply catalogue it with a score.


Cañas, A.J., Novak, J.D. and Reiska, P. (2015) How good is my concept map? Am I a good cmapper? Knowledge Management & E-Learning, 7(1): 6 – 19  Available online at:  http://www.kmel-journal.org/ojs/index.php/online-publication


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