How to Implement Concept Maps: Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate Teaching Strategy in Your Classroom


A concept map is a visual illustration of a topic that learners can generate using words, phrases, lines,  and perhaps color to help organize their ideas and show their comprehension of an idea, vocabulary term, or essential question. Learners initially respond to a topic by brainstorming a list of words or concepts they connect with it. Next, they sort the items in their list visually to represent the items’ relationships to the topic and one another. The result is a visual representation of learners’ thinking about the idea, term, or question. This method provides an effective way to introduce big ideas to the class and capture their initial thought. Learners can then return to their concept maps throughout a learning activity to revise them and provide a way for both the instructor and learners to track individual comprehension and growth. 


  1. Select a Concept: Find a theme that you would like learners to explore in-depth using this teaching method. Concepts such as prejudice or stereotyping work well, as do essential questions that learners can approach from various angles. You may also utilize this strategy to help learners write a working description of a new term or concept.
  2. Generate, Sort, and Connect:
    • Tell learners that they will be creating a concept map for the topic you have chosen.
    • First, ask learners to create a list of words or concepts about the topic you have selected. The goal is to brainstorm without judgment, so encourage learners to avoid self-editing their lists. After learners have finished generating their lists, you may challenge them to add one more idea to help stretch their thinking.
    • Next, have learners write the topic in the center of a piece of paper. Ask learners to sort the ideas from their lists, graphically organizing them on the page in a way that makes sense to them. For instance, learners may place ideas that are central to the topic near the middle of the page and more divergent ideas at the edges. They may also cluster similar ideas together or organize them vertically to suggest a progression.
    • After learners have generated and sorted their lists, ask them to connect similar ideas with lines, dotted lines, etc. They must write an explanation above each line that describes the connections they are making. Learners may create a key if they have sorted and connected using colors or various kinds of lines.
  3. Learners Share Their Concept Maps: In pairs or small groups, ask learners to share their maps. They may elaborate their maps, adding new ideas that their peers have shared if it makes sense. Or they may elaborate their own after they have finished sharing.


  1. Essay Pre-Writing: You may utilize concept maps to introduce an essay topic or question. Learners create their concept maps early in the unit and then return to them at critical seconds to elaborate with quotations, evidence, and new ideas that extend or challenge their thinking. The maps become visual representations of their deepening comprehension of the complexities of the topic, and learners can draw from them when drafting their thesis statements and outlining their final assessments.
  2. Using Color: Learners may utilize color in several ways on their maps. They can use color as a sorting tool, and they may also use a different color every time they add info to their maps and create a key, so it is obvious which color relates to which date. In this way, learners can track their comprehension over time from their initial thinking about a topic to their culminating ideas.
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