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Concept Mapping to Write a Literature Review

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Concept mapping is a useful tool when writing a literature review.

Concept mapping is a useful tool when writing a literature review.

Concept Mapping as an Organizational Tool

Writing a literature review is the next task in progressing with my Ph.D. I have been reading and taking notes and I know, in theory, that my review should bring many aspects of a work together in a smooth and efficient manner. But how?

This has been worrying me for some time. It's important that each topic fits together, with cross-references if necessary, while also ensuring that the essay does not plagiarize someone else's structure. Copying someone's formatting and structure is as much a form of plagiarism as copying their words, which is why it is important to find an organizational method that works for you. I've found one that works for me. Perhaps it can help you too.

While revising a previous paper of mine, I drew out a concept map of what needed to be included. I realised that, with a few additions, the concept map gave me a great structure for my literature review. Even if you are not working on a Ph.D., the process of creating a concept map is fun, easy and a great way to organize any sort of writing.

Concept Mapping

I was first introduced to concept mapping through a book by Joseph D. Novak. He created the idea of concept maps back in 1972 when he was working as a children's researcher. He found that he could teach concept maps to children, even young ones. From this, he realized that while the idea behind concept maps is simple, the ideas you insert into them can be as profound and complex as you wish.

The simplest concept map of all.

The simplest concept map of all.

What is a Concept Map?

There are just two basic items you need to know about concept maps in order to create one.

First, you need to know what a concept is, and secondly, you need to know how the concepts are linked. This is pretty simple:

  • A concept is an idea that we can label. It could be a noun, such as "cars" or "stars," or a description, such as "bright" or "fast." There are many other concepts we could add.
  • The links are what join two concepts together. So, if we have the concepts of "cars" and "fast," we could link them together with the words "can be." Concepts are drawn inside circles or boxes, and the linking words are written on the line that joins the two concepts.

For example, you could write the word "car" inside one box, and write the word "fast" in the box below the first box. The last step is to link them with a line that says "can be."

Together, the two concepts and the linking words form a "proposition" that says:

  • "Cars can be fast."

This may seem too simple, but concept maps can be expanded greatly and express very complex sets of relationships. For instance, I've included a link to a concept map about concept maps in the link box below.

The only other important thing to know about drawing a concept map is that you need to start with a question. So, for the example given above, I might have started with the question:

  • “What is a car?"

A concept map that included the concepts of “stars” and “bright” could have started with the question, “What is astronomy?” or “What can you see in the night sky?”

There are many different questions that can be asked, and a concept map can be used to explore the meanings and relationships of limitless concepts, helping you develop a better understanding of what you already know.

How to Write a Literature Review Using a Concept Map

I am not going to use my own research for this example but will create an outline using information about something I have not researched. So, if your research is in this area and I get things wrong, please forgive me.

Let's consider a hypothetical thesis to write about:

  • Thesis: Assess children's playgrounds to investigate reasons for accidents and injuries, especially in older children.

First, you need to work out your themes, also known as the subjects that need to be covered, and work out your research questions.

The themes in this thesis appear to be:

  • Playgrounds
  • Accidents and injuries to older children
  • The assessment of playgrounds

The research questions could extract from the thesis and the themes are:

  1. How do the characteristics of children’s playgrounds contribute to accidents and injuries?
  2. What safety assessments have been conducted on children’s playgrounds?
  3. What is the frequency of injuries older children experience in general?
  4. What is the frequency of injuries older children experience at playgrounds?
  5. What are the types of accidental injuries older children incur at playgrounds?

The reason I chose these questions was to:

  • Assess playgrounds in general
  • Consider the different methods of guidance available when it comes to safety assessments
  • Compare how and when older children get injured in general and at playgrounds

If I were writing a literature review on this topic, I would now have my research questions and thus my three major divisions. I can now take each of these research questions and use a concept map to illustrate the relationships between the various concepts. This will give me an outline for my paper.

Starting a concept map.

Starting a concept map.

Creating the Concept Map

First, I take a piece of paper, turn it 90 degrees so that it is horizontal, and write my research question across the top.

For this example, I am going to use the question:

  • "How do the characteristics of children's playgrounds contribute to accidents?"

This can be handwritten on a piece of paper (this is how I usually start out), or you can use Microsoft PowerPoint or any other program with the ability to create graphics. I do most of my concept mapping by hand or by using PagePlusX6. You can find a link for a free download of PagePlusX6 in the box of links below.

Next, I choose my starting concept. For this, I think there is no better choice than:

  • Children's playgrounds

Believe it or not, I have some experience with playgrounds. I used them as a child some 60 years ago, visited them as a parent about 30 years ago, and find myself near a playground from time to time as a grandparent. I have a lot of thoughts about them from a user's point of view, but none from an engineer's or a public authority's perspective. My concepts in those areas may be quite wonky or faulty. Use them only as a guide.

I now need to consider what other concepts I can think of regarding children's playgrounds. These may be "surfaces," "equipment," "location," "inspections," "funding" and "usage."

The next step is to write new concepts below the top ones, and connect them with linking words, such as "have," "are subject to," etc.

Once finished, I should have several propositions, such as:

  • "Children's playgrounds are subject to inspection."
  • "Children's playgrounds contain equipment."
Adding to the concept map.

Adding to the concept map.

Adding to the Concept Map

Now it's time to look at the concept of “location.” These playgrounds could be located in “urban” or “rural” areas, and my research shows that there are differences between these, so I add both concepts and the linking words.

These two concepts are also related to “usage" in that “urban” playgrounds are more likely to be used by children in the local area, whereas “rural” playgrounds are more likely to be used by children who are being brought by car, possibly from some distance.

This prompts me to think about the concept of “supervision," which I add with linking words. My research has found that children using “urban” playgrounds are more likely to be there unsupervised when compared to those at “rural” playgrounds.

Developing the concept map further.

Developing the concept map further.

I now look at the different types of surfaces at playgrounds and recall that there are three types:

  • Soft asphalt
  • Wood chippings
  • Sand
Sometimes the concept map needs to be changed around.

Sometimes the concept map needs to be changed around.

Revising the Concept Map

Having reached this stage, I realise I don’t have a concept included for “children’s accidents," so I add the concept and link it to some of my other concepts, with appropriate linking words.

For instance, the accidents may be related to the equipment or the surface or to a lack of supervision. Because I have used a graphical program, I can move the concepts around to fit more easily into available space. Still, I often start my concept maps on paper, just to get the ideas flowing.

Moving From the Concept Map to Your Paper

Once the concept map is complete, I can now use it to form an outline for my paper. Each concept can form a heading or subheading. Concept maps have a hierarchical structure from top to bottom, so the concepts at the top of the concept map form the headings and the concepts lower on the map form the subheadings. Because the relationships shown on the concept map can be horizontal as well as vertical, the areas that I need to cover throughout my paper are visible and can be covered when necessary.

For instance, I may need to talk about accidental injuries in the equipment section, the surfaces section and the supervision section, and consider whether there are more or fewer accidents in the rural playgrounds because:

  • (a) They are used less


  • (b) They have more supervision

With three concept maps, one for each research question, I have an outline for the whole of my paper.

Alternatively, you can make concept maps working from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.

Alternatively, you can make concept maps working from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.

An Alternative Method of Concept Mapping

Are you having difficulty creating a concept map? Try this alternative approach.

  1. Identify your research question and think of as many words and phrases relating to it as possible.
  2. Write down each word or phrase, and draw a box around it.
  3. Once you have as many words and phrases as you can think of, cut out the boxes and lay them out in front of you.
  4. Now shuffle them around to see if you can get them into related groups.

This is a bottom-up approach, whereas the concept map idea can be thought of as a top-down approach. If you choose to use this alternative method, you need to start with the most specific concepts and see if you can group them together into a larger concept. Yellow sticky notes can be useful for this.

An alternative, bottom-up, approach to concept mapping.

An alternative, bottom-up, approach to concept mapping.

Progressing With the Alternative Method

Once you have some related groups, see if you can think of a higher concept that would encompass all of them.

For instance, I started out with sand, grass and mud, which could be gathered into the concept of "soft surfaces," and I also had the concepts of "falls" and bruises," which fit into my concept of "injury types."

These two higher concepts of "soft surfaces" and "injury types" seemed to fit into an even higher concept of "injury prevention."

Further Information on Concept Mapping and Other Useful Information

Questions & Answers

Question: Which visual map might help us in planning the structure of a literature review?

Answer: I used a concept map to plan the structure of my literature review. It worked for me. I did several iterations and also did a reverse concept map. This is where you take a piece of writing and construct a concept map from that. Then use that to refine the piece of writing. This checks for linkages and logical ordering of the piece.

© 2012 RoadMonkey

Concept Maps and Literature Reviews

kitz on July 31, 2020:

Hi? Road monkey?could you more on how i can use concept map to write research questionnaire.

RoadMonkey (author) on April 20, 2020:

Yes, mind mapping does help things seem clearer. I did a great many mind maps and concept maps and often switched between mind maps, concept maps and outlines depending on which seemed clearer and what was needed at the time. You can also do reverse mind maps, where you create a mind map FROM your written material. This shows the linkages and helps you work out whether anything is missing. Good luck with your lit review.

Eileen Douglas on April 20, 2020:

I began my lit review with mind mapping and then converted it to the required outline I had to turn in. I am now in the stage of writing the lit review and am somewhat overwhelmed. I think I'll go back to the mind map as it is clearer which way I need to go next.

Thanks for your edification on this process.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 20, 2019:

Ok. Thanks.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 20, 2019:

Hi Luis. You are welcome. Concept maps are VERY useful. I like them.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 16, 2019:

Thanks for your response. I appreciate your explanation.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 16, 2019:

A concept map can be used for just about anything, not just a literature review. Children can also learn how to use concept maps. You could try reading Joseph D Novak's book mentioned above, it is the original work on concept maps and gives examples of concept maps produced by children.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 14, 2019:

I do write research also however, my expertise to look for a literature review... Nice article.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 14, 2019:

@Robert. You are welcome.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 14, 2019:

@Marlene, that's one way to start a concept map: from the bottom up. I have used many index cards in my life, I have boxes of them! But a concept map is one way to gather together all the information and thoughts I have on one subject and keep them together, online or printed out on a sheet. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Robert Sacchi on August 01, 2019:

Thank you.

Marlene Bertrand from USA on August 01, 2019:

This is quite interesting. Currently, I write thoughts on a 3x5 index card and then spread all of the cards out on a table. I then try to put the thoughts into related groups. I do this before going to the computer to write anything. But, your method sounds more constructive. I'm going to try using it in the future.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 06, 2019:

I have done a lot of "papers taped to a wall" for many situations. One in particular was not in my studies but was an attempt to "map" a legal document that was being suggested as part of a contract. When the wording was "mapped out", it could be visually seen that the very clever lawyer had made the wording say the exact opposite of what was meant!

Papers taped to a wall is (in my opinion) a good way of starting a bottom up review. Sometimes, I start this way, when I can only "see" the individual components and have no feel for how they are related. By putting each concept, or idea, or piece of information onto a single piece of paper and taping all these to a wall, it is then possible to group similar ideas together to form a cluster. Often when I have done that, a top down concept map becomes clearer and I can then create a concept map when it was not previously clear how to proceed or even what question to set that the concept map could answer.

Robert Sacchi on January 29, 2019:

What about something like papers taped to a wall? Do you think that would work better to see a big picture? Do you think that would just be overkill and actually interfere with the ultimate goal of writing a review?

RoadMonkey (author) on April 12, 2018:

Hello Stan, I am honoured to be included in the same sentence as The New York Times! Thank you for visiting.

stan on January 22, 2018:

Hello everyone, was interesting to read your article. Usually i'm reading New York Times (it's here, if u want to check it out, but now i'll read your site too!

RoadMonkey (author) on November 21, 2017:

I am glad you found it interesting. Concept maps can be used for anything, just about.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 18, 2017:

This is interesting RM, you are a very intelligent lady! Great work.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 29, 2017:

You can do it either way around. Some people prefer to write first, THEN concept map what they have written and then use the concept map to extend or improve their first draft. Thank you very much for your kind words.

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on August 29, 2017:

Thanks for sharing a very useful way of concept mapping. My writing would be a lot better if I created a concept map before putting my ideas on paper. I really admire you for getting a Ph.D. at this stage in your life.

RoadMonkey (author) on August 09, 2016:

Thank you very much. Concept mapping can even be used by children in school, for instance, by asking a question such as "How do I know it's a cat?" or "What is water?".

Amy from East Coast on July 23, 2016:

This is a very informative Hub. I never knew this concept. It seems like it can be applied to different forms of writing as well. Great article, very well written.

RoadMonkey (author) on September 22, 2015:

Thank you very much. I also enjoy using them for all sorts of uses.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 11, 2015:

Interesting organizational technique.

RoadMonkey (author) on June 08, 2015:

Thank you for visiting and for your comment

anglnwu on May 25, 2015:

Very detailed information. I like the concept mapping idea. Thanks for sharing.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 28, 2015:

It's certainly hanging over me at the minute! I have a poster presentation on Wednesday, so hope that goes ok. Thanks for visiting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 27, 2015:

I completed my Ph.D. about 15 years ago. The dissertation can hang over your head like a dark storm cloud, threatening to sentence you to the status of "ABD forever." Your hub will definitely help kick start those doctoral students who are having trouble with the lit review.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 09, 2015:

There is a similarity and there are many ways of graphically illustrating content. I like concept mapping because I know how to do it. Others may prefer their own methods. I also like mind mapping.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 07, 2015:

your charts reminds me of the tree branching that we learn in school

RoadMonkey (author) on February 06, 2015:

Thank you so much.

Marilyn L Davis from Georgia on February 06, 2015:

Good morning, RoadMonkey; first congratulations on going back to finish your degree. Second, thank you for an excellent presentation on concept mapping.

As someone who loved diagramming sentences and writing in pre-computer days, I would be comfortable with any of your formats. I've used something similar in my recovery curriculum to help people make sense of their lives; the interconnectedness of certain patterns, events, and people. So, it has multiple applications. ~Marilyn

voted up, awesome, interesting and Tweeted

RoadMonkey (author) on January 26, 2015:

Thank you

RoadMonkey (author) on January 26, 2015:

Concept mapping can start from very simple things

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 24, 2015:

I can see how this could be helpful for an extremely complex topic, or maybe even as a way to keep things organized in a novel. Great hub!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on January 24, 2015:

Wow! This looks pretty tough for me. I've never worked on a thesis (thank goodness), but my son is majoring in English in college. I sent him the link to this Hub.

I'm of the "old school" where I just outline my work, though.

Voted UP, etc. and shared.

RoadMonkey (author) on January 13, 2015:

Some people prefer outlines for creating an article. What the graphical methods do is help you work out how all the pieces fit together. Concept mapping, as a subject, was actually tested out on primary school children by Joesph D Novak in the USA and I have an idea in my mind for a book for small children that would introduce the idea in a very simple way

Barbara Radisavljevic from Paso Robles, CA on January 11, 2015:

This seems like a pretty complex process to me. I think I still prefer the old fashioned outline method in my own writing. Of course, I've never had to write a thesis, since I never needed a higher degree. I settled for a teaching credential.

RoadMonkey (author) on July 05, 2014:

@norma-holt: Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

norma-holt on July 05, 2014:

Certainly a helpful and well presented lens for writers in general.

RoadMonkey (author) on June 19, 2014:

@SteveKaye: Thank you for commenting and visiting. Concept maps are great. They are simple enough for children to learn and can be as complex as you want.

SteveKaye on June 19, 2014:

Wonderful, valuable approach to organizing information. Thank you.

RoadMonkey (author) on May 12, 2014:

@John Dyhouse: Yes, they are similar. I find both useful but mind mapping is easier to learn, I think. Sometimes the "concept" of concept mapping is harder to explain.

John Dyhouse from UK on May 11, 2014:

Having read some of your answers to the comments, I can see why you say this is different o mind mapping but I am not convinced that mind mapping is not hierarchical. Yes it is drawn as a radiating sketch but each branch could easily be considered as a top down construction. It simply is a different way to present the info. I still think they are the same but different. There is no reason why the connections in a mind map cannot be assigned a label or action. Both are simply ways of organising and filtering info.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 28, 2014:

@goldenrulecomics: Thank you and thanks for visiting.

goldenrulecomics from New Jersey on February 28, 2014:

Interesting. I'll show it to my wife who is an English teacher...

RoadMonkey (author) on February 10, 2014:

@paperfacets: Concept mapping can even be used by small children, as well as adults. It is a fantastic tool for checking out everything you know on something and finding the missing areas. I once thought of writing a children's book on concept mapping but haven't (yet) got round to it. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Sherry Venegas from La Verne, CA on February 09, 2014:

I always wondered about the Ph.D. thesis and how one would go about writing an important paper. It can easily be used for the Squidoo article.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 04, 2014:

@mel-kav: Thank you and thanks for visiting.

mel-kav on February 03, 2014:

Very interesting concept!

RoadMonkey (author) on December 29, 2013:

@lesliesinclair: You're welcome. Thank you for visiting and commenting

lesliesinclair on December 29, 2013:

My writing style would be very perplexing to anyone who requires such structure as you present here, so I believe I can learn much from you. Thanks for the generous tutorial.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 12, 2013:

@Lee Hansen: Yes, there are a lot of similarities. Sometimes I prefer mind mapping and sometimes concept mapping. I suppose i use mind mapping when I am trying to think of a structure and brainstorm ideas and I use concept mapping when trying to tease out the relationships in a complex area. Thank you for visiting and commenting.

Lee Hansen from Vermont on November 12, 2013:

Reminds me of what we learned in the tech world, Mind Mapping, to create end user documentation, training and software environments.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 11, 2013:

@favored: I think nursery age children could learn it too and yet it is still useful for people doing a doctorate! Thank you for visiting and for commenting.

Fay Favored from USA on November 10, 2013:

I used to teach this to my classes (a toned down version) for their writing assignments. It still works with anything. So glad you brought it here for others to read and learn.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 22, 2013:

@TanoCalvenoa: That's great that you can hold everything in your head. Thanks for visiting.

TanoCalvenoa on October 22, 2013:

I like this method, but I personally wouldn't use it because I do everything in my head (never took notes in school, I do math in my head, etc). I think though that this could benefit most people.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 22, 2013:

@aesta1: Yes, it's great isn't it? I use it a lot. It really helps to get thoughts organised before getting into the detail of expanding the concepts. Thanks for visiting.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 22, 2013:

I use concept mapping a lot. It organizes my thoughts.

RoadMonkey (author) on January 24, 2013:

@anonymous: Thank you for visiting.

anonymous on January 23, 2013:

Very interesting concept for literature reviews.

RoadMonkey (author) on December 26, 2012:

@kimark421: Thank you for visiting.

kimark421 on December 25, 2012:

Interesting lens. I enjoyed the read. Thanks!

RoadMonkey (author) on November 27, 2012:

@AngeloOrtiz: That's great. Glad you liked the lenses. Good luck with your bachelor's and whatever else you go on to.

AngeloOrtiz on November 27, 2012:

Love your lenses, I'm doing my bachelor's at the moment and plan to go on and do a masters. After that, who can tell. This lens and the ones on writing abstracts and developing a hypothesis are fantastic. In fact I've printed them out and they are going in the front of my resources folder.

Thanks again,


RoadMonkey (author) on November 14, 2012:

@OnlineSuccessor: Thank you very much.

OnlineSuccessor on November 14, 2012:

great inspirational lens, Love it, thumbs up.