Concept Mapping to Write a Literature Review
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.
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.
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.
Do you have to write a literature review?
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:
- Accidents and injuries to older children
- The assessment of playgrounds
The research questions could extract from the thesis and the themes are:
- How do the characteristics of children’s playgrounds contribute to accidents and injuries?
- What safety assessments have been conducted on children’s playgrounds?
- What is the frequency of injuries older children experience in general?
- What is the frequency of injuries older children experience at playgrounds?
- 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.
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 in 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
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.
I now look at the different types of surfaces at playgrounds and recall that there are three types:
- Soft asphalt
- Wood chippings
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.
An Alternative Method of Creating a Concept Map
An Alternative Method of Concept Mapping
Are you having difficulty creating a concept map? Try this alternative approach.
- Identify your research question and think of as many words and phrases relating to it as possible.
- Write down each word or phrase, and draw a box around it.
- 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.
- 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
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
- Visual Understanding Environment Software
Get your free download of VUE software, which is great for concept mapping.
- Joseph D Novak
The start of concept mapping with Joseph D. Novak.
- A Concept Map About Concept Maps
This is a diagram of a concept map that explains what concept maps are and shows how they are organised.
- Affinity Store
PagePlus, which can be used for desktop publishing and for creating concept maps.
What do you think about using concept maps for outlining your literature review?
Questions & Answers
Which visual map might help us in planning the structure of a literature review?
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.Helpful 2
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