For years now I have been guiding my students through a variety of concept mapping activities. Almost every one of my classes involves at least one concept mapping assignment, and I now require that proposals for a variety of term papers and projects be presented in concept map form. I also created this guide to making concept maps in designing creative works.
I have always provided my students with a narrative introduction to concept mapping, but I have never created a basic set of instructions for my students on the “best practices” of concept mapping with my favored software, the Visual Understanding Environment (VUE)… until now. Last week I had to cancel classes but still wanted students to be able to complete concept maps on their own, so I came up with the following guidelines:
How to create a concept map with the Visual Understanding Environment (VUE):
- VUE software is available for free from http://vue.tufts.edu/. It is also installed in the Engineering computer labs under the “Math & Science” program tab — ask a computer lab tech if you cannot find it.
- Concept maps include two basic elements, nodes and connectors. Nodes are open shapes that can be filled with text; you can use color variations in text, fill, and line to signify commonality and difference between nodes. Connectors are lines that connect nodes and can be labelled with text; you can use arrowheads/tails, color, and stroke differences to create different meanings in your connectors.
- Nodes should be used to represent a concept: an idea, entity, or phenomenon. The best nodes are very simple; if you find yourself writing a paragraph inside a node, you probably are trying to jam multiple ideas into a single node. It is better to create multiple nodes than to represent complex ideas within a single node.
- Connectors should be used to show relationships between nodes. For example, I might create two nodes, one called “liquid water” and another called “ice”. I could connect these two ideas with two connectors. An arrow moving from “liquid water” to “ice” could be labelled “freezes to become”. Notice how this connector creates a relationship between the nodes, and can be read as a simple sentence. An arrow moving in the opposite direction could be labelled “melts to become”. Selecting arcing connectors allows these two relationships to be represented side-by-side:
- The best concept maps use spatial arrangement to effectively convey relationships between ideas (nodes). Connectors can help you to decide which ideas belong nearer to each other: when there are many connectors between a series of nodes, they will look better (and make more sense!) if they are placed closer to each other. Nodes that are not directly connected will end up further apart. This spacing tells us something about the relationships between the various ideas on your map.
- Although VUE may seem like a relatively simple program, it is very powerful for creating concept maps. Take advantage of the ability to create arrows with different shapes (straight, arcing, or s-curved) and directionality (no arrowheads, single arrowhead, dual arrowhead) to make your maps easier to read and understand. Use differences in the color of fonts, fills, and strokes to signify commonality and difference. Also use VUE’s power to re-arrange your map to optimize spacing and location of different nodes on your map.