Mapping your way to improved student learning

There are many ways to represent information that can help students learn. One of the least utilised is using visual representations with text. In some instances, using text together with visuals leads to improved learning, compared to using only text. This has been called the multimedia principle by Mayer and others. Here we will unpack what the implication of the multimedia principle is for teachers and students and look at a specific type of graphical representation, the concept map.

Mapping of information

Typically, the application of the multimedia principle to teaching materials includes visual representation of a concept or process together with labels and descriptive text. Here we will go beyond a simple graphic with descriptive text. We are going to look at “mapping styles”, where complex ideas or information are represented in a map-like graphic. There are a number of different “mapping styles”: mind mapping, concept maps and argument mapping. Here we explore concept maps, however, if you are interested in the other two, Davies (2011) provides a good summary.

Concept maps are used to represent systems or complex ideas in a simplified diagram, in a hierarchy of concepts that illustrates relationships between them. Look below for a concept map of the ideas discussed in this post.

“concept map of multimedia principle” by Chris Froissard ©2016 Macquarie University
“concept map of multimedia principle” by Chris Froissard ©2016 Macquarie University

For teachers

There is evidence that the multimedia principle helps students develop a deeper level of understanding of a topic rather than knowledge retention (Mayer 2014, p180). Deeper learning refers to the ability of the student to apply the knowledge to new situations.

Whilst it might be obvious to use visuals with text to represent processes in the disciplines of science or engineering, it can also be used in the humanity disciplines such as philosophy and history. Using concept maps to represent complex ideas, principles or events can be a powerful learning tool that teachers can develop to support their students’ learning. They can improve recall, problem-solving and help students improve their mental model of the idea being represented.

One idea is for teachers to develop concept maps of the topics or lectures they are presenting, as a way to present an overview to students. These maps show students the connections between different ideas and also allow them to check whether the teacher’s map aligns with their understanding, and if not, to potentially revise their mental map.

For students

Having students develop their own concept map of a principle in class can be a powerful way for them to summarise the information and conceptualise the links between different ideas. This is a form of active learning, where students are engaged in a process of thinking about what they have just seen, heard or read, and attempting to reconceptualise it. Also, maps help students to link what they already know to the new information. The information becomes usable.

Care needs to be taken when asking students to develop concept maps. Students with high prior knowledge of the topic can learn the most from generating and labelling a concept map from scratch. However, students with low prior knowledge can more effectively learn by labelling an existing concept map, where the relationships and structure of the ideas are represented. Finally, students that have no prior knowledge may not benefit from developing a concept map, they may learn more effectively by being provided with a completed concept map.    

What tools are available?

There are a number of free tools available on the web to create concept maps. Probably the easiest to use is MindMup ( The benefit of using Mindmup is that it integrates with Google Drive.  Another tool you might consider is CMap. If you want to make many concept maps and want more control, CMap might be your preferred option.

Hopefully, your interest in concept maps has been piqued, and you will consider using a concept map next time in your lecture, and/or asking students to generate concept maps of their own.


Davies, M. (2011). Concept mapping, mind mapping and argument mapping: what are the differences and do they matter?. Higher education, 62(3), 279-301.

Mayer, R. (2014). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning / edited by Richard E. Mayer. (Second ed., Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology).

4 thoughts on “Mapping your way to improved student learning”

  1. Thanks Chris, this is really useful. As someone who likes to represent ideas and structures with both text and visuals, and who uses mind maps to figure out what I’m thinking (!), much of what you’ve said rings true and makes perfect sense to me.

    I wonder though, how we can make such mapping tools (either the viewing or the use of them) accessible to students with print or screen disabilities? How would a blind person create or understand information presented in this way? We still need to provide alternative access for people who need it.

    I guess what I’m saying is that there is still value in text description, especially for those who are unable to access visual representations. It’s still really important to be able to express ideas (and things like causation, relation, exception, supposition and conditional aspects of all of these) in words – and I mean by that, important for teachers and for students.

    Anyone have any ideas about how we adapt tools like mind-mapping for students with disabilities that affect visual perception?

  2. Hi Cathy,
    thanks for your post.
    I do agree that we need to think about accessibility for students. Representing information visually can be a challenge for students with screen readers. Fortunately, some tools allow you to export out your concept map as a text file. For example, CMap that I used to create the concept map, allows you to export the map out as text which retains concepts and their hierarchies. The text file looks like this:
    multi-media principle
    impact on student learning
    weaker effect for retention of knowledge compared to deeper understanding
    type of
    Whilst I agree that it is important to express ideas in words, using concept maps can provide a “birds-eye-view” of a complex area, and help students to see the linkages and dependencies between ideas. This can lead to deeper knowledge, that can help students better describe or express ideas. I see concept maps as a tool that complements rather than detracts from students’ learning.

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