Concept maps, according to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), visually illustrate relationships among words, concepts and facts. The term “concept map” may assume other names, such as graphic organizer, knowledge map and advance organizer. Although instructors often use concept maps to promote learning, these visuals have potential disadvantages if they muddle relationships and discourage critical thinking. In addition, they may be ineffective at certain learning stages and for some learning styles.


Sometimes relationships on concept maps become difficult to interpret. One type of concept map, a spider map, begins with a central concept and expands outward with related ideas, according to South Dakota State University. Such a map may distort the importance of relationships and become difficult to read. For example, if a health instructor focuses on the topic of Von Recklinghausen Syndrome, a serious bone disease, the branches might include “risk factors, “pulmonary,” “psycho-social” and “diagnostics.” However, the relationships among these terms may elude learners. Similarly, a hierarchical map, showing the progression from general to specific, may lack connections among ideas. A systems map (that might use arrows to indicate input and output) may only complicate a difficult concept, creating an intricate puzzle, rather than a learning tool.

Critical Thinking

Clearly, educators want to encourage learning with visual aids, but they must avoid concept maps that discourage critical thinking. According to South Dakota State University, linear maps or flowcharts may interfere with critical thinking and problem solving. If, for example, a linear map begins with “Improving Writing” and leads sequentially to “Grammar,” “Usage” and then to “Style,” the visual may confuse writers who understand style issues (brevity and clarity) but lack essential usage and grammatical skills. Similarly, a hierarchical map may discourage critical thinking, imposing a general to specific order, discouraging reasoning skills and offering incomplete data.

Stages of Learning

Concept maps or graphic organizers may offer limited benefits if instructors introduce them at the wrong times. According to Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), concept maps work most efficiently at the university level. Therefore, introducing them too soon may yield disappointing results. An elementary student may lack the conceptual skill to create or interpret a visual map. In addition, instructors interested in reading improvement should note that concept maps work more effectively after reading, rather than before a reading selection. While advance organizers offer advantages at both stages of reading, instructors need to focus their time effectively and use concept maps when they are most effective. Clearly, students with strong auditory but weak visual skills may not profit from concept mapping; therefore, instructors must evaluate the potential disadvantages of concept mapping when planning instruction.