Concept Maps: Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate


A concept map is a visual representation of a topic that students can create using words, phrases, lines, arrows, space on the page, and perhaps color to help organize their ideas and show their understanding of an idea, vocabulary term, or essential question. Students first respond to a topic (an idea, term, or essential question) by brainstorming a list of words, phrases, or ideas they associate with it. Then, they sort and arrange the items in their list visually on a page to represent both the items’ relationships to the topic and to each other. The result is a visual representation of students’ thinking about the idea, term, or question. This strategy provides an effective way to introduce big ideas to the class and capture their initial thinking. Students can then return to their concept maps over the course of a lesson or unit to revise them, providing a way for both the teacher and students to track individual understanding and growth. 1


  • 1 : Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate: Concept Map is adapted from a thinking routine developed by educators at Harvard University’s Project Zero.


  1. Select a Concept 
    Identify a topic or question that you would like students to explore in depth using this teaching strategy. Big ideas like prejudice or stereotyping work well, as do essential questions that students can approach from different angles. You might also use this routine to help students write a working definition of a new term or concept.
  2. Generate, Sort, and Connect
    • Explain to students that they will be creating a concept map for the topic you have chosen.
    • First ask students to GENERATE a list of words, phrases, and ideas about the topic you have selected. The goal at this point of the activity is to brainstorm without judgment, so encourage students to avoid self-editing their lists. After students have finished generating their lists, you might challenge them to add one more idea to help stretch their thinking.
    • Next have students write the topic or question in the center of a piece of paper, perhaps using their journals if you plan to revisit the concept map at a later time during the unit. Ask students to SORT the ideas from their lists, graphically organizing them on the page in a way that makes sense to the student. For example, students might place ideas that are central to the topic near the middle of the page and more tangential ideas at the edges. They might also clump similar ideas together or arrange them vertically to suggest a progression. If you have the materials in your classroom, students might use color to help sort their lists into categories if appropriate.
    • After students have generated and sorted their lists, ask them to CONNECT like ideas with lines, dotted lines, and arrows. They should write a brief explanation above each line that describes the connections they are making. Students might create a key if they have sorted and connected using colors or different kinds of lines.
  3. Students Share Their Concept Maps
    In pairs or small groups, ask students to share their maps. During this process they might ELABORATE on their maps, adding new ideas that their peers have shared if it expands their thinking on the topic in some way. Or they might elaborate on their own after they have finished sharing and returned to their seats.


  1. Essay Pre-Writing
    You might use concept maps to introduce an essay topic or question. Students create their concept maps early in the unit and then return to them at key moments to elaborate with quotations, evidence, and new ideas that extend or challenge their thinking. The maps become visual representations of their deepening understanding of the complexities of the topic, and students can draw from them when drafting their thesis statements and outlining their final assessments.
  2. Using Color
    Students might use color in a number of ways on their concept maps. In addition to using color as a sorting tool, they might also use a different color each time they add information to their maps and create a key so it is clear which color corresponds to which date. In this way, students can track their understanding over time from their initial thinking about a topic to their culminating ideas.
  3. Group or Class Concept Maps
    After generating their own ideas about the topic in their journals, students might share with a small group, which then creates a group concept map by sorting and connecting their ideas together. They might share their maps with the class, elaborating after the presentations and then returning to their group map periodically over the course of the unit to see how their thinking has expanded or changed. Alternatively, you might use their individual concept maps to create a class concept map, in which every student shares at least one idea that they generated, and the class collaborates to sort and connect the ideas on chart paper.

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