Let’s Get to Work with Productive Learning Strategies: Mapping

Paul A. Kirschner, Mirjam Neelen, Tine Hoof & Tim Surma

This blog is the second one in a series of eight blogs, originally written by Tine Hoof, Tim Surma & Paul Kirschner, and published on excel.thomasmore.be.

In 2015, Richard Mayer and Logan Fiorella published their book ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ describing eight generative learning strategies. They’re called generative (also productive) because they allow/force learners to ‘remould’ the subject matter and based on that, create their own output, such as a summary or a drawing. In other words, as a learner, you generate/produce something yourself based on and that goes further than what you’ve learned. In addition to mapping,  Mayer and Fiorella also discuss summarising, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.

Each strategy prompts learners to apply Mayer’s Selection, Organising, and Integrating (SOI) memory model. These strategies ensure that the learner engages with the new subject matter in a ‘cognitively active’ manner. In the first blog (on summarising) you can read more about why this is important when studying. 

SOI Model

What is mapping?

Mapping is a productive learning strategy that we usually know as mind mapping, concept mapping, and so forth. It involves extracting the most important concepts from an information source and arranging them in such a way that the interrelations between those concepts become visually clear. Mapping can also make the interrelations between the new information (the presented concepts) and prior knowledge explicit. As a learner, you do this by making graphic connections between them, often in the form of arrows or lines. Concept maps, mind maps, knowledge maps, and graphic organisers are all examples of applications of this strategy. They’re basically a kind of (simplified) visual representation of the knowledge schemes in our heads combined with the new information to be learned. This way, they help learners link new information to prior knowledge on the topic being studied. Concept maps actually call out the relationship between … concepts (duh!). In that way they are different from mind maps, which usually have a radial structure and do not specify the relationship between the different concepts.

Here’s a nice side-by-side comparison, adapted from Eppler (2006):


Concept map

Mind map

Sample Thumbnail Representation

concept map mindmap


A top-down diagram showing the relationships between concepts, including cross connections among concepts, and their manifestations (examples)

A multi-coloured and image-centred, radial diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of learned material hierarchically

Main function / benefit

Shows systematic relationships among sub-concepts relating to one main concept

Show sub-topics of a domain in a creative and seamless manner

Typical application context

Classroom teaching, self-study and revision

Personal note taking and reviewing

Application guidelines

Use it as a learning support tool for students, that is, to summarize key course topics or clarify the elements and examples of an abstract concept

Use it for pre-analytic idea jostles or rapid note-taking, or to structure the main contents of a course or topic hierarchically

Graphic elements

Boxes/bubbles with text and labelled connector arrows

Central topic bubble and coloured (sub-) branches with text above branches, pictograms

Reading direction



Core design rules / guidelines

Start with main concept (at the top), and end with examples (bottom, without circles); boxes/bubbles designate concepts, arrows represent relationships; include cross-links among elements

Start with main topic (centre) and branch out to sub-topics, employ pictograms and colours to add additional meaning. Write text above the branches

A comparison of concept maps and mind maps (Adapted from Eppler, 2006)


Why does mapping work?

As with other productive strategies, the idea behind mapping is that learners go through the SOI model and generate a new product relating to the subject matter in question, incorporating and integrating key ideas from a source (e.g., a lesson or a book) with previously acquired knowledge. Attaching new concepts and ideas to already acquired knowledge ensures meaningful learning (Ausubel, 1960).

How does mapping work?

Mapping can be used by both the teacher and the learner, in different ways and in different subjects. For example, during a lesson, the teacher can instruct learners to read a text and organise the information in a concept map. Then the teacher can ask learners to articulate the connections between the different parts of the concept map and to search for causes and effect relationships. Or the teacher can ask learners at the start of a lesson to reflect on what they remember from the previous lesson in a mind map. This way, learners are encouraged to actively retrieve their prior knowledge (i.e., retrieval practice) before building further on that material.

Learners can use mapping to ask themselves questions about the new subject matter and link this to prior knowledge. What do I already know about this? What is the relationship between these two concepts? Do I know of other causes or consequences? And so forth. Moreover, mapping can be used as a strategy to test oneself. For example, ‘if I close my books and write the title of the chapter on a page, can I schematically represent the most important concepts with the correct interrelationships?’

The effects of mapping have been extensively tested both in comparison to and in combination with retrieval practice (or, assessment as a learning strategy). Karpicke and Blunt (2011, replicated in 2020) found that self-assessment led to better results than mapping. Concept mapping in combination with self-assessment also didn’t provide an advantage over self-testing alone (O’Day & Karpicke, 2020), while the ‘mapping and self-assessment ‘ group spent more time on the subject matter than the group that only self-tested. How a learner starts working with the map determines its effectiveness. On this basis, we wouldn’t recommend choosing mapping as a sole study strategy. Mapping as the only study strategy is of course better than no study strategy or a passive strategy such as rereading.

Possible limitations

The advantages of mapping as a productive strategy have been demonstrated in different age groups, ranging from students in the higher years of primary school to university apprenticeship and especially when compared to passive strategies such as rereading.

As with any learning strategy, learners with less skill in using this strategy and/or who have less domain-specific prior knowledge need support in applying it. To make maximum use of the effectiveness of this strategy, the teacher needs to tailor the support to the needs of the learner. In any case, the teacher needs to show learners how to do it and practise using it, show what successful maps look like, and discuss the maps created with learners using epistemic questions (Why did you choose this? How are the two concepts related to each other? Could it have been done differently and how? And so on). Pupils in the last years of primary school, for example, can complete a partially completed concept map (Karpicke et al, 2014). This way, they have to think about which information they select from the text and how it relates to the subject matter already seen, but they don’t necessarily have to think about how they organise them into a folder just yet. Compare this to partially worked-out examples! Teachers can also work the other way around and invite learners to help select information by indicating which concepts or keywords should be included in the concept map. Learners can then focus their attention on the relationships between those concepts and how they represent them in a concept map. Students in higher education often have sufficient prior knowledge to generate a concept map themselves. After all, the more prior knowledge you have, the easier it is to link new information (Brod, 2020).

Scientific evidence

Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer refer to 25 studies in which mapping was investigated as a productive strategy. In 23 of these studies, mapping had a (moderately) positive effect, something that is also confirmed in other studies (Schroeder et al, 2018). More recently, Jeffrey Karpicke and colleagues conducted research into the effectiveness of mapping versus retrieval practice, with the latter found to be more effective.


Ausubel, D. P. (1960) The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51(5), 267-272.

Brod, G. (2020) Generative learning: Which strategies for what age? Educational Psychology Review.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09571-9

Enser, Z. & Enser, M. (2020). Fiorella & Mayer’s Generative Learning in Action. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Eppler, M. J. (2006). A comparison between concept maps, mind maps, conceptual diagrams, and visual metaphors as complementary tools for knowledge construction and sharing. Information visualization5(3), 202-210. PPL_IVS_9500131.dvi (uic.edu)

Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Learning as a generative activity: eight learning strategies that promote understanding. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science331(6018), 772-775.

Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, S. S. (2014). Retrieval-based learning: The need for guided retrieval in elementary school children. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(3), 198-206.

Mayer, R. E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning in Mayer, R. E. (ed.) The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. 2nd edn. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 43-71.

O’Day, G. M., & Karpicke, J. D. (2020). Comparing and combining retrieval practice and concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000486

Schroeder, N. L., Nesbit, J. C., Anguiano, C. J., & Adesope, O. O. (2018). Studying and constructing concept maps: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(2), 431-455.

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