Using Concept Map to Prepare for Essay and Literature Review

One of the most common forms of assessment is essay writing. This is a method which allows students to write essays at all levels of education. The depth of essay varies depending on the level of study. This piece of writing provides information about preparing for writing the essay and the reading to be carried out for it, within higher education. Though, parts of it can be used at school level as well, particularly with regard to planning section.

Plan of essay:

Start your planning with a brainstorm (mind map) your topic / essay title / question

What you need to find out?

How much information do you need?

Think of keywords (concepts) so that a mind map or concept map can be created.

Concept mapping is on the whole good way to organise information, for it helps you to pull together information already known about a subject and comprehend new information making learning more meaningful. This also allows the learning process to become transparent and provides the learners with crucial schematic framework to help them relate concrete examples to the conceptual structures and arguments within the subject area explored.

It clarifies for learner and teacher, the key ideas to be focused on within the essay and is intended to represent meaningful relationships between concepts in the form of propositions. A concept map can be compared to a visual road map showing some of the pathways the student may take to connect meanings of concepts using propositions. The learner can take this concept map to the tutor to discuss the approach to the essay and whether all relevant concepts are being included in the essay.

A concept map allows prior experience and knowledge to be taken into consideration when integrating new concepts into the knowledge structure. This allows the concept to be externalised and encourages the learner to link old concepts to the new and in so doing promotes learning at a deeper level. Consequently the learning progresses from the known to the unknown.

A concept map is defined ‘a schematic device for representing a set of concepts meanings embedded in a framework of propositions.’(Novak & Gowan 1984, pp.15) The concept is usually enclosed in a circle or square and a connecting line and linking words showing the relationship between two concepts. Most concept maps are hierarchical and thus have the general concepts on top with specific ones situated below. There are cross links to show connections between different parts of the concept map. This cross linking allows for development of new knowledge by making new connections. However, students are allowed to be innovative. The main concept can be the nucleus of the design without taking away the true meaning of concept mapping, and allow the learner to explore different visual graphic formats which help in retaining the information to be learned.

Gathering of information:


From the concept map identify the concepts  that you wish to read about.

Remember to think about synonyms, variant spellings, abbreviations e.g.  carers, care, caring, caregivers, informal care, anaesthesia/anesthesia, anaesthetics/anesthetics etc.

Define your limits – language, date, geography, gender, age etc.

Decide what type of information you need and where you are going to look.  For example – Do you need books?  Do you need journal articles?  Do you need guidelines, statistics, government policies, research?


Think about where you are going to search:

Start with your library website and login to search and where available access full text resources (e-books, e-journals – full text of journal articles etc.)

Books – use Quick Search on the library website to search for books and e-books. 

Journal articles – use databases e.g. British Nursing Index, CINAHL, Medline, ASSIA etc. via the Advanced Search on the library website

Websites – use subject gateways e.g. Intute: Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Health, Intute Social Sciences, Intute: Medicine etc. via the Advanced Search on the library website

Guidelines and policy e.g. Department of Health, NICE, NHS Evidence, NMC via the Advanced Search on the library website

Statistics e.g. National Statistics, Department of Health, WHO via the Advanced Search – Health Statistics sub category on the library website

Use your keywords from you plan as search words.  Combine words and short phrases using AND, OR, NOT e.g. wound care and diabetes

Make use of other search tips for the database (truncation e.g.* or $, wildcards – ?, phrase searching etc.) and also online help and guides

Refine – be prepared to change your search words             


What you find – check for authority, quality, authorship, currency, reliability, quality and use of references, bias, research quality etc.


Keep details of what and where you search as you go along.  

Keep details of the full references for future use.  For websites include the web address (URL) and date you accessed the information. 

Remember to use the Harvard Referencing style.

Save to My Digital Library within Advanced Search or use RefWorks

Evaluating information for appropriateness:

Where has the information come from?

Is it from an academic publisher?

Have you used an academic database indexing journal articles, or library catalogue?

Is it from a peer reviewed journal?

Is it from an official source e.g. Government department, Royal College, Conference?

Have you used Google or similar? – academic credibility will need verification

Who wrote or published the information?

Can you establish the academic credibility of the author(s)? 

Have they got the authority to write what they are writing about?

Has the information been peer reviewed?

Has the author published other works?

What is the content and coverage suitable? 

What level is it?

Is the content primary research (new information), secondary research, an overview, literature review etc.?

Can you check for the accuracy and quality of the information?

What is the purpose of the source and what audience is it targeted at?

How does it compare with other sources?

Are there any obvious biases?  e.g. geographical focus, organisational viewpoint etc.

How good are the references – currency etc.?

Is it relevant to your work?

How up to date is it?  What is the date of publication?


Preparing for the essay is a crucial part of the process of essay writing. The use of concept map allows a framework for the essay to be structured. This is a visual map that allows the individual to ensure all relevant concepts are covered and also provides a structure to the way the essay unfolds. It forms the first point of review within the tutorial process. The concepts identified will indicate the areas of literature that have to be accessed to carry out appropriate reading. An organized approach to reading is necessary and use of search engines from libraries and internet is useful. Reading a wide variety of literature allows for fine tuning the concept map.  

The reading allows the concept map to expand with additional information, notations of varied references and even any quotes to be used to provide the details. At this point another tutorial to discuss the progress and the breadth and depth of essay that will be achieved can take place. After which the individual can begin to write the essay.