Mind maps are visual representations of a central topic and its relationship(s) to other themes and concepts. Mind maps blend creativity and logic and can be a helpful learning tool for many different types of learners, particularly visual, spatial, and active learners. A non-linear approach to learning and problem solving, mind maps prompt learners to think critically and to create illustrations of relationships in a visual-spatial representation. Mind maps can be utilized in a wide variety of contexts including discussions, brainstorming sessions, problem solving, concept development, analysis, and note taking.
As illustrated in the figure below, mind maps generally consist of:
- A central node containing a word, idea, theme, or concept, often represented or accompanied by an image
- Primary branches from the central node leading to primary nodes containing related words, ideas, themes, or concepts
- Secondary branches from primary nodes leading to secondary nodes containing related words, ideas, themes, or concepts
- Connector branches illustrating relationships between nodes
Because mind maps are primarily illustrations, text is often cursory and referential while color, symbols, lines, and pictures have more importance.
While most mind maps, including the basic format described above, are hierarchical, it is also possible and sometimes appropriate to create non-hierarchical mind maps. This would be the case when any related concept might be equally as relevant to the central concept, and is often the result of brainstorming sessions. Unlike traditional brainstorming sessions, mind maps are more dynamic than linear list-making.
Application to All Courses
With some creativity, mind maps can be utilized in nearly any educational context, in learning as well as in assessment.
Mind maps are useful tools for both instructors and students in the process of teaching and learning.
Teachers can use mind maps to:
- Organize and prepare lecture notes
- Map course content
- Elicit and organize student responses
- Identify gaps in student learning
Students can use mind maps to:
- Take notes on a lecture or reading
- Summarize and organize notes
- Study for exams and quizzes
- Prepare for and participate in group work
- Work through complex problems
- Outline content to prepare for papers and presentations
- Illustrate content for presentations
Mind maps can be utilized to assess learning at any level. For instance:
- Students can illustrate knowledge in a mind map that requires recall, identification, definition, and/or description of key terms and concepts in any course.
- Students can evidence understanding in a mind map that requires descriptions and explanations of characters and themes in literature; associating evidence, data, and experiments with laws of physics; or contrasting the characteristics of major artistic movements in an art history course.
- Students can explain evaluations in a mind map that orders, appraises, and judges arguments and evidence in a law course; that discriminates between options and summarizes significant data in a logic course; that articulates an argument, with support, in a philosophy course.
- Students can demonstrate creation in a mind map that adapts, modifies, and rearranges previously recorded data according to new concepts in an anthropology course; that generalizes extensive datasets to a few overarching categories or concepts in a sociology course; that illustrates a complex hypothesis, along with variables and constants, in a chemistry course.
When using mind maps, or assigning them to students, emphasize that brevity is a virtue, and take advantage of their visual dynamism.
- Text should be limited to simple phrases or single words
- Use icons and images where appropriate
- Use color and/or styles (strong, weak, or dashed lines, for instance) to represent different relationships
Always consider the desired outcome of your use of mind maps and anticipate where students may encounter challenges. Align learning objectives with assessments and activities and remember not to use a tool “for fun” or simply to utilize a different technology.
Tools for creating, sharing, and presenting mind maps vary in complexity, with different user interfaces and options for styles, size, and collaboration. Keep in mind that more complex tools will require more training for both instructors and students than simpler tools. The complexity of the tool should reflect both what is required to successfully complete the assignment and how often students will utilize the tool, which will affect their level of comfort, familiarity, and competency.
- Web-based tools
- Illustration software
- Paper and pencil or whiteboard
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