You’re past the midpoint of the semester and may now be realizing whenever you reference old material in a discussion students become lost. They may be having difficulty recalling the previous material or do not see how the concepts relate. The figure below could represent this conflict. Each box represents different modules. The material was presented with A first, then T, followed by E. If students recall all three concepts, they are able to do so in the same sequence as presented. But the “concepts” also make sense if you start with E and trace the link backwards, the upward arrow on the right. If you introduce another concept L, you can ask students to make a connection between concepts A and E while bypassing the content in chapter T, the arrow and box on the left of the diagram. There are of course an even larger number of ways these concepts could be connected in a way that makes sense. So it feels quite limiting if students cannot make connections beyond the initial presentation order.
One tool I’ve used in classes to help students make broader, more diverse, and adaptive connections is the mind map, also known as an idea web. In what follows, I’ll explain what mind maps are, share some ideas for using them, discuss how they’re useful for learning, and then conclude with tips for overcoming some of the challenges you may experience implementing mind maps in your classes.
What Are Mind Maps?
Mind maps are visual representations of concepts. They begin with the main idea or topic in the middle. Then key words or images radiate outward to increasingly specific examples or tangent ideas.
The example of a mind map below includes some tips on how to create mind maps. This video creates a similar mind map while explaining why certain elements are important.
You can also create idea webs that are much simpler, no pictures, no different colors or branch widths: just a series of boxes or circles of text that are connected by lines. You can create them with pen and paper or there are a number of computer options, from SmartArt in Microsoft Word to Popplet and so on. A few other options and how to choose between them are discussed here.
Why Are Mind Maps Useful?
Mind maps aid retention and recall. Multiple works discuss the importance of linking new material to existing information to retain and later recall the new material. Since mind maps are personalized and encourage multiple connections, they assist with this process.
Mind maps also help with higher-order processing. Students can apply key concepts by providing examples, usually at the end of branches. They can analyze and summarize key points. Creating an idea web requires reducing information to a few key words or images. When you trace a branch from the center outward you can reduce a broad topic to a concrete and specific example. Linking branch concepts succinctly ties together elements.
Students can use mind maps to assemble and create essays. The activity of making multiple connections between similarly themed concepts can suggest different orders for papers and help smooth transitions. Mind maps can also demonstrate areas where more detail is needed or where a student may have a particular interest worth exploring. Thus, idea webs can be used in the brainstorming or revision stages of writing.
Potential Mind Map Challenges
Some students may have little experience with idea webs. You must take the time to introduce how to create them. Fortunately, this does not take long (look how quickly I did this at the beginning of this article). Introducing the context, why mind maps are useful, is also important. At the end of an upperclassmen course I taught, I asked students to review the mind map activities we had completed throughout the course. I received feedback indicating that some students felt this activity was more suited for elementary school. Since students had not used this tool in other college classes they saw it as undermining their intelligence or not useful. Once I started discussing why I think idea webs are useful tools before class activities, students appreciated them more as meaningful study aids and tools for learning.
Mind maps can be highly personal. Acclimating students to mind maps by describing how they can be created and why they are important is not the only challenge in implementing them in a classroom. Without similar prior knowledge or experiences certain connections may not make sense to other individuals. For this reason I have found it more useful to have students create their own maps rather than lead a discussion around one already created. If I use an idea web that I’ve created, I limit content to topics already covered. I would not introduce new examples or applications via a pre-constructed web.
Students may feel uncomfortable with the nonlinear nature of how ideas are presented. Recall the experiences you’ve encountered similar to the one introducing this article. Students may prefer static, limited connections when learning new material. While idea webs ultimately help create order between concepts by demonstrating the links, the free-flow nature can sometimes overwhelm. Reminding students how to read mind maps, from the inside outward, can help. Repeated exposure to idea webs also helps build familiarity, leading to more comfort with their use. Of course, not all tools work for all students.
Many students will benefit from the fact that mind maps present material and connections visually. Mind maps foster connections between concepts and new and learned content. These links can assist with retention and in developing high-order learning. For these reasons I consider mind maps to be an important tool in the classes I teach.
What other writing aids, learning tools, or study techniques do you present to your students? Have you used mind maps in your classes and have other tips to share? Share with us in the comments section below or via social media using #iteachmsu.
Danielle Kaminski is a PhD candidate in the Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics Department at MSU. Her research interests include sports and labor economics as they relate to public policy and local and regional development. She is also interested in teaching, particularly in methods for increasing student engagement and higher-order thinking.
- For example, see chapter 4, p.67-101, “Make It Stick” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel (2014) for an explanation of the learning process with examples of strategies that enhance it. For a more formal discussion of consolidation refer to Dudai, Yadin. “The neurobiology of consolidations, or, how stable is the engram?,” Annual Review of Psychology 55 (2004), 51-86.↩