Mind mapping to help study

A mind map is a great aid to exploring subjects and concepts.  From the initial word or outline, you take a creative journey to uncover many links and associations.

Mind Map Guidelines (from Wikipedia)

Example of a Mind Map (from Wikipedia)

Mind maps help you produce a more visual representation of linked ideas, allowing you to dig deeper without losing sight of your original purpose.  You can take the research journey full circle by using your sub-links to find more information, then by re-associating your new findings through the key concept you started with.

If you’ve not seen them before, or want a recap of the basics, check the video at the bottom of this post for an example of a mind map in development.  For remembering key facts and forming a basic, overall awareness of something, they’re great.  You can easily add more to them and shape them in a way that benefits you.

There are a huge number of services for creating mind maps on computer and online.  Chuck Frey has put together a huge resource list of all the mindmapping tools currently available.  There are so many tools out there, you’re spoilt for choice.

But be warned.  Mind maps aren’t a perfect study tool: “A disadvantage of mind mapping is that the types of links being made are limited to simple associations.  Absence of clear links between ideas is a constraint.” (Davies)

In other words, mind maps don’t hold all the information in themselves.  They can be used for stepping beyond the basics, but they require your effort to do so.  It is only through your own work before and/or after compiling a mind map that you can gain greater insight in your area of study.

I’ve used mind maps in the past to help me gain an overview or to prize basic ideas from my mind.  But, as I mentioned above, I cannot rely on them to give me a complex understanding or a range of differing views.

I used mind maps in two different ways:

  1. To explore where I needed to go next in order to make learning leaps;
  2. To highlight key elements of prior learning to serve as a simple reminder or as a way to visually link what I was studying.

Mind maps took me beyond linear thinking.  They were a way of getting linear thoughts and creative processes working together.  I still had a structure in the mind maps, but it was less restrictive, allowing me to play with ideas more freely.

The use of this technique serves to benefit your study.  Davies explains:

“Learning simply by reading textbooks, or listening to a presentation (incorporating linear-structured Powerpoint slides) is far more likely to result in non-learning or rote learning (Hay et al. 2008).  However, if students are asked to study, draw or manipulate a map of what they have learned, this may yield improved learning because it is more usable.  This is because maps aid in linking new information with what they already know.”

When faced with a visual representation of key concepts and thoughts:

  1. You are no longer limited to a linear way of thinking.  You gain an extra dimension to what you’re learning;
  2. The text is placed in a more visual representation (possibly with actual pictures), which aids learning further;
  3. Links are more obvious and it’s easy to drill down to sub-topics.

Mind maps are also great for making rough plans for an essay or dissertation.  You can take all the ideas/concepts you wish to write about, branch off to different areas of your essay (introduction, methods, references, conclusions, etc.), and add to your mind map as you see fit.

Jumping between unrelated elements of the same overall topic is much easier in this visual form.  You don’t risk losing your place or making so much mess on the page.

And if you use Wikipedia to get a grasp of topics, WikiMindMap brings the data to you in a mind map style.  It helps most when you’re exploring a subject and want to find related items to research further.

I’ve already quoted twice from a new journal article by Martin Davies.  His paper looks at differences between different types of mapping, including ‘concept maps‘ and ‘argument maps‘.  These other types of mapping are less likely to be used in an everyday study scenario.  Davies says that “students will have to do a considerable amount of initial reading and thinking and struggle with key concepts before coming to an understanding of the exact task they need to complete.  It is only after this process that the student can map an argument.”

Nevertheless, Davies moves on to discuss the future of ‘mapping’ in education and suggests that different types of maps can benefit at different stages of research and writing.  New, “as yet unrealised and potentially complementary functions” may help students greatly once software can provide the relevant links.

The possibilities have potential to be pretty impressive.  If you want the academic lowdown, the paper is in the journal ‘Higher Education’, which is free to view until December 31st 2010.  The paper can be viewed here.

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