Exams / Revision

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.

More Mind Map Help:

Why the learning experience is greater than end results

A friend of mine struggled with tests as a child.  Any time an assessment was coming up, his mind would go blank and he’d panic.  The pressure of passing weighed down on him to such an extent that no manner of revision or study took him any further.

original photo by sashamd

original photo by sashamd

A couple of days before another test, the worry became too much and he asked his Dad for help.  His Dad, being a schoolteacher (and his Dad!), was a pretty good person to talk to.

Dad said, “You don’t need to worry about tests if you always try your best.  There’s more to life than getting full marks.”

The father went on to say that an interest in learning is far more important than focusing on a test result.  If you can honestly tell yourself that you worked with a view toward learning and discovery, the results should follow.  Get 0% or 100%, the mark doesn’t matter if you work hard in the process.  The results will come naturally.

My friend continued his preparation for the test.  This time, the learning was more fun.  He felt less stress and more connection with the learning materials.

On the day of the next test, he turned up at school with a totally different perspective.  There was a sense of peace. Terror didn’t pin him down.  Despite feeling nervous, he was confident.

And (surprise, surprise) he passed without difficulty and with high marks.  This success came about from one small change of focus.  Instead of concentrating on the end result, the focus was on the learning experience as a whole.

My friend has taken his Dad’s advice with him ever since and loved his time at university, while getting solid grades along the way.  He teaches other children now and I hope he’s able to pass on what he discovered to his pupils.

Unfortunately, schools are under so much pressure that many teachers are used to talking at their pupils rather than engaging in active conversation.  This doesn’t allow students to “perform at their optimum”.  At a time when pupils should be encouraged the way my friend was, they’re in real danger of being let down.

An Institute of Education (IoE) study on learning recently found that the advice my friend was given is effective in helping students achieve much better grades than those who are focused on results:

“In one study, some teachers were told to help pupils learn while others were told to concentrate on ensuring that their pupils performed well. The students under pressure to perform well obtained lower grades than those who were encouraged to learn.

“Another study showed that when teachers focused on their students’ learning, the students became more analytical than when the teachers concentrated on their pupils’ exam results.

“A further study, of 4,203 students, showed classroom behaviour improved when teachers focused on learning rather than grades.”
[Guardian]

At university, you are far more responsible for your own learning.  Luckily, that means you don’t have quite the same pressures with teachers focusing on your grades in the same way.  However, you need to make decisions over what you’re going to focus on.

So what will it be?  Focus on the result, or focus on the learning?  A focus on the learning allows the end result to develop favourably, whereas a focus on the result clouds the process.

Chris Watkins, the author of the IoE report says, “passing tests is not the goal of education, but a by-product of effective learning”.

Perhaps it’s time to give learning a fresh approach.  Involve yourself in the research.  Get interested in the material on offer and actively seek out more information.

Learning is key.  The focus on a First or 2:1 shouldn’t be necessary when you’re in it for the learning.

Bigger picture thinking: Why it helps to go back to basics

I’m a big fan of seeing the ‘bigger picture’.  I prefer to get a rounded view of what’s going on before getting too bogged down with the detail.

Once I have the basics in place, I’m all set to engage with the specifics, because I have built a foundation from which to explore.

This approach isn’t tough and should save time in the long run.  However, far more often you’ll find people working in the opposite direction.  First they take on the specifics, only to discover what’s surrounding them afterwards.

I fully understand the need to specialise.  If nobody dug deep, we wouldn’t advance in the spectacular ways we do.

But you can’t specialise convincingly until you’ve taken account of the bigger picture in the first place.  There’s nothing wrong with getting back to basics.  It’s so much easier to achieve a clear, focused attitude once you see the big concepts that are flying around you.

photo by dvs

photo by dvs

You’re likely deep in exams and revision hell right now.  Either way, think about your revision technique and how you best take information in.  At degree level and beyond, a bunch of specialist facts without a grounding or any basic connections won’t get you far.  You can memorise all sorts of detail, but putting it all into place is practically impossible.

At any time you feel uncertain, whether it’s in your study or an everyday situation, don’t be afraid to look outward at the basic information until you reach a point of understanding.

Imagine getting lost when you’re out.  The first thing you want to do is find a familiar landmark or a sign for a place you can get your bearings from.

Next time you don’t fully understand something, try stepping back a little and take into account the basics.  Search for that familiar landmark.  Keep stepping back, revisiting more basic concepts each time until you reach a point of understanding.  From here, look again at what seems to be getting in the way of your grasp of the topic.  Quite often it’s not a specific detail you’re missing, but a more general overview.

Can exams ever be fun?

Imagine a hobby you’ve loved for years.  Think how much time you’ve spent mastering the subject and getting to know so much about it.

Chances are, you’d have no problem explaining concepts, discussing what’s important to you, and debating best practice or proper technique.  You may even enjoy it.

But now imagine you have to answer questions about your hobby in an examination setting.  You’ve got three hours to answer questions on the subject.

photo by Juliana Coutinho

photo by Juliana Coutinho

Faced with something that you know well, it’s still possible to fold under the pressure of strict exam conditions.  It’s enough to strike fear in the hearts of the most confident minds.

That’s surely how it is for those people competing for fellowships at All Souls College, Oxford.

While the All Souls exams aren’t based on hobbies, a lot is based on general concepts or open questions and statements.  Far from being restricted, candidates are given a spring board from which they can jump off in whatever way they wish.

Questions include:

  • Is it immoral to buy a £10,000 handbag?
  • “I don’t care if anyone reads my books; I write for myself,” said the author of a half-dozen published novels. Is there anything wrong with this statement as a theory of art?
  • Why do Jane Austen’s novels continue to be so popular?
  • Can any public and political institutions be trusted to reform themselves?
  • Does celebrity entail a loss of dignity?
  • Is the desire for posthumous fame irrational?
  • Can a painting change the world?
  • Can (and should) Europe maintain its relatively high standard of living as compared with emerging economies?
  • Can you love someone if you don’t respect them?

These questions are taken from a 2008 paper, as printed in the Guardian.  Candidates had to answer three questions from a list of thirty-four.  Yes, 3 our of 34 questions.  There was a lot to choose from.  Something for everyone!

When I look at the questions on offer, I have vast, philosophical answers for them all.  I start drafting answers in my head and start having a lot of fun with what’s been asked.

All Souls College has just scrapped the most open and daunting paper.  Every year, candidates were given a card with a single word on it.  It could have been “Morality”, “Harmony”, or “Water”.  One random word to write about for three hours within a scholarly essay.

Again, when I read about this exam offering, I almost squealed with glee at the possible answers I could have given.

Okay, perhaps my enthusiasm can go a bit far… 🙂

Still, the idea of having such free reign feels like something to celebrate.  It’s part of what makes academic study worthwhile.

When I tweeted about the demise of the one-word exam, I wasn’t the only person to feel a pang of sadness.  Kate Maltby called the news “a real shame” and said it “always sounded fun”.  Krishna Omkar said, “That is a great shame about All Souls, it was the one paper I enjoyed”.

Krishna makes a good point about enjoying the exam.  It’s easy to forget that while an exam may be held under timed conditions and (usually) without the help of books and notes to guide you, the purpose of an exam is to discuss or examine what you have already studied and explored.  There are not meant to be trick questions.

“The examiner is not concerned to expose the bottomless pits of ignorance in the student’s mind (however much he may suspect them to be there).  He is interested rather in the little hills of erudition which also diversify the scenery of an otherwise even plain.  In this he relies in the last resort upon the student to help him.  The student can help best not by endeavouring to conceal the pits but by drawing attention with a measure of pardonable pride to the presence of the little hills.” – C. A. Mace [The Psychology of Study]

The beauty of such open ended questions and invitations to discuss something is that you’re free to add your own questions and even to question what is being questioned to an extent.

Exam essays do not have a specific right and wrong.  There is no single correct answer.  You must attempt to answer the question and show that you grasp the relevant concepts, but you have the power to make it your own answer.

When you’re sat in the exam hall, whatever the subject is and however prepared you think you are, ignore the stuff you’ve forgotten and set aside any worry that you’re ignorant of important information.  Work on what you do know and build upon what you have learned.  You’re there to create a wonderful scene with your ‘little hills of erudition’.  You may just turn some molehills into mountains.