One of the most important skills we can teach students is to identify the underlying principles that tie together different discrete items. This is because pattern recognition is central to expertise. Physics professors analyze problems by identifying the underlying categories that are needed to solve them, and medical students diagnose illnesses by seeing how certain diseases are manifested in common symptoms across different cases. In each case, the practitioner needs to develop the skill of seeing patterns that appear in different situations.
Mind mapping is one of the most powerful means of developing pattern recognition in students. A mind map is simply a visual representation of the relationship between underlying concepts and an item. The object of study is placed in the middle, and the underlying principles are represented as branches coming out from the object. The map is created by filling in those branches.
For instance, imagine that I am a literature teacher who wants to teach students to identify “The Hero’s Journey” (sometimes referred to as “The Mono Myth”) literary device that is repeated in books, movies, and plays. The Hero’s Journey divides a story into 12 stages, and so my goal is to teach students to identify those stages in different works. I could create a mind-map template with the central location representing a story that uses the Hero’s Journey, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
. Either the students or I would start the map by inserting an image from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
and a title in that location.
The mind map would then have 12 branches coming out of the center, representing the 12 stages of the journey. I can either prelabel each stage to give my students a head start or have them enter the labels.
The last step is to fill in the way in which each stage is represented in the story. For instance, the “Call to Adventure” stage is represented by Charlie’s finding the Golden Ticket. The students enter this information to complete the mind map. Take a look at the example at http://tinyurl.com/hq9lqb5
Because I want to teach students to identify the Hero’s Journey in a variety of stories, I would likely create the template and have them fill it in for different works, such as Star Wars
, The Hunger Games
, Dante’s Inferno
,and King Arthur
. I can also ask students to find their own examples of Heroes’ Journeys in popular culture or literary works and fill in mind maps for those as well.
A mind map not only helps students apply concepts to different examples; it also helps them retain information about the examples by assigning significance to different facts. Our minds are built to remember significance, not brute facts. For instance, people who win memory competitions do so by applying significance to each group of numbers they are given, such as a birthday, age, or address. That makes it much easier to recall the information.
Similarly, if I ask students to memorize 12 scenes from a play, they will struggle to do it, but by applying the Hero’s Journey template, they now have a hook to hang their memory on. So they can think to themselves “What is the Call to Adventure? Oh yes, that’s . . .”
Mind mapping can be applied to a variety of subjects. One study applied mind mapping to the issue of global warming, with the branches being causes, negative consequences, evidence, solutions, and efforts to address the problem (Wang et al. 2016). Researchers found that the mind-mapping exercise improved both learning achievement and student learning attitude. By applying the same categories of “causes,” “negative consequences,” and so on to different issues, the instructor can help cultivate the student’s ability to analyze different issues using fundamental questions.
As another example, a historian can help students analyze historical events by creating a template that puts an event in the middle and then providing common categories of analysis around it as branches, such as causes, major players, political influences, and outcomes. The students would be required to fill in the causes, major players, and other significant information for each event.
Similarly, I can use a mind map to help students analyze cases in my medical ethics class. The case would go in the center, and the questions I want them to ask about each case would be listed as branches, such as prognosis, patient wishes, family members’ opinions, and ethical principles implicated in the case. Applying this mind map over and over will help students to see cases in terms of the various categories. That will help students identify the right information in each case and not miss important considerations.
There are a variety of purchasable software programs for creating mind maps. It might be worth buying one, but I have used Google Drawings with much success. An instructor can easily create a template in his or her Drive site and share it with students. Students can create their own copies and fill in the information. Using Drive has the added advantage of the instructor’s being able to see students’ work without having to transfer files, because students can simply share their work with their instructor. The instructor can also provide feedback directly on the work within Drive. Moreover, faculty who are worried that a mind-mapping exercise overly simplifies concepts can have students connect information to broader descriptions via links from the categories to other Google docs.
Take a look at this brief tutorial from Richard Byrne on how to set up a Google Drawing mind map: http://bit.ly/2a1qNGo
Feel free to use this template to create your own mind maps: http://bit.ly/2alD2iJ
Take a look at some more free mind-map templates from North Virginia Community College: http://bit.ly/2a8KDhH
Finally, see numerous examples at Bigger Plate: http://www.biggerplate.com/mindmap-library
Wang, H. Y., Huang, I. and G. J. Hwang. “Effects of a Question Prompt-based Concept Mapping Approach on Students’ Learning Achievements, Attitudes and 5C Competences in Project-based Computer Course Activities.” Educational Technology & Society 19, no. 3 (2016): 351–364.