How to improve your learning: The mind map

Alex Booth
9 min readOct 23, 2021

Find out how to revolutionise your learning through producing effective mind maps

Image by Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay

I still remember the discussion that changed my approach towards learning. It followed a late diagnosis of dyspraxia at the end of my first year at university. Suddenly, the prior difficulties I had in organising my notes and learning (not to mention my general lack of spatial awareness and coordination) took on a whole new meaning.

Most significantly, though, the diagnosis meant I was entitled to attend a host of ‘study skills’ sessions. Alongside general strategies and support designed to improve my organisation and essay structure, a particular conversation (after an exhausting and ineffective few days revising for an exam) in these sessions stuck with me.

Me: I really struggle with revising and reviewing information.

Tutor: Ah, yes. It’s a nasty problem. Fortunately, I think I can help.

And with this simple statement, my approach to reviewing information, not to mention constructing knowledge, was revolutionised. It was here that I was introduced to the mind map.

The power of the mind map

When people are revisiting information, there needs to be a conscious effort made to link ideas together. After all, this is how effective learning is promoted. I have written previously about this when illustrating the Zettelkasten method of note taking and reflection. This approach to learning has helped immeasurably whilst completing my PhD. It is a fantastic activity when summarising papers or books and I would strongly recommend reading into it.

However, although a Zettelkasten is great for reflecting on reading, or similar stimuli, I find that the best way to visually link ideas — and promote a more robust thinking around concepts and ideas — is the mind map. It is a strategy I still regularly return to, all these years later. Even when my reading and research into effective learning has taken me to different approaches and strategies. My reasoning is simple. Mind maps are easy to create (when you know how) and, crucially, they really do work.

The benefits of mind mapping

There are many benefits of constructing mind maps . These range from their capacity to strengthen cognitive links between ideas, to breaking down complex information into more manageable chunks. This article is not going to dwell too much on these attributes, although I would encourage you to read into them should you need further convincing.

What I do tend to find that the mind map is regularly misunderstood, and generally misused. Too often, I see a mind map resembling the following:

‘Typical’ mind map (my own drawing)

Rather than being a reflective, adaptable demonstration of fluid knowledge, mind maps often resemble more a page of notes crammed into an often-indecipherable mash. This, I would argue, greatly reduces their impact and learning potential. If mind maps are to be truly effective in helping us learn, we need to consider how we can elevate them. How we can produce them in an appropriate way that maximises their potential.

Principles of a good mind map

The following outlines how to produce an effective mind map. Despite a number of useful websites and software that can aid you, I would recommend, at least at first, producing these by hand. That is the assumption that the following instructions/guidance will make. By all means, though, find a tool that suits you.

Regardless of the approach you take — software or hand-written — the centre of the mind map is the most significant component. Make sure you dedicate time to get this right. This, after all, is the focal point of your mind map.

To generate an appropriate focus, it helps to start thinking about which concept or key theme you wish to explore. The following suggestions might help:

· A theme that has spread a number of lessons/books;

· The topic of a speech you have to deliver;

· The major element of a report you need to write.

Try not to make your focus too specific, nor too broad. Balance is key here.

If you take the time to formulate an effective focus, however, you will see that mind maps can become responsive to different needs. They are not simply utilised for revising for exams (which is what I suspect most people view them as for). A well-constructed mind map can help in myriad ways and serve multiple purposes. From planning a project, preparing a report to colleagues, to summarising market research mind maps can become vital planning and productivity tools.

Once you have this central theme, it’s time to get mapping!

The technicalities of mind maps

A lot of articles on mind maps, although providing a useful overview on how they can summarise information, tend to overlook the importance of structuring your mind map. This is a major oversight.

To understand why, we need to consider that the purpose of a mind map is to mimic the neural pathways through your brain. As electrical signals or chemicals are shunted across synapses, information is processed. This leads to new knowledge formation and, ultimately, allows learning to take place.

The crucial element here is that, just in the same way that neurons interact with each other to aid in processing, our mind map needs to mimic, and promote, these interactions, too. We need to be structuring a mind map that flows naturally between concepts on the page.

The mind map tree

To this end, it helps to think of your mind map like a tree.

This may be a strange Segway into thinking about effective production of mind maps. It is interesting that, when talking about effective learning, Elon Musk (recognised as being quite an adept learner) stated that we can think of knowledge as a semantic tree. According to Musk, knowledge needs to be organised around, and connected to, key principles for us to make sense of it. It is through linking specialised ideas to these central concepts that we can build understanding, much in the same way that small twigs at the end of branches can be traced back to the parent trunk.

Our mind map needs to reflect this principle. Each component of your mind map should be connected to the central theme in the middle (the trunk). From this trunk, major strands (large branches) emerge, which are followed by smaller and smaller branches. Nothing on your mind map cannot be traced back to the central ‘trunk’ idea and all ideas flow gracefully from one to the next.

When we are designing our mind maps, I find it really helps to keep these principles in mind. Below is an example of a mind map, which illustrates this key point. This was a mind map I produced many years ago for my final year of university.

An example of a more effective mind map (my own work)

Here you can see how a mind map can be structured to maximise its potential.

Alongside the general ‘tree like’ appearance, there are several additional presentation principles worth drawing your attention to. At first glance, these may appear arbitrary or stylistic choices. However, each play a vital role in constructing an effective mind map.

1) Strands from key terms need to ‘flow’ through the word

The connections between ideas need to be fluid. The moment I add disconnect between my ideas; this makes it harder to follow the trail of thinking from one idea to the next. Notice how each elaborated component stems from the same node. This aids in the flow from one idea to another.

2) Each major strand from your mind map needs to be a different colour.

This helps break up the mind map. It makes it easier for you to organise your thinking around topics. It promotes continuity between the central principles around your mind map.

3) Each strand between the mind map gets smaller

Again, when picturing a tree, the branches on the extremities of the tree are smaller than those stemming from the trunk. By structuring a mind map so that the connections become narrower, it reinforces the continuity between each component. You associate the thicker trunks with the broader, guiding principles, and can trace the development of ideas to more nuanced.

4) Each component is comprised of just one or two words

This is a crucial part of mind mapping. Reducing information is absolutely vital for their effective functioning. If you notice, the vast majority of points on the mind map shown are single words, very few are more than two.

Remove the ‘safety net’

The temptation is when making notes and reviewing information, that you include as much information as you can.

After all, if it’s written down, then there is no danger of forgetting it.

The problem here is that this offers your brain a ‘get out of jail free’ card. There is no incentive for your brain to retain any of this information if you know it is all going to be reproduced, in its entirety, on the page in front of you.

By all means have a ‘master copy’ of notes, those preliminary ideas, or in-depth literature notes. When you construct your mind map, however, the emphasis should be on stripping away information. You need to force your brain to remember the ‘gaps’ or connections between the key words/concepts on your mind map.

In effect, this becomes the path through which knowledge and understanding is constructed. Anyone can remember a seemingly disparate connection of words. It is through articulating the links between them that understanding is built.

I remember attempting to produce a mind map this way for the first time. It was not easy, nor was it quick. Deciding which word is best to summarise a whole paragraph is tricky, so too is choosing where to put each term. Do you try and reduce a big idea to a single word, or try to break it down into a few additional strands? These are not simple questions to answer, and they rely on your brain to do a lot more work than you are perhaps used to.

In the same way as developing habits can take a while, it takes practice and patience to summarise information effectively. Just like any habit, stick at it, and it will get easier.

What to do with a mind map? The final step

So, you have finished producing your mind map. The process has likely taken a while. Your brain may be hurting a little. Now, what do you do with it?

There is still a crucial, final step in the mind map production.

It involves roping a friend (or mirror) in.

At the time I was using mind maps most frequently, I was fortunate enough to have a housemate who was not only on my course but was agreeable enough to sit and listen to me talk through my mind map ‘masterpieces’. Writing a mind map by yourself is one thing, talking it through to someone else, though, is another.

Give your mind map to an unwitting — but hopefully willing — friend/family member. Sit them down, grab a cup of tea, and talk

Now, because your mind map is well sequenced, streamlined, colour coded, it should be easy to follow. Not for you, though. You are not permitted to look at it. This is the job of your friend.

As you talk — with no prompts, no sneak peaks — your audience member can literally follow your train of thought as you follow, and expand, the ideas on your mind map. You should be able to see them tracing your pathway through the mind map, lingering on the key terms as you mention them, before shooting off in whatever direction your mind map has taken you.

If there is a particular feature of ‘strand’ of your mind map that you omit from your speech, your listener can prompt you using the word that you had forgotten:

What have you got to say about [insert prompt from mind map here]?

You missed a section that begins with [insert prompt from mind] map?

This is a crucial element of mind mapping. By the end of this process, I guarantee you will feel far more confident, comfortable and knowledgeable in whatever area you have mapped out.

If you cannot find someone else, then you can simply talk through the mind map yourself. This is a strategy I have adopted a few times. It perhaps is not quite as impactful, but is worth doing nonetheless.

Place the mind map on the other side of the room, talk through it, then pick it up and check if you have missed anything.

Concluding thoughts: Thinking slow with a mind map

Naturally, from reviewing your notes, to producing the mind map to talking it through with someone else will take time. How much depends on the complexity of the topic, breadth of the mind map etc. All in all, you can expect the process to take a good couple of hours. In my experience, you only need to do it once, though. Believe me when I say that it is time well spent. For an adaptable, impactful and effective form of learning, however, I can think of nothing better than the mind map.

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Alex Booth

Using educational insight and bad jokes to promote personal and professional development. Find out more at www.edugoat.com