Two of the most efficient learning tools are flashcards and mind maps. While flashcards are great for practicing recall (the mother of learning), mind maps are an excellent tool for building semantic trees of knowledge, connecting core ideas and remembering key facts more easily.
Both tools are scientifically proven to work perfectly and they are fun to use, you just mustn’t be lazy with getting the most from your intellectual potential.
Mind maps were invented in the 1970s by Tony Buzan, a best-selling author and researcher (mind mapping is a registered trademark of his organization). He also wrote a free eBook on mind mapping that covers all the scientific research and benefits of mind mapping in the learning process.
Mind maps are efficient, simple, intuitive and fun; absolutely a tool you should use. In this article you will learn:
The semantic tree of knowledge
The core idea of mind maps when it comes to learning is that they don’t only help you learn the individual dots (or the so-called knowledge chunks), but also to connect the dots in the right way.
You can imagine your brain’s neurons that hold information as a city’s infrastructure. When you are learning something new, it’s similar to constructing a new building in the city. You never build a new building on its own, it needs to be connected with the rest of the city, with roads, electricity and other utilities.
It’s the same when you are learning something new. You always have to connect new knowledge to what you already know. And you have to connect new pieces of information as much as possible among themselves. Like if you wanted to build a new neighborhood.
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That’s how neurons grow and get interconnected. And mind maps are a great tool for having a very structured overview (map) of the topic (city) and to see how specific elements are connected (buildings, infrastructure). That’s why mind maps are so efficient; because our brains don’t think in a linear way, but dynamically and visually.
On a well-prepared mind map, you can quickly grasp the key concepts and see the connection between them. You see the big picture and individual chunks of information, and you can easily break topics down into smaller chunks to connect them in new ways or prepare a step-by-step learning plan for yourself.
Mind maps are a great tool for organizing, structuring, brainstorming, arranging, prioritizing, memorizing and learning new complex topics. They are like semantic trees of knowledge you plan to master.
The different ways how mind maps can be used
Mind maps are a great tool for semantic representation of knowledge, practicing recall and using image representations for text. But If we take a step further, mind maps are a much more powerful tool that can be used for many other things, besides learning – they are a great tool for boosting your productivity, memorization, creativity and analytical thinking.
Here are all different ideas for what you can use mind maps for:
- Understanding complex topics
- Brainstorming ideas
- Management planning
- Business Analysis (PESTLE, SWOT)
- Any other type of planning
- Organizational chart
- Process definition
- Event planning, meetings and agendas
- To-do lists
- Writing projects or note-taking
- Problem solving and decision-making
If you are a little bit creative, you can employ mind maps in many other ways – for book summaries, travel planning, delegating tasks, personas, performing self-reflection, personal diary, and pros-cons analysis. You can also make your own knowledge database based on a collection of mind maps.
The best thing is that creating mind maps is extremely simple, efficient and inexpensive. There is not much that you need in order to create a mind map, and that’s the beauty of it.
There are only two things you really need (besides not being lazy):
- A big sheet of paper and colored pens and pencils (or a software solution)
- Your brain and imagination (or proper resources if you’re learning a new topic)
Process of preparing a professional mind map
Creating a mind map is not rocket science, nevertheless there are a few recommendations and best practices to follow. The first step is to decide about the basic outline and design of your map. Here are a few elements you can decide about:
- Will you make digital or physical mind map?
- Mind map structure: Radial map, right map, left map, organizational chart map
- General mind map design: Fonts, font size, colors, backgrounds
- How you will present relationships on the mind map
- Use of specific elements for highlighting purposes (tags, icons, notes etc.)
- Will you include multimedia elements (photos, sounds, links etc.)
- Depth of the mind map (how complex will it be and with how many sub-branches)
- Will you share the mind map with others
You can find several collections of already prepared mind maps online (more about that later), to get a general idea of what kind of mind maps you can create. Browse a little bit among them and find a design you really like and copy it (great artists steal, right?).
I did such research and in my experience, certain designs that other people really like make my brain hurt, because they are too graphical. I like my mind maps clean with more emphasis on keywords than graphical richness. That’s why I bought a software solution that enables me to meet these design standards.
Well, you have to find out what suits you and your brain best. After you have a general idea of what kind of a mind map you wish to create in your head, outlined on a piece of paper or in digital software, it’s time to build your mind map. The process is very simple and intuitive.
1. The main topic or central idea is always in the center
When creating a mind map, you should always start in the center with a landscape oriented paper or digital design space. That gives brain all the freedom needed to expand ideas and express itself in all directions.
It’s recommended that the central topic is very well seen, with big letters and emphasized background. It also makes sense to include an image or photo for the central topic of the mind map.
2. Creating main branches, sub-branches and parking list
A mind map should be structured as a semantic tree of the topic you are exploring. The main branches represent the main chapters of the topic and every sub-branch goes into more detail. With branches, you subdivide the main topic. With that approach, you can easily see how things are structured, related and connected among themselves.
The idea of branches is not only to have a structured overview of a certain subject, but also to concur with how our brain functions. It’s the so-called radiant thinking. As mentioned before, we don’t learn in linear, but in a fluid way. Your brain maps out an idea using associations and triggers, and likes to connect things together into something visible and structured. That’s what branches are all about.
While you are creating a mind map, you can have a list of unbranched items (often called a parking list). The parking list includes all the items that you don’t know where to put yet. Then while you are building your branches and sub-branches with keywords, you can see if any of the unbranched items from the parking list fit into the picture. Sooner or later, you will find a place where unbranched items fit perfectly.
3. Adding keywords and coloring the branches
You should create branches and sub-branches based on keywords or short phrases. It’s very important to keep the mind map clean and not to clutter it by copy-pasting text or adding long sentences. If possible, use a single keyword for branches and sub-branches. You can help yourself find the right keywords by asking yourself 5Ws – why, what, when, who and where. You can add how and for whom to the list of questions.
Most often, different branches are visually presented in different colors. Colors add vibrancy to mind maps, it’s easier to distinguish between the branches and in the end, it makes them visually more attractive. You brain also likes images and by using several different colors, the mind map appears more like an image. Remember, your brain loves colors; and images, which leads us to the next point.
4. Adding multimedia elements
You probably know that an image or a photo is worth a thousand words. Having an image representation for text or for a certain chunk of knowledge is a well-known and proven learning strategy. Your brain thinks more or less in pictures, even more so if you are a visual learner.
Therefore, it’s extremely important to add symbols, icons, images and photos to the central topic, branches and even to the more difficult keywords to remember.
If you make a physical mind map, you can cut an image out of a magazine or something and stick it to the paper. You can even draw it if you have the talent. And if you are using digital mind mapping software, you can simply insert an image where it makes sense.
5. The final touch – design and tidying up
In the process of making a mind map, you usually always include a few supporting elements that you don’t need later (notes, visual aids, unparked items etc.). You should delete them and then rearrange your branches properly and give the final touch to the mind map. It’s much easier to do that with digital mind maps, that’s why you should go digital if you don’t have a strong argument against it.
An important part of the final touch is also designing a mind map properly. You should partly design the mind map already in the previous steps of the process (coloring branches etc.), but as the last step a mind map needs small (or sometimes even bigger) design corrections that make it visually attractive and coherent.
Design your mind map in a way that you will feel the flow of knowledge.
Here are a few key recommendations for keeping your mind maps clean and to the point, even though it’s important that you develop your own style:
- Absolutely use colors, but do it in style, so you don’t get lost in the mind map
- Use enough spacing between branches and sub-branches to visually separate ideas
- You can use borders to emphasize specific, more important parts of the mind map
- Curved lines are supposed to be more interesting for the brain than straight ones
- You can use different line thickness, arrows and uppercase words to further design your mind map
- Include as many multimedia elements as possible, but have a clean, uncluttered final map
Physical versus digital mind maps and mind mapping software
The very basic decision you have to make is if you should go for a physical mind map or a digital one. That’s a pretty simple decision. Go for the physical mind map only in the following cases:
- If you need a connection between the brain and the hand (note taking, complex brainstorming etc.)
- For simple maps, if you don’t plan on updating and rearranging them several times in the process
- If you have artistic talent and you like to create and showcase your mind maps
- If you need them in the physical form as a school project or in any kind of presentation (and if the printed digital version is not suitable)
The problem with physical mind maps is that they can’t be updated easily and even more, they are inflexible. You can’t just rearrange branches on the physical mind map on the spot or redesign them.
So if you aren’t making a mind map for a school project that needs to be presented on paper, or if there is no other substantial reason for making a physical map, I suggest you go for the digital option. Sometimes you can also make a physical mind map (if you need to use the creative connection between the brain and the hand) and then digitalize it.
The most popular mind mapping software solutions
There are many powerful mind mapping solutions out there, some of them completely free and some of them quite expensive. The most popular mind mapping software applications (among the 40+ options that you have) are:
- Mindjet MindManager (that’s the one I use, since it’s very clean and very similar to MS Office tools; but unfortunately it’s quite expensive)
- You can even use Microsoft Word for mind mapping
Most software solutions have very similar functionalities. I suggest you try a few of them (most of them have a free trial) and see which one suits you best.
Compare features like types of items you can add or attach to your branches (links, images, folders etc.), design capabilities (coloring, adding notes, visualizing relationships), offered export formats, keyboard shortcuts, collaborative mind mapping options, available templates, revision history, integrations, overall user experience and, of course, price.
Collections of already created mind maps
There are many already created mind maps that can help you see the semantic tree of different topics. I absolutely suggest you make your own mind maps. You can use other people’s mind maps to get design inspirations, additional ideas for what you can add to your branches or if you just need a quick overview of a certain topic.
The most popular sites with collections of mind maps are:
- Maps for That
- Google MindMapping Community
- TopicScape – Mind maps Directory
Now create your first mind map
A properly prepared mind map enables you to see the big picture and detail information at once, you can more easily remember complex information and see the relations between knowledge chunks. It encourages imagination, associations, concentration, retention, interest in the subject, it’s a nice visual representation and, in the end, it’s also fun tool to learn. There are numerous ways to employ mind maps.
Out of pure fun, love for learning and curiosity create a mind map for a topic that interests you. Follow the next steps:
- Research software options and choose the one that suits you best.
- Explore other people’s mind maps a little bit and decide what kind of mind maps work the best for you (structure, design etc.). You can even prepare a few templates for yourself.
- Then choose a topic and start creating. I promise, your brain will love it and your competences will dramatically improve.