Mapping the Terrain: How To Help Your Students Wrap their Minds Around Big Ideas

By Christine Scherer

What Are Mind Maps?

Learning researchers in the 1960s proposed mind maps as a way to make learning happen more quickly. Tony Buzan, with degrees in such varied fields as psychology, mathematics, English, and the general sciences, drew attention to mind maps in his writings about strategies to enhance memory and increase learning (Murley, 2007). In her piece Using Mind Maps as a Teaching and Learning Tool to Promote Student Engagement, Zipp (2011) explains “Mind mapping is a learning technique which uses a non-linear approach to learning that forces the learner to think and explore concepts using visuospatial relationships flowing from a central theme to peripheral branches which can be interrelated” (para. 2) Mind maps allow you to combine information from an array of instructional materials (books, articles, lectures, videos) and display the information visually (Cooper & Edwards, 2010). First done on paper and now using computer applications, mind mapping is described as the “Swiss Army Knife of the Brain” due to its use by teachers and learners (Murley, 2007).

What Do Mind Maps Look Like?

To build a mind map, place the main topic at the center of the map. Then, draw lines to related subtopics to symbolize the connection between the main topic and the subtopic. Draw additional lines from the subtopics to supporting ideas to symbolize the connection between the subtopic and supporting ideas. It is important to include pictures in your mind map to illustrate the topics and to enhance retention of the material (Cooper & Edwards, 2010; Murley, 2007). Below is an example of a mind map.

Mind map on the subject of exploring/attacking problems.

Retrieved from  (Illumine Training Website).


Why Are Mind Maps Used?

There are multiple reasons to add mind maps to your teaching toolbox. In her article, Technology for Everyone: Mind Mapping Complex Information, Murley (2007) points out that mind maps are more dynamic than outlines and presentations, and “the radiating design keeps the main topic or idea central…This arrangement keeps the big picture in focus and makes relationships and connections easier to see” (p. 175). When all related topics are in one place with relationships and topics represented by images and symbols, it is easier to retain the information and see the big picture. Using a mind map–a systematic and visual depiction of ideas–eases the task of making sense out of a lot of text material, particularly when the materials span across different sources. Mind maps can be used by students and instructors to organize and review information, brainstorm ideas, and synthesize ideas from multiple sources (Cooper & Edwards, 2010; Murley, 2007).

How Are Mind Maps Used?

Students can build mind maps from written lecture notes. With the written notes as a guide, students can depict the main topics and the relationships among the topics. Doing this exercise will help students see what the most important ideas are and identify gaps in their understanding of the material. Students can also use mind maps to outline, organize, research, and write papers. For example, mind maps can function as a brainstorming tool students use to sketch out the landscape of the topic, jotting down ideas from multiple sources (Cooper & Edwards, 2010; Murley, 2007).

Instructors can use mind maps to map out ideas for lectures, lessons, or courses. For example, referring to the course description as a guide, you can brainstorm ideas about the main topics and key questions of your course using a mind map. After you have designed your course, you can make a mind map to represent the course and refer to the mind map throughout the course to help students see where they are in the course. In each module overview, you can refer to the map and explain where you are or ask students to explain where you are. You can also use mind maps as prompts to help your students make sense of information. You can give students a mind map with a few topics filled in and ask them to fill in the remainder of the topics by listening to a lecture or doing the week’s readings (Cooper & Edwards, 2010).

What Are Some Online Tools I Can Use To Make Mind Maps?

There are multiple free online tools available to you and your students to create mind maps. Check out  Cmap, Inspiration, MindGenius, Creately, and Visio for a few examples. For more information on how to maximize the potential of mind maps, talk to your Learning Designer.


Edwards, S., & Cooper, N. (2010). Mind mapping as a teaching resource.The clinical teacher, 7(4), 236-239.

Murley, D. (2007). Technology for Everyone…: Mind Mapping Complex Information. Law Libr. J., 99, 175

Zipp, G. (2011). Using Mind Maps as a Teaching and Learning Tool to Promote Student Engagement. Retrieved from


Chacón, F. (2003). Mind-mapping for web instruction and learning.Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Conole, G. (2008). New schemas for mapping pedagogies and technologies.Ariadne, (56).

Davies, M. (2011). Concept mapping, mind mapping and argument mapping: what are the differences and do they matter?. Higher education, 62(3), 279-301.

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