Learning and Memory Course, Concept Maps

Lesson 6: Concept mapping.

Posted Jul 26, 2020

Facts and ideas can be mapped in ways that show how they relate to each other. The map drawing usually begins with outlined notes, because few people can think fast enough to construct a map in real-time during a lecture or video. In simple mind mapping, basic ideas are stated within circles, forming word clouds, and arrows are drawn from “parent” to “daughter” clouds. A useful addition is to write brief text along the arrows that explains what the relationship is, as illustrated in Figure 1. Cross-linking is not shown because it is not particularly useful for this simple information cluster.

 W. R. Klemm
Fig. 1. Simple concept map for the relationship of cells and their organelles.
Source: W. R. Klemm

Each circle object in the map can be expanded to whatever level of detail is required. In the map above, for example, from “History” you could add a circle for “Hooke” with a labeled connecting arrow saying “the first pioneer was.”

Think with Concept Mapping

Recall lesson 4, where we made the point that thinking about what you are trying to memorize makes the process easier and more reliable. Memory becomes easier when you think about the context and ancillary information associated with your memory targets. If the material you are trying to learn is complex, it often helps to convert your notes into concept maps. In concept maps, you draw circles or other geometric shaped word clouds to act as containers for key information, and then you think about how the various items in the circles relate to other items to create concepts. You draw connections among the various circles and write in a few words to state the nature of each relationship.

This process is like so-called mind mapping, except that concept mapping captures information as nodes in an interconnected network, unlike the tree-like structure of mind maps that have one central idea with multiple branches. Concept maps allow multiple cross-connections among the various idea nodes and typically emphasize multiple inter-dependent relationships among the nodes.

The basic task is to think about the relationships among the linked word clouds. A good practical way to automate thinking is to make concept maps as you read, listen to lectures, or watch education videos. With pencil and paper, write down key words in different locations on the page for major facts and ideas as you encounter them in the learning material and draw a circle around them. Then, perhaps after the lecture, video, or reading, examine each item one at a time and draw a line to any of the other items to which it is associated. Along each line, write in a few words to state what the relationship is. For example, you might link idea A with idea B with the description “makes me ask,” “led to the wrong idea that,” “leads to the truly original idea of,” or whatever might be appropriate. Note that comments work best if they are based on active verbs. 

This learning strategy is useful for several reasons:

  1. Maps give the learner a “bird’s eye view” of the big picture.
  2. Learners have to engage with the material (i.e. be especially mindful) in order to draw the map of key concepts.
  3. Learners have to organize information in meaningful ways, a process that requires them to think, which facilitates memory storage and retrieval.
  4. Information is displayed spatially, which in itself facilitates storage and retrieval. Memorizing things by mentally relating them to their location in space promotes remembering because the part of the brain that forms lasting memories (the hippocampus) is also the part of the brain that creates subconscious mental maps of objects in space.

How to Make the Maps

As with creating regular notes, doing it by hand is more engaging and more likely to be memorized easily. However, with mind maps created by hand, you can’t move objects around; you must erase and write back in. However, that is less of a problem if you have a computer with drawing capability. Another option is to create an initial step of placing sticky notes on a wall and moving them around physically to see what is the best spatial layout.

Map construction can be facilitated by computers. There are many elegant computer programs, and some quite satisfactory programs are free (search Google for “free mind maps”, I like X Mind). Most programs make it easy to move ideas around in the map and make multiple, non-linear links. Not all programs allow elaboration along linking lines, and you may have to write it in by hand. 

Actually, I think maps are a better memorization aid if they are hand-drawn, because that makes the process more personal, more flexible, and perhaps more engaging. If you change your mind about something you put in the map, you either have to erase it or re-draw the map. One option is to draw the map by hand at first and then re-do it later by computer.

Too much text annotation adds to clutter. Clutter is inevitable with broad topics that involve many ideas. Some computer programs create a map that requires a huge sheet of paper to get printed, and you can’t get it all on an 8.5 x 11 sheet without compressing the text so much it is unreadable. The solution here is to make multiple maps, one an overview of the whole thing (main ideas and first- or second-order sub-topics). Then each major sub-idea can have its own map.

Maps to Study By

Maps used for study purposes need to be kept compact and simple. Memorization facilitated by using icons or drawings to represent ideas is more effective than a lot of text. Some computer programs even have a library of icons you can select. Just make sure the icons are effective representations of the text they substitute. You might want to use text and a representative icon, but base your memorization rehearsals on the icon.

Concept maps not only direct you to think about and organize academic content, they also promote memorization because concepts are laid out in spatial arrays. Memorizing things by mentally relating them to their location in space promotes remembering because the part of the brain that forms lasting memories (the hippocampus) is also the part of the brain that creates subconscious mental maps of objects in space.

The study emphasis should be on the relationships. That will automatically help you memorize the factoids in the word clouds and stimulate your thinking to develop new understanding and insights.

W. R. Klemm
Source: W. R. Klemm