Using Mind Maps to Improve Assessment and Group Work

Chalkboard with brain and mind map drawn on it

In our small language department, we each teach a different foreign language (Chinese, French, German, and Spanish), but we share the core learning goal of student understanding of culture. However, we have often been frustrated by the lessons proposed in our language textbooks for learning about culture; these lessons usually come in the form of disconnected short readings with comprehension questions. As we re-evaluated our teaching, we sought new ways to teach culture, and above all, ways to develop our students’ ability to make cultural connections, a skill that is part of the learning goals of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Together, we decided to experiment with ways that mind maps could support our endeavors. Mind maps were originally designed to improve creativity, organization, and critical thinking, allowing free association and loose connections (Buzan). Over time, they have also become learning tools in educational contexts–especially for note-taking, brainstorming, and studying for exams (Erdem, Farrand, Bandera, Mugnai). Our group hoped that the mind map’s focus on associations and connections would offer opportunities for learning that were particularly relevant to teaching cultural connections.

In each of our classes, we assigned mind maps in the beginning of the semester, asking students to share their knowledge about the target culture using three or four topics as a starting point. We gave students a similar assignment at the end of the semester, either on their own or in groups. Through our experiment, we discovered that mind maps are an excellent tool for assessing students’ previous knowledge. They also can serve as a summative assessment tool for students’ understanding of connections. Finally, mind maps provide opportunities for students to co-create cultural understanding together.

Our discoveries took place in language classes, but many other fields can benefit from using mind maps in similar ways. Here we offer a few ideas of the benefits of mind maps that can be widely applied to other subject areas.

Reading the room

To begin the project, we started the semester by asking our students to create a mind map to share their current knowledge of the culture(s) related to their language learning. The mind maps established a baseline for student cultural knowledge. Our introductory students often come to us with varying degrees of understanding of the languages and cultures that we teach. Many of these understandings are well-worn, predictable, and false, like the trope that Chinese speakers don’t use silverware or that French people wear berets. The mind maps certainly reveal that students continue to hold predictable stereotypes. What the mind maps add, however, is a more nuanced understanding of other cultural knowledge that a specific student or group of students might bring to class. When students are left to associate freely about their knowledge of a culture, they provide key information about what they already know and where their interests lie. The instructor can then adjust the course as needed. For example, in the Chinese class, several students mentioned LGBTQ issues in their mind maps. In response, the instructor added a mini-unit on Chinese pronouns and LGBTQ life in Chinese-speaking areas. In the same class, one student wrote an insensitive description in the mind map. This tipped the instructor to spend more time on these issues. Using mind maps in this way can help determine quickly where the points of interest and cultural clichés exist so we can adapt our lessons accordingly.

Summative assessment

At the end of the semester, students completed a second set of mind maps. The purposes were two-fold. We wanted to assess students’ progress in cultural learning: Were they able to find more nuanced ways of understanding the target culture over the course of the semester? In addition, we wanted to evaluate the success of our own teaching: Did we deliver the instruction we claim we do and set up students to reach the learning goals?

Students’ mind maps at the end of the semester featured an expanded array of cultural concepts and keywords that mostly went beyond the stereotypes found in the first set of mind maps. For instance, in the German beginners’ class, students added further cultural celebrations to the ubiquitous “Oktoberfest” from the beginning of the semester. In addition, cultural lessons from the course formed the core of these new mind maps, largely replacing the stereotypes in the first set of maps. For instance, in the French course, student mind maps were more streamlined at the end of the semester with fewer cultural clichés and more references to touchstones of Francophone daily life including the educational system and eating habits. Thus, the mind maps were a good indicator that students were developing a more nuanced understanding of culture. Mind maps can be used not only to track student progress within our class but also to support departmental and institutional assessment more broadly.

That is not to say that we didn’t encounter limitations. As it turned out, the format of the mind map can restrict students’ ability to express what they have learned; the necessary use of keywords in the mindmaps doesn’t provide space for deeper reflection. Many students seemed to sense this and provided information outside of the text bubbles in the second set of mind maps. Thus, the mind map’s value could be enhanced by having students compare and discuss their mind maps, and by asking them to do the metacognitive work of observing and articulating their own learning progress. This is exactly what our colleague in Spanish chose to do through a group work activity.

Effective group work: Higher order thinking and mind maps

Mind maps can provide opportunities for meaningful collaborative learning. When students co-create mind maps in pairs or small groups, they negotiate meaning and apply higher order thinking skills. Instead of merely recalling what they’ve learned, students draw connections together and evaluate the choices they make as they co-create their mind map. For example, students in the Spanish section who were studying Latin American street food originally created individual mind maps that lacked a comprehensive understanding of the subject with little nuance. For the second round of mind maps, students worked in small groups, and the mind maps evolved. Mexican cuisine, which had dominated the first set of maps, took on a secondary role as other national cuisines were included. Furthermore, the final maps promoted comprehensive and highly contextualized perspectives, showing a deeper understanding of food practices through keywords like conquest, immigration, and globalization. Students critically analyzed cultural appropriation and provided examples of corporate fast-food chains, like Taco Bell, as problematic representations of Mexican cuisine. This additional layer of analysis revealed that mind maps used in this way encourage a new depth of student learning. The approach highlights the importance of engaging students in interactive and collaborative learning experiences to enhance their learning outcomes.

Our group experiment with mind maps led us to new discoveries about ways that we can expand our repertoire when it comes to teaching culture, but we also see wider applications for using mind maps. As a tool for different types of assessments, for co-created collaborative learning, and for understanding student progress, mind maps can benefit instructors and students in any number of subject areas. They also make our teaching more inclusive by giving students a new way to share what they’ve learned and to formulate their own paths to learning. Finally, the mind map’s hands-on and (potentially) communal contributions to learning offers a path for students to develop critical reflection skills.

David N.C. Hull is an associate professor of Chinese studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. His work focuses on the literature of the Republican Era, narrative mode, and translation. Among his translations are Mao Dun’s novel Waverings, Zhang Tianyi’s novel The Pidgin Warrior, and Li Jing’s play Lu Xun.

Nicole Grewling is an associate professor of German studies and of humanities at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where she has taught language, literature, and culture courses since 2011. Her work focuses particularly on German colonial fantasies and German relationships to their others, especially their perception of Native Americans. She has published on the writers Friedrich Gerstäcker, Armand, Friedrich Pajeken, Sophie Wörishöffer, Christoph Ransmayr, and others, and on global learning goals in foreign language education.

Katherine S. Maynard is the director of the Teaching and Scholarship Hub at the University of Richmond. She previously worked at Washington College in Maryland where she was a professor of French studies and the director of the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning. She is the author of Reveries of Community: Epic in the Age of Henri IV (2018) and the co-editor of Polemic and Literature Surrounding the French Wars of Religion (2019). She also presents regularly on topics related to pedagogy and faculty development.

Martín Ponti is an associate professor of Hispanic studies at Washington College. He is also currently the First-Year Seminar director where he focuses on retention in the first year college experience. In his role as associate professor of Hispanic studies, he teaches language, literature, and culture of Latin America. His research interests include the role of melodrama on representations of gender, sexuality, and nation on serialized television


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