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Using Mind Maps as a Teaching and Learning Tool to Promote Student Engagement

Creating an environment that engages students in the learning journey is not always easy. Sometimes as faculty members we ask ourselves, “Are we taking this learning journey by ourselves?” Several years ago as I began my scholarly exploration of the utility of mind mapping as a teaching and learning tool to foster critical thinking, my colleague and I instituted a mind mapping learning activity which has helped to promote student engagement in the classroom.

So what is mind mapping? 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 inter- related.

According to Buzan and Buzan, a mind map should be drawn on blank paper that is larger than standard 8 ½ by 11 inch paper. The rationale behind using a large sheet of paper is that it allows the student the opportunity to break away from the boundaries established by standard sized paper. The medium for drawing the mind map is usually colored pens or pencils. Students begin by drawing an image in the center of the paper that reflects the central theme, or topic, of the mind map which is to be created. By placing this central image in the center of the paper it allows the student 360 degrees of freedom to develop their mind map. Next, the student draws main branches with key words extending from this central image. The branches represent different categories which the student perceives as being relevant to the content of the key concept of the mind map. From these main branches, sub-branches are created.

One key tenet of the mind map is that each of the branches and sub-branches should contain pictures to aid in recalling the information. These sub-branches of key words or pictures can be linked together resulting in the integration of different parts of the mind map. Recently, many on-line computer versions of mind mapping have emerged such as iMindMap (Tony Buzan), MindMeister (MindMeister Labs), Visio (Microsoft), and MindNode (MindNode Software). A key question which needs to be further investigated with these online programs is, “do they limit the creator’s creativity in developing the mind map because of software limitations?”

While several investigators are exploring the scientific merits of mind mapping as a tool to develop critical thinking one practical way we have begun to use mind mapping to promote student engagement in the classroom is via two different class assignments.

Assignment 1.
For students in our graduate physical therapy program the challenge always exists between balancing the volume of information they must know with the need to practice the application of their craft — the “hands on” aspect of the profession.

In order to meet this challenge in our neurological course work we instituted mind mapping as a course requirement. All students are required to generate a mind map for all class readings covering the key concepts within the readings. These mind maps are submitted for class participation credit, but they must be handed in prior to the class meeting date for which the material will be covered. This is done to ensure that the students, at a minimum, read and acknowledge the key areas within the readings. During the class period students are able to build out their mind maps with concepts and information acquired during the class presentation (lecture, discussion, small group activities, and laboratory experiences).

We have found that by requiring students to generate mind maps on pre-class reading material they are more prepared to engage in class activities. This in turn enables us as instructors to spend more time helping them explore the “hands on” techniques of their craft, as well as critical reasoning and communication skills.

Here’s an example of mind map a student created on a chapter associated with clinical decision making regarding patient management. View Mind Map »

Assignment 2
For our post-professional doctoral students integrating related topics that must be explored in order to fully address a research question is not so easy. Linking or connecting topics, theories and developing a theoretical framework often hinder students’ progression. Frequently they look to their advisor to make the connections for them and to tell them what to do.

In order to assist students in their learning journey, we have introduced mind mapping as a tool to help students explore diverse topical areas and develop connections and links between them. Each student’s research question of interest becomes the central theme of the mind map and, along with their committee members, they begin identifying the branches to be explored. As students conduct their evidence-based review of the literature in each of these branching areas they begin to suggest sub branches that then can be linked. Many students suggest that using the mind map strategy supported their ability to effectively explore and integrate the diverse areas of their research topic and create flow and linkage amongst ideas when writing their research proposal or integrated paper.

So while many are investigating the use of mind maps as a teaching and learning tool to foster critical thinking and clinical reasoning in students, it can be utilized as a tool to promote student engagement as demonstrated in the assignments above. The utility of the mind map as a teaching and learning tool is only limited by our ability as instructors to shape its use to meet the desired learning outcome.

Genevieve Pinto Zipp, PT, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Graduate Programs in Health Sciences at Seton Hall University’s School of Health and Medical Sciences.