The traditional way of taking notes, whether for a lecture or when reading a book, is to follow the chronological sequence of the author's thought, and to summarise the content of the book or lecture, often using sentences and phrases instead of just keywords.
An alternative approach, and one which some claim works with both halves of the brain by harnessing its powers of visualisation and association, and thereby improves both memory and creative thinking, is mind mapping.
Mind mapping is a way of linking key concepts using images, lines and links. A central concept is linked via lines to other concepts which in turn are linked with other associated ideas. It is similar as a technique to concept mapping and spider diagrams, the difference being that true mind mapping involves constructing a hierarchy of ideas instead of pure random association.
Mind mapping uses the concept of "radiant thinking" – that is, thoughts radiate out from a single idea, often expressed as an image. Branches flow backwards and forwards from and to the central idea.
Mind mapping is generally linked with the popular psychologist Tony Buzan, although in fact similar approaches have been used by Porphyry of Tyros in the 3rd century to conceptualise the ideas of Aristotle, by Leonardo da Vinci and by Picasso, to name but a few. Tony Buzan however did much to popularise and schematise mind maps in the 1960s and 1970s and his books, listed below, provide an authoritative account on how to use the technique.
How to mind map
There are four key characteristics of a mind map:
- There is one key concept, often expressed graphically as an image.
- From the key concept/image radiate out branches each of which contains another key concept which is a subset of the main concept.
- Attached to these main branches are other branches which represent less important concepts.
- Together, the branches and central image form a nodal structure.
The steps involved in creating a mind map may be summarised as follows:
Step 1 – Determine your central image or concept.
Step 2 – Create the basic structure for organising your ideas: these are the main branches and are known as the Basic Organising Ideas (BOIs), and are represented by branches radiating outwards from the main concept.
Step 3 – Put down keywords associated with the BOIs, which should sit on smaller branches connected to the main branch.
Step 4 – Revisit your mind map, putting things in order, and numbering the branches. If necessary, revise it on another piece of paper.
The following points should be borne in mind when creating a mind map:
- Use radiant thinking – start from the centre and radiate outwards.
- Use hierarchy and association – your main BOIs are embodied in thick lines radiating from the centre; the ideas radiating from the individual BOIs have thinner lines. (If you think there are likely to be more BOIs and ideas than you can think of, leave blank lines for future reference.)
- Use as images and colour – they will stimulate your brain's visual and creative capacity and help you have fun along the way!
- Use keywords, rather than phrases – easier to remember.
- Use symbols (e.g. x for not) and codes. You can also annotate your mind map, for example you could write references to other sources in a different colour pen.
- Be clear: have words the same length as lines (a better use of space), and use capitals, which are easier to read and which emphasise keywords.
- Use arrows to denote links between ideas.
- Draw quickly and uncritically on a sheet of A4 or larger paper (perhaps two A4 sheets put together, which also has the advantage that it will be readily distinguishable from other single folios on your desk!), placed landscape.
- Review your mind map after you have completed your first attempt, not immediately, but once your thoughts have had time to "settle".
Users are recommended to adopt a personal style and to have fun creating their mind maps, and deliberately attempt to make them as beautiful as possible. In fact, mind maps can often become mini works of art as in the following example:
© Jonathan Goldstein
If you invest in some good quality pens, as well as some coloured ones, you will find you take a greater pride in what you produce, and this will increase the "fun" element.
Benefits of mind maps
The benefits of mind mapping as a technique is that it enable the user to enlist the full power of the brain, both the right side, which is employed for spatial awareness, a sense of wholeness (Gestalt), imagination, day dreaming, and colour, and the left, which is the more analytical, logical side.
Mind maps draw on the brain's ability to store an infinite number of associations and this, together with their visual qualities (space, image, colour etc.) help them stimulate the memory to store more facts.
Physically they also take up less space than chronologically based notes and are less time-consuming to produce.
Uses of mind maps
Mind maps can be used in a wide range of situations, from brainstorming, sorting out family problems, business meetings, making notes from books or lectures, to planning a series of television programmes. Most useful to you in your student career, however, will be:
- Making notes from books and other secondary sources.
- Making notes from lectures.
- Making notes for essays or presentations.
Making notes from books and other secondary sources
As a student you will need to browse a large number of secondary sources – textbooks, journal articles, websites. Sometime, the amount of material can seem daunting. The benefits of mind maps, however, is that rather than working through the material from beginning to end in a chronological sequence, you proceed in a more "spiral" fashion from firstly having an overview to looking in greater and greater depth.
Before you begin to study, organise the task by:
- Browsing the document, getting an idea of how it is organised, what are its basic organising ideas etc.
- Determining the amount of time you have to study it.
- Determining your goals – for example, are you reading it as background to your course, or do you want to concentrate on a particular topic, for example for an essay question?
- What is your existing knowledge – on a separate sheet, mind map this which will give your mind "grappling hooks" as it seeks to assimilate new information.
You are then ready to do the mind map of the document, for which you go through the following (spiral) stages:
- Overview – look at the chapter summaries, chapter and other main headings. Note that most text books these days have a very explicit structure with objectives at the beginning of each chapter, as well as chapter summaries. This way, you are searching for the gist of the author's argument before looking at the detail.
- Preview – go a stage beyond the book's "organising bits" and look at the beginning and end of chapters and sections.
- Inview – look at the rest of the material, but if there is something that you find very difficult, leave it and return to it.
- Review – finish your mind map notes, going back over anything you found difficult.
Note that the above assumes that you are reading a book; journal articles and websites also have their own organisational structure, for example pages or headings. The same principles will apply.
Making notes from lectures
Lectures lend themselves less easily to the mind mapping technique because their structure is inherently linear. However, you should be able to get a good idea of the "basic organising ideas" from the scheme of work for the course, or from the notes which the lecturer gives out at the beginning of the lecture. Try and search for the BOIs as the lecture progresses.
Note: if your mind map seems confused, then this may be because the lecture, book or website is confused!
© Graham Burnett
Making notes for essays or presentations
The basic difference here is in the preposition: you are making notes for something rather than from something, so you will need to draw together your existing mind map notes and prepare a new mind map covering what you are going to write or present.
- Start with the central idea or image.
- List the main BOIs.
- Brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and set them down as keywords on the main branches. For a presentation, the keywords will represent themes which you will talk about.
- Edit your mind map, numbering the branches in the order you want to write about or present the topics.
- Do individual mind maps of particular sections.
- Do a first draft, revising your mind map as necessary, and doing a new mind map for difficult parts of the draft or when you get writer's block.
- For a presentation, insert symbols where you want to introduce visuals.
The following diagram shows a mind map of a profit and loss statement, with some branches left blank. Can you complete it?
Some useful resources
- Tony and Barry Buzan, The Mind Map Book, BBC Worldwide, 1993.
- Tony Buzan, Use Your Head, BBC Worldwide, 2000.
An excellent university site with clearly set out instructions.
Peter Russell has collaborated with Tony Buzan on mind map training, and these are the pages of his site which explain mind maps.
This is a site put together by Tony Buzan"s preferred partner for mind mapping training, Illumine Training. Some useful information under "How to".