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Using Mind Mapping and Brainstorming Techniques for Study and Creativity

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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When taking notes in lectures and seminars, you can try using a mind mapping technique for note taking, or you can use it to summarise your notes or handouts and other materials after the session.  Doing this systematically will help you store ideas away in your brain for later use when writing up your work.


The posting below introduces the idea of mind mapping which in particular can be a powerful note taking technique.  It is from Chapter 5 – How Do You Learn and How Do You Know What is Required of You?, in the book, How to Succeed at University: An Essential Guide to Academic Skills, Personal Development and Employability, by Bob Smale & Julie Fowlie. 2nd Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd , 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road , London EC1Y 1SP © Bob Smale and Julie Fowlie 2015. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Using Mind Mapping and Brainstorming Techniques for Study and Creativity



Synapses or boutons – connect neurons in the brain in order to encode and store memories.

Neuroplasticity – the concept that brains develop by making new neural connections.

Autonomic nervous system – that part of the body’s peripheral nervous system that operates subconsciously to keep body systems running.

Mind-mapping – technique developed by Tony Buzan, to plot ideas graphically avoiding linear techniques.

Key words – words used in mind mapping to summarise a body of knowledge which can be recalled by reference to the keyword.

Lateral thinking – thinking may go in different directions to look at problems from different angles.

Linear thinking – going through accepted steps or stages to follow an obvious line of linear thought.

Brainstorming – method of problem-solving or of collecting knowledge or ideas often associated with mind mapping.



Our amazing brains

In developing a sound study technique it is useful to consider how your brain works. We normally have 10,000,000,000 brain cells at our disposal. These cells or neurons are connected by synapses or boutons (buttons) which are the product of our life experiences, which have been processed and encoded by our brains as we make new connections. Whilst we never forget what has been memorized, our practical problem as students is recalling information as and when we want it.

In recent years the concept of neuroplasticity has been developed, which recognizes the ability of our brains to develop neural connections and which has displaced the old idea of the brain as a fixed and static organ. Seminal work on monkeys by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientists Hubel and Weisel (Hubel, Weisel and Levay, 1977) recognized the extent to which we build our own brains through a process of pruning. For example, a child learning the piano will develop those parts of the brain controlling motor drive to the fingers, whereas a child concentrating on football will develop other parts controlling foot and head movement.  The exciting implication of the neuroplasticity concept is the recognition that we literally build our own brains based on our life experiences.  More recently, work by neuroscientists has shown that our bodies also have a molecular informational system which challenges the idea of an electrical synapse model (Pert, 1999; 138).

We all have an amazing piece of equipment at our disposal – a sort of super computer – which can analyse and store a range of information and direct complex motor skills such as playing sports or musical instruments, while at one and the same time monitoring and controlling our body functions through the autonomic nervous system, whilst growing and developing in the process. We don’t have to remember to breathe, digest food or even to repair a cut finger. Our brains just take care of that, leaving us free to think and grow.

However, when we are in education we can often feel overwhelmed and overloaded with cognitive inputs, including those from lectures, seminars, reading and discussions. This is why it is important for us to develop techniques to help us develop our brains if we are to achieve our goals in education and beyond. 

Using mind mapping for note taking, creativity and examination preparation

The idea of mind mapping was introduced by Buzan (1974) and avoids the standard linear technique of note taking in favour of concentrating on the quality of our encoding of information.  This involves drawing mind maps, in which we put the topic at the centre of our notes rather than at the top, and then work outwards from the centre in expanding branches, using key words to summarise each body of knowledge.

As we identify key words we make a connection not only on the paper, but also in our brain. As we make these connections, we are inserting psychological triggers, which can be pulled when we want to recall not only the key words, but also other information that is filed away with them.  We can see the brain as being similar to a computer or filing cabinet – if files are clearly named and filed away in a logical sequence, the process of retrieving information becomes much easier.  Similarly, we use keywords in the index of a book, in order to find the content we want.

The power of keywords is demonstrated when you are in conversation with a friend who mentions somewhere that you have both been at different times. Although you may not have thought of this place for a very long time, mention of the name, a key word, brings a host of memories flooding back, and you will probably remember what you did, who you were with, what the weather was like, where you stayed and what you ate.

When taking notes in lectures and seminars, you can try using a mind mapping technique for note taking, or you can use it to summarise your notes or handouts and other materials after the session.  Doing this systematically will help you store ideas away in your brain for later use when writing up your work.  Looking at your mind maps will help refresh your memory and you can always go back and add to them if there is more to say, perhaps from your reading around the subject.

Mind mapping can also be used to enhance your powers of creativity.  Try putting a problem at the centre of a piece of paper and then working out from it in different directions.  This helps us to expand our lateral thinking and again gets away from the linear thinking which is associated with making lists, taking notes and writing formal reports.

When writing up a formal report or essay, try to brainstorm all the main points first. Then order your points into a logical sequence and write around them. Your key words may become your subheadings. Similarly, you can use a mind map to structure the content for an oral presentation (see also Chapter 7 on writing up reports and essays, on structuring material and constructing your arguments, and on giving effective presentations).

When revising for examinations, try reducing all your topics to mind maps. If you use these for revision you can improve your recall in the examination.  Brainstorm your key words in the examination; not only will they give your essays structure but you will also avoid the tendency to dry up (see also Chapter 8, How to develop successful examination techniques).

Activity: Making mind maps work for you

  • Identify a topic from your course and reduce your notes to a mind map.  Use colour, highlighting, drawings or diagrams to make it really memorable.
  • File your mind map away for a couple of days and then try to re-draw it from memory. You may be surprised at how much you remember.
  • Consider how you can use this technique in your studies.