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In both my last year of high school and my freshmen year at the university, I got strong recommendations to study using mind maps - especially because this is apparently better to cope with large amounts of new information.

  • Is mind mapping effective in learning and reflecting on information?
  • If so, how does mind mapping help in learning and reflecting on information?
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Concept mapping is a way of reviewing the material, depending on the study it may be significantly better than other forms of review, though not all studies I read found that superiority. The most popular theory for its claimed superiority is that it also organizes the information better for recall; most of the papers that found concept mapping better than the other forms of review tested had the subjects create their own concept maps.

Most of the reading I did was several months ago, and I don't have references readily available; but I was Googling metacognition recently and found a paper, that says concept maps work by improving metacognition, though they are only marginally better for that than rereading.

Joshua S. Redford, Keith W. Thiede, Jennifer Wiley, Thomas D. Griffin. Concept mapping improves metacomprehension accuracy among 7th graders. Learning and Instruction (2011), doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.10.007

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An excellent question! A 2011 paper in Science by Karpicke and Blunt in the Cognition and Learning Lab at Purdue University gets at this issue. They offer that:

"Concept mapping is considered an active learning task, and it serves as an elaborative study activity when students construct concept maps in the presence of the materials they are learning. Under these conditions, concept mapping bears the defining characteristics of an elaborative study method: It requires students to enrich the material they are studying and encode meaningful relationships among concepts within an organized knowledge structure."

They go on in their paper, however, to demonstrate that concept mapping is far less efficient than an even simpler technique: repeated retrieval (e.g., self-testing). Practicing retrieval, they argue, "enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes."

Reference:

Karpicke, J.D., & Blunt, J.R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331, 772-775.

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I think it's important to keep in mind the different effects that one might achieve using mind mapping, with regard to the way mind maps are being evaluated in the literature mentioned so far. While retrieval ability is easy to measure and certainly a useful metric that approximates one important aspect of learning in an academic setting, retrieval isn't everything.

My own experience (n=1) is that mind mapping is probably not a great use of time when preparing for the kinds of evaluations usually required of one in college. Mind mapping has, however, proved remarkably beneficial to my ability to index information, and to see relationships between different things. This is crucially different from the retrieval model described earlier: I am not trying to prepare myself to reproduce some given body of facts; rather, I want a tool to help integrate new information with what I already know, or else help explore the connections between disparate elements in my knowledge store. For these pursuits mind mapping has been a superb tool.

I suspect that the benefits of mind mapping may be related to the benefits of the Creative Uses Task described by Chrysikou (2006), for the same reasons I described in my answer to this question, namely, the elaboration and schematic connection between far-flung semantic contents. How is the industrial revolution like an old-fashioned donut? I have no idea, but framing a context that meaningfully interprets both things can elicit a more profound understanding of the logical path between them. Further, this process has more than once been the cause of an insight, or reorganization of conceptual knowledge, a la Durso et al. (1994); less personally, it's a flavor of combinatorial activity that features heavily in many models of creativity (c.f. Thagard & Stewart, 2011).

References:

Chrysikou, E. G. (2006). When Shoes Become Hammers: Goal-Derived Categorization Training Enhances Problem-Solving Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(4), 935–942.

Durso, F. T., Rea, C. B., & Dayton, T. (1994). Graph-Theoretic Confirmation of Restructuring during Insight. Psychological science, 5(2), 94–98. Association for Psychological Science.

Thagard, P. (2011). The Aha! experience: Creativity through emergent binding in neural networks. Cognitive Science 35, 1-33.

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