Learning Strategy 14: Idea Mapping

Robert Harris
Version Date: February 27, 2014


Idea mapping--also called mind mapping--is a note-taking or outlining (or creative thinking) method for gettiing ideas down on paper. It has some advantages over outlining in the following ways:

Types of Idea Map

Beginning an idea map
While there are many variants, the most common types are the cloud-circle-flowchart style and the treebranch style.

Here is an example of how a simple cloud-style idea map might be created. First, the main idea (sometimes called a Level 1 idea)  is written down in the center of the notetaking paper, and then a cloud is drawn around it. (Drawing the shapes first usually results in shapes too small to fit in the content, resulting in an ugly map. If you write the words first and then draw the cloud around them, the words will always fit perfectly.)

Next, a supporting idea (or two) is written down. Then, to show the connection between the ideas, draw arrowed lines, with the arrow pointing from the superior idea to the subordinate idea. In the example here, color is also used to allow a quick understanding of which and how many different levels of ideas are present.
Idea map with added ideas

From this beginning, you can continue adding Level 2 ideas, or you can add Level 3 ideas, examples, nonexamples, supporting arguments, counterarguments, or whatever fits the material you are mapping. In our example here, we have added a couple of examples, a nonexample, and a Level 3 idea.
(A nonexample is something that is not an example of the subject under discussion. If, for example, you are mapping "Fruits and Vegetables," under fruits, you might have a cloud that says, "A tomato is not a fruit." Nonexamples help clarify and avoid confusion.)

 Note the use of color to allow a quick distinguishing among all the elements.

The flexibility of idea maps can be shown by the ease of adding information wherever there is room on the page and simply drawing an arrow to the cloud idea it applies to. And if the added information applies to more than one idea, multiple connecting lines can be drawn.

Additionally, you can write notes anywhere, you can bracket sections of the map that have a special relationship or need special commentary, and you can connect any clouds to any others when that is desirable. This is where the map shows its its strength and flexibility, too. By escaping linear connectivity, you are enabled to display more complex relationships.

Final idea map 

Tree Style

An alternate style of idea mapping is the tree or branching map. This style provides the same benefits as the connected-shape style, with the additional advantage of creating easily visualized sub-levels. If you will have several levels (main, sub, sub-sub, sub-sub-sub), then the tree style might work for that application.

Tree Idea Map

Benefits of Idea Mapping


You can use any of several, free, online and downloadable idea mapping (also called mind mapping) software applications, you can use a word processing program that has insertalble shapes. However, to get started, you might learn and practice with a hand drawn map. Just as notetaking increases learning through the physical act of taking down the notes, so drawing out your idea map will help you learn. You can keep some colored pens or markers handy, draw in various sizes and colors, and reinforce certain clouds or balloons by running your pen or pencil over the shape again each time you think about it.

For a really good set of examples of idea maps, use Google's Advanced Image Search on "mind map."

For free mind mapping software, do a Google search on "free mind mapping software."

High Performance Learning

You can create a great comparison test (to determine your maximum effectiveness) and at the same time deeply reinforce your learning by using both a traditional outline format and an idea map for the same material (reading, lecture, video, etc.). Try one format first and then convert it to the other. Then for then for the next project, create the other format first and then convert that.
Ask yourself

VirtualSalt Home
Learning Strategy 1: Mnemonics
Learning Strategy 2: Paraphrasing
Learning Strategy 3: Summarizing
Learning Strategy 4: Self Monitoring
Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation
Learning Strategy 6: Mental Rehearsal
Learning Strategy 7: Self Assessment
Learning Strategy 8: The SQ3R Reading Method
Learning Strategy 9: Note Taking
Learning Strategy 10: The Leitner Flash Card System
Learning Strategy 11: Maintaining Interest
Learning Strategy 12: Conversation
Learning Strategy 13: Group Interaction
Learning Strategy 14: Idea Mapping
Learning Strategy 15: Drawing Pictures
Learning Strategy 16: Study Cycles
Learning Strategy 17: Sleep and Rest
Learning Strategy 18: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 19: Learning Strategy Checklist
Learning Strategy 20: Asking Questions
Learning Strategy 21: Idea Linking
Learning Strategy 22: How to Use a Book
Learning Strategy 23: Active Listening
Learning Strategy 24: Close Reading
Learning Strategy 25: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 26: Power Thinking
Learning Strategy 27: Planning for Learning
Learning Strategy 28: Outlining
Learning Strategy 29: Analogies
Copyright 2014 by Robert Harris | CCC 7000520813 | How to cite this page
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com