Our brain stores material brought to it from all five of our senses. You can recall, sometimes quite vividly, visual images, sounds, smells, textures, and so on. We know that the richer the experience is in sensory terms, the more easily the brain can store it and recall it later.
The higher education system has traditionally been tailored toward "left brain processing." The left lobe of the brain specializes in activities that are primarily mathmatical/verbal, sequentially arranged, and logical--precisely the types of activities that go along with listening in class, reading a textbook, taking notes, and so on.
The processing that is specialized in the right lobe of the brain goes largely unused by most college students in their formal learning experiences. The right side of the brain specializes in activities that are visual and spatial, "holistic," emotional, creative, and intuitive. Many learning theorists believe that most people are inclined to use or are more comfortable using either the right or left side of the brain for some learning activities. It stands to reason (and to intuition!) that learners who actively use both lobes of the brain will be able to learn more easily and develop "richer" mental concepts that the brain should be able to retrieve when it needs to.
Mind maps are tools that you can use when reviewing for a test to take advantage of right-brain processing. A mind map is a device that represents a concept in both verbal and nonverbal terms. It depends on spatial and visual cues that serve as powerful links to aid recall.
This is typical left-brained material: words on the page, read from top to bottom and left to right. How much of the outline can you write below?
OK. Now what can you recall about what was on the page? Unless you are good at remembering abstract concepts, you probably are able to recall just a few details. It's hard to get a "picture" in your head of the material.
As you can see, a mind map makes use of a spatial arrangement that puts the main topic in the center, with branches off of it to label the main subpoints. It has the same verbal elements that the outline had, but it uses crude sketches and colors as well. How much of the mind map can you write below?
What colors did you see? What images? Where were they on the page? You should be able to recall a "picture" of what you saw. Remembering the "big stick" can remind you of Roosevelt's aggressive dealings with big business, and the broom can help you recall his "sweeping" election victory and some of the other campaign issues listed on the page.
Using Mind Maps
Mind maps can be powerful review and test preparation tools, particularly for essay items. As you look over your notes and text assignments, try to pick out a half dozen or so major topics that you are almost sure to be tested over and construct a mind map for each one. As you create each mind map, you will be establishing relationships that will strengthen your overall understanding of the topic, and you should be able to recall the images and the content on each mind map better than you would just the class notes or textbook material.
Creating Mind Maps
Mind mapping does not have any hard and fast rules, but the following basic characteristics describe what works best for most students:
1. Begin by putting the main topic or point of focus in the center of the page. Starting in the center of the page allows for the greatest flexibility and helps to keep the main idea quite literally "front and center." You should also draw a box or circle around this main idea.
2. As you identify main subpoints, major elements, or "dimensions" of the topic, draw a line branching off the central topic and leading to the label for the subpoint. You can start your first branching idea anywhere on the box that encircles the main idea. The line should be at least an inch or two long and it should lead to a word or phrase that labels the subpoint. Draw a circle or box around this subpoint. Try to limit the number of subpoints to four or five. If you are coming up with more than that, perhaps it would be best to combine some or divide your overall topic into two separate maps. Limiting the number of subpoints will keep the mind map from getting too "busy" or complex.
3. Look for details that support or illustrate the subpoints and attach these to the main branching lines. Record these details in key words or short phrases.
4. Once you feel that you have "captured" the topic on the page, if the map is lopsided, too complex, or in some other way just difficult to mentally take in, you might want to do a second map to simplify or refine the topic. The structure should be balanced and so obvious that it "jumps off the page." At test time, you should be able to close your eyes and see the structure of the map in your mind's eye.
5. Personalize your mind map with colors, symbols, and simple sketches. You might use several different colored highlighters to make the main subpoints stand out visually. Sketches and symbols help bring other sensory images into the mind map. It isn't necessary that you be an artist to make these symbols useful. As long as these simple images mean something to you, they will serve their purpose.