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6 common mind mapping mistakes students make

6 common mind mapping mistakes students make

6 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Mind maps are one of the most popular tools that students use to revise. Unfortunately, despite their potential to really help, students still make a number of errors when using mind maps.

We have listed below 6 common mistakes that students make when creating mind maps that may actually hinder their revision more than help them, and what they can do to ensure they don’t fall into these traps…

Mistake #1 – Using only words

One of the biggest mistakes we see so many students making with their mind maps is only using words. All too often, students just copy sentences from textbooks or PowerPoint slides. But they’re missing a key trick here. Mind maps will be much more effective if students use both words and pictures combined. This takes advantage of a revision strategy named Dual Coding, which is the process of blending both words and pictures whilst learning.

Research has suggested this to be a much more effective way of learning and revising information. This is because using visuals to complement words gives the brain two representations of the same information, helping to cement this information deeper into long-term memory.

So, instead of filling their mind maps with sentences, students should start to think about how they could use pictures and diagrams to illustrate the words as well. This also helps by getting students to think more deeply about the information, and to make connections that will help them to remember this information later on.

Mistake #2 – Using too many words

Another common mistake that students make is overcomplicating their mind map by cramming in too much information. Consequently, the readability and ability to learn from it suffer. If the mind map has too many words, they can’t be sure what key information they should be remembering and may get distracted by all the ‘clutter’ on the page.

A study by Princeton University researchers found that when our environment is cluttered, it can affect our ability to focus as this cluttered environment unconsciously takes up some of our brain’s attention. So when we combine our cluttered environment (crammed mind map) with the task we need to focus on (revising the key information on the mind map), they compete for space in our cognitive load.

This is due to the Redundancy Effect. When students’ working memory is clogged up by irrelevant information, they forget what they actually need to know. To ensure this doesn’t happen, students need to be concise with the information they put on their mind map. This forces them to self-reflect on what they need to know and prioritise this information.

Mistake #3 – Wasting time making it too pretty

Most students will probably admit that at some point or another, they have spent far too long making a good-looking mind map. They can spend hours choosing different colours, decorating, and making it neat and tidy. Although using different colours in mind maps is a great idea for connecting and chunking related pieces of information together, spending too much time stylising your mind map probably comes under a form of procrastination. Because the focus becomes too much on making it look pretty and less on learning and remembering the information.

This is counterproductive. Time spent making the first draft of a mind map absolutely perfect is time wasted when they could be using that time to make use of the Production Effect. The Production Effect describes how doing something with the material you’re studying helps increase the chances of ingraining it into long-term memory. So, students would be much better off using this time to produce different versions of their mind map, as opposed to worrying about getting it right the first time. The more they make new materials with the information, the more they strengthen connections in their brain. 

Help your students optimise their memory, develop their metacognitive skills, and tackle challenges more effectively.

Mistake #4 – Not using Elaborative Interrogation

Another trap that students can fall into is not actually engaging with the information on their mind map once it’s complete. Students have the misconception that re-reading their mind map is an effective revision tool when, in fact, countless studies have proven the ineffectiveness of re-reading. This is because students simply skim read over the mind map, so the information is not effectively processed and stored in their long-term memory. As a result, students forget this information relatively quickly.

One way students can stop this from happening, and effectively use their mind map, is through the strategy of Elaborative Interrogation. This is when asking self-reflection questions such as “why is this true?” or “why might this be the case?” can be helpful as they encourage students to think about this information and make connections between new knowledge and previously learnt material.

Mistake #5 – Not utilising Retrieval Practice

Another big mistake that students may make is that they don’t actually test whether they understand what they’re written. Neither do they test whether the information has gone into their long-term memory. By practising memory retrieval, students increase the likelihood of information being transferred to their long-term memory as stronger memory traces are created.

One way for students to test their understanding is to see whether they can recall all the information on their mind map from memory. For example, they could put the mind map away, get themselves a new piece of paper, set a timer for 10-15 minutes and write down everything they can remember from their mind map. When the time is up, they can then compare the two versions. Not only does this help them to identify what they do and don’t know, but one research paper even suggested that 72% of students felt that by practising Retrieval Practice, they felt less nervous about upcoming exams.

Another simple way for students to test their understanding is to get a friend involved. For example, the friend can either ask questions that require them to recall information from the mind map, or students can put the mind map away and teach the friend about the topic from memory.

Mistake #6- Not transferring mind map knowledge

Although this may sound similar to mistake number 5, there is a slight difference. The problem with mind maps is that most of the time, students make a mind map, and that’s that. It ends up under a pile of textbooks and workbooks and is never seen again. But what students need to do is using and applying their mind map. As well as getting others to test them on the information in their mind map, or trying to reproduce their mind map from memory, students should be transferring their mind maps and applying them to other settings.

For example, they could use the mind map to make quizzes or use it to help them complete past paper questions. The point here is to question themselves on the mind map information in different contexts, to transfer their knowledge. This deepens students’ interpretation of the information so that they not only know and can recall the information, but they also truly understand and know how to apply it. This will be key in helping them to answer those trickier, exam application questions.

Final thoughts

At InnerDrive, we’re big fans of mind maps as an effective revision tool for students. However, all too often, they become less effective because students fall into common mind map traps.

To prevent mind mapping becoming a waste of time, students need to be aware of these mistakes and why they are important. This will help students to become mind map masters, who can use this tool to learn and consolidate their learning.

For more on effective revision techniques, have a read of our blog “Are Students Doing Revision Wrong?”.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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