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Do students learn more from handmade or digital mind maps?

Do students learn more from handmade or digital mind maps?

5 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Mind maps are a popular choice for both classroom activities and revision. Students can make them as a tool compiling all the information they need to know and use it to test themselves on knowledge, or as more of a practice exercise where they jot down everything they can remember.

But since digital mind mapping tools have burst onto the scene, handmade mind maps have faced competition. The thought of making your mind map on a computer and not having to write out all the information is alluring. However, given the ongoing debate around technology in education, it is worth exploring if using technology for mind mapping is as effective for learning.

As with many things in education, at the end of the day, this may be about personal preference. So, here are the pros and cons of each strategy that can help students decide whether to go with handmade or digital mind maps…

The problem with “perfect” mind maps

One of the most common mistakes students make when mind mapping is wasting too much time on making the “perfect” mind map. They can take ages choosing colours, drawing pictures, and making their masterpiece look pretty.

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 a mind map probably comes under a form of procrastination. When the focus is mainly on making it look pretty, it isn’t on learning and remembering the information.

For students who often make this mind map error, technology can prove helpful. Most digital mind map tools offer pre-made templates; all that’s left to do is type in information and add some pictures. This can save hours otherwise spent embellishing a paper mind map or starting over for every mistake: the beauty of technology is that you can delete, edit, re-type, and change information as needed, which is much harder to do with a pen. The flexibility of these tools also allows students to work on a mind map continually as they learn new information.

On the other hand, handmade mind maps are much more personal and allow the uniqueness of students’ minds and thoughts to flow onto paper. The distinctiveness of the pictures and diagrams students create and the way they set out information might not be captured on a screen. And it’s these personal touches that enable students to make connections and recall the information on their mind maps better.

The options are limitless

Another benefit of digital mind maps is the amount of arranging and formatting options. They have an unlimited size — some tools allow you to expand and collapse information, or zoom out to see the whole picture and zoom in for more details on each topic. Thanks to this, students can deal with and organise lots of complex information. Some online mind map software even allow several people to work on the same mind map at once. This collaborative element is great for group work in the classroom or revising with others.

However, paper mind maps are just a lot easier and simpler to use. Some students are daunted by all the options with a digital mind map tool, struggle to work out how to use them, and pass up on the more advanced techniques. If the tool they use makes using pictures difficult, students can end up not using any pictures or diagrams at all and pass up on the benefits of dual coding. Others may spend so long working out all the funky and valuable functions online tools have to offer, they end up wasting as much time as those who obsess over making paper mind maps look pretty.

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What gets it into your head?

Mind maps can be fun to make, but their key function should be helping students to learn and remember information. The question is, which of handmade mind maps or digital mind maps does this better?

Research has suggested that writing notes on paper rather than typing them leads to a better understanding of knowledge. Some have suggested that this is because doing it by hand leads to a deeper processing of the information. However, more recent evidence has found no difference in student learning between writing and typing.

Even so, there is no denying that when making a computer mind map, it is very easy for students to get distracted. Their minds may wander as they type, a notification may grab their attention, or they could find themselves unable to resist watching YouTube videos, rather than focusing on their mind map. These temptations are less likely to interfere when working with paper.

However, digital mind maps may offer a learning advantage in the number of creative options they offer for retrieval practice and harnessing the Testing Effect. For example, they can use the ability to collapse and hide information then expand it to test themselves on topic details. Some online tools can even generate flashcards from sections of a mind map. Furthermore, computer mind maps may be easier to present to others, either in class or at home. Teaching others what they’ve learnt is an effective way for students to consolidate information into their long-term memory, making use of the Protégé Effect.

Final thoughts

In the end, handmade and digital mind maps each have their advantages and disadvantages. The choice between the two may well depend on the purpose of the task at hand and the student’s own preferences.

For example, a good strategy might be for students to organise the information they need to know for a topic on a digital mind map, spend some time studying it, and then try to reproduce as much as they can on a paper mind map (without looking!), always using both words and pictures. The key with any mind map, handmade or digital, is to avoid simply copying down large chunks of text from a textbook or PowerPoint.