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Educational Study Tools: Mind Maps & Graphic Organizers

Allowing students to express and organize their thoughts graphically is a wonderful way to enable them to improve key skills. There are two main methods of achieving this: through graphic organizers or mind maps. A graphic organizer is a way of visually depicting ideas, concepts or pieces of information through charts or sequences. Infographics used in mainstream media and advertising frequently make use of different styles of graphic organizers. A mind map is another way of visually mapping information but it is created by writing or illustrating concepts that branch from one central thought. Since many students often have trouble connecting ideas or accurately expressing themselves, visual idea representation allows them to form the skills to think laterally instead of only linearly. Apart from simply connecting ideas, these methods also help to trigger additional memories and brainstorm in a unique way. Viewing the visual connections between different concepts helps to compartmentalize and solidify the links and ideas better. This can also be used as a study aid. The following guide will introduce some of the main methods of using visual organizational methods.


Decision Making Model

With a decision making model, students state a problem in the top area of the chart and list possible solutions below. Advantages and disadvantages are then listed below each alternative. After assessing the strengths and drawbacks of each possibility, the final solution is outlined at the bottom of the chart. This is a good way to introduce a method for exploring potential answers to a problem, but students may be somewhat limited by the format of the model.

Main Idea Pyramid

A main idea pyramid is generally used to help people deconstruct the elements of an idea. The apex of the pyramid contains the most basic idea and each subsequent level may be filled in with information about sub-concepts and other aspects. Main idea pyramids are usually most popularly used to help students analyze a story, its characters, sub-plots and symbolism. Although this method can be a bit basic, it is useful in initiating  discussions and pyramid comparisons among groups of students.

Question/Answer Chart

Students can use a question and answer chart to help approach study material from different angles based on the questions. It can be more in-depth than the main idea pyramid since the questions posed can be on different levels of difficulty. There are many different types of question and answer charts and strategies for using them. Teachers should choose the most appropriate type for the material being discussed.

Venn Diagram

Students might have already come across Venn diagrams in earlier math classes. Venn diagrams are an easy way to show the shared elements among several random objects or ideas. Coloring the circular shapes and shared areas helps to better visualize the common elements.

Sequence Chain

A sequence chain is used to describe a series of events or ideas in a linear fashion. Based on the subject matter, students can input information either by writing out ideas or illustrating them. Some worksheets allow for both. Sequence chains are ideal for determining or recalling the flow of certain concepts but do not normally allow for additional far-removed ideas.

Flow Chart

Flow charts are a bit similar than sequence chains since they also follow a series of sequential steps. However, whereas sequence chains tend to be more verbose, a flow chart can be used for simpler and smaller ideas. It is a form of problem solving and can also contain yes or no questions. The advantage of flow charts is that they are easy to follow because of their graphical layout and the questions in each step can be made as simple as necessary. Flow charts can also be used to link different ideas or activities. Using different shapes to denote various outcomes, decision stages and solutions also helps students to follow along better.


Character Map

A character map is a visual way of helping students to analyze character traits or relationships after reading a story. It is helpful to first review types of character traits with them before starting this activity. The character map is useful for jotting down brief ideas but must then be followed up with a more in-depth discussion to fully make use of the elements that students picked out.

Story Map

Story maps go one step further than the character map. With a story map, students can explore the themes and events of the book, along with the characters. Follow-up discussions are greatly beneficial since it allows students to share their various perspectives. Story maps can also be used to help students plan the outline of their own stories.

Spider Map

Spider maps are used to illustrate concepts that are in some way all related to one central idea. The layout follows diagonal lines, giving the overall appearance of a spider with legs sticking out. It is useful for dissecting the elements of a major topic and listing the main details in an easy to understand format.

Cloud Map

Cloud maps are also knows as cluster maps. The main idea behind it is to help students brainstorm a central idea. By doing so, they can begin to think about other concepts that are related on several different levels. Since cloud maps can get crowded, it is suggested that students color each level of related ideas in a separate color.

Fish-bone Map

A fishbone map is another tool that works best for dissecting the elements of a story. The layout resembles fishbones laid out flat. At the head, students jot down the main theme or idea, and then fill in details about related elements along the body bone segments. Students should have read the assigned topic in advance to fully take advantage of this type of graphic organizer since it is more detail-oriented as opposed to a brainstorm session.

Continuum Map

A continuum map works by presenting a linear scale to students. Sequential events can then be plotted along the scale to illustrate a timeline to students. Continuum maps can also be used to demonstrate cause and effect events. Alternatively, it can be used to measure amounts, weights and more. This method is helpful for teaching students how objects or intangible things stack up against each other.

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