Tag Archives: science of learning

Creating Mind Maps to Learn

In my paid job (yes, I need to make the distinction), I teach a couple of classes on how to be successful in college. As the instructor, I introduce students to effective note-taking methods, growth mindset principles and library research skills, among other topics. Although I like to write and take notes by hand, one of my favorite activities is to make mind maps. It’s just the right combination between art and writing. Creating mind maps is a generative process. Creating mind maps to learn means developing a deeper level of understanding.

A picture of a mind map for the book: The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein

My completed mind map of the book, The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein.

Creating Mind Maps to Learn

When you are forced to synthesize the information you are reading or hearing, your brain forms new connections to that material. It’s connecting the information you know with the new material you are learning. I wouldn’t recommend it for initial lecture-based notes, but it’s great for going back and really learning the material. It forces you to organize the information so that it makes sense. In effect, you are “studying” the material, but you get to do some art at the same time.

Step 1: Take Notes

A really good mind map starts with written notes. I teach my students to use the Cornell Method for taking notes since it provides an easy way to quiz yourself (and research shows that quizzing yourself is one of the most effective ways to learn the material).

These aren’t in Cornell format, but I don’t need to quiz myself on the material…I merely want a reference for later.

Step 2: Pick out the Key Points

As with most books, typically, you don’t need to memorize everything you read. Pick out the key points that you want to remember. It could be key dates or relationships. For my book, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein, I wanted to remember some of the many tips she gave for crafting a successful children’s book. She has so much useful information, one could do a mind map on each chapter. I want something inspiring to hang over my desk. To nudge me when I get stuck.

Step 3: Complete a Rough Draft

Now that I have the information, I need figure out how to organize it on piece of paper. Plus, I want to think about how to draw some visuals to go along with it. Visuals tend to stick in our minds better than words. According to Sketchnote Handbook author Mike Rhode, you don’t have to be an artist to make your notes more visually appealing. But since I like to draw, I’ve added in some sketches. For my first draft, I had to figure out how I was going to fit everything on the page. I knew I wanted to focus on the elements of crafting a good story, so I made sure to devote a large part of paper to those concepts.

A picture of creating a mind m ap rough draft

This is super messy and sat in my book while I gathered more notes, hence the creases.

Step 4: Use a Pencil

Since I like to change my mind a lot, I use a mechanical pencil to complete my final mind map. After I’m happy with the placement of information, I’ll use a variety of ink pens to outline the material. My current favorites are these Micron pens, purchased at my local art store. I like the variety of pens — each with a smaller nib. The 001 size was perfect for the fine writing I needed to include.

Here’s a close-up of my almost completed mind map.

Step 5: Add Color

Once I outline everything in black, I like to go back and add color. In fact, this is probably my favorite part. I love a good coloring project.

a colored picture of a mind map for the book, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein

I used Faber-Castell color pencils to complete the map.

Creating Mind Maps to Learn

Ultimately, this mind map took me a couple of months to complete (hey, I’m busy)! That wouldn’t be realistic for a college student. However, I could have made a map for each chapter, rather than trying to cover the entire book in one mind map. Use your judgement and decide how you want to use the mind map. For me, this map is the perfect size (11 x 14) to display over my desk.

 

Science of Learning

Middle school, high school and college students: put down those textbooks and stop cramming for tests. There’s more to the science of learning than re-reading a textbook. Instead, space your learning, test yourself repeatedly (with flashcards), and try to solve a problem BEFORE you understand the question. These actions have been shown to increase recall, which usually means a higher test score.

While you’re at it – it would be helpful if you had a growth mindset and a lot of curiosity.

Picture of the book, make it stick: the science of learning

Science of Learning

The authors, cognitive researchers (and one storyteller), neatly summarize current learning research. They weave results throughout the book – using stories and repetitive recall – all while interleaving new information with the old.

It’s been a fascinating read and there are a number of small changes any teacher can make to assist students with learning and remembering content.

Understanding matters

It’s difficult to be creative and use information in a new way if can’t remember, or don’t understand, the basics. For example, it’s difficult to apply multiplication to a new situation (or to learn from your experience), if you don’t know that 3 x 2 = 6. The authors are not in favor of ‘drill n kill,’ but they indicate a need for basic understanding before one can apply knowledge in a creative way.

Learn two different but related tasks at the same time

I struggle the most with this bit of research. The authors note that focusing on one area (e.g. determining the volume of a cube), is not as valuable as trying to figure out the volume of a cube, a cylinder and a cone – all at the same time. So, instead of getting the formula for the cube down pat and then moving on, they suggest learning all of the formulas at once. The learning will be slower, but later recall is shown to be stronger than if you focus on one topic before moving on. The theory is that we do not apply our learning in isolated ways. Instead, we may have to figure out the volume of geometric solid and we don’t know which one it will be. By practicing all of the formulas, we are better equipped to know which solution to choose.

New learners are better than experts at teaching

Although I learned this tidbit during my own experiences, it was nice to see it validated by research. It turns out that students are much better at figuring out how to teach content than a subject expert. The reasoning is that experts have internalized the ‘basics’ of their subject, whereas new students recognize where they struggle with learning. They know which concepts are more difficult because they themselves are trying to process the information.

Feedback is more important than grading

As an educator, I’ve always hated the way tests are used for high-stakes decisions. Are we testing for knowledge acquisition, or do we want to use the tests to help students learn more? It turns out that feedback is incredibly important. Teachers know this, but can’t always put it into practice. Testing is a valuable tool, but there needs to be accurate feedback for students’ knowledge to grow.

“Test” your students often

But not with such high stakes. The authors found that frequently asking students to recall information interrupted the process of forgetting. It was much more effective than re-reading material (and highlighting, etc.). Asking yourself questions – without looking at the book – was better at solidifying the information in your brain. At the start of class, teachers can ask questions about the day’s topic of discussion. Students can create flashcards to “quiz” themselves to keep from forgetting the information.

Spacing

Immediate testing isn’t good at predicting later recall, however, spaced testing does a great job of strengthening recall. For teachers, introduce new material and then allow a day to pass. Test your students – ask them questions at the start of class – to strengthen their recall of previous material. I think I might put a note on my calendar a week later, two weeks later, etc. to remember to bring up the topic again.

Try to solve the problem BEFORE you know how

I find this particular tidbit to be quite fascinating. The authors’ discovered that when learners tried to answer a question – before they knew the correct way to do so – it strengthened the learning on the subject. So, try to solve that hard math or sociology problem and then learn about the topic. I wonder it has to do with alerting your brain to pay attention. It sounds like something from Making Thinking Visible.

Encourage a Growth Mindset

We could also label this section, “mind over matter.” If you think you aren’t good at something, you never will be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Carol Dweck’s research on having a ‘growth mindset’ has shown that students who are praised for effort work harder on the next challenge. Those who were praised for being smart and failed to solve the problem, gave up on the next challenge.

Learning something new is supposed to be hard

As much as educators like to make learning fun and help students find interest in what they are doing, there comes a point when we acknowledge that making new connections in your brain can be a difficult task. But, hopefully we can let students know that it’s supposed to be hard, but that if you keep trying it will get easier.  Teach them how the brain works.  “Try, try and try again” is an old adage that has fallen out of favor in our high-stakes world of testing. We expect students to learn, retain information without giving appropriate feedback, and then we get all huffy when they give up. Perhaps, rather than grading students on content, we could grade effort. Elementary school assessment could be portfolio-based, thus encouraging a growth mindset.

The brain is not a muscle, but the more we use it, the more we deliberately practice, the stronger our neural connections become. Since we adopted a growth mindset four years ago, we have seen remarkable effort and retention in our own lives (and not just for our children). Now, when French learning gets hard, I think that perhaps, I’m not learning it in the way that I should be, rather than thinking that I’m just not good at languages. I still struggle with certain topics and it is still frustrating to know that learning doesn’t come easily, but knowledge is power.

Why do we require certain subjects in school?

Since it’s outside of the scope of this book, there was no discussion about WHY we are teaching the subjects that we do. WHY do high school and college students need to take certain courses? WHY do we think it’s okay to place such pressure on a high stakes test for entrance to college? WHY do we require a generalist education when we really value deep learning? WHY is trigonometry and physics and four years of English required for college admissions? WHY can’t students pursue their own interests – and still get into college? Can you tell this is passionate topic of mine?

The authors’ tips on how to study are very valuable to a high school or college student, but in the end, it does seem just like a way to “game” the system. Are you really internalizing that information for the long haul? Is it relevant? They’ve noted that being an expert in one field does not transfer to another topic. Yes, making connections between different topics helps to strengthen your knowledge, but you still have to put in the effort to learn a new subject. Why not give high school students the choice of what topics to pursue – maybe ensuring that they choose three “easy” ones and three “hard” ones. But, the subject matter would be up to them.

Tips for Lifelong Learners

There were three major “tips” the authors gave for lifelong learners. That’s those of us who are not learning in a classroom, but are still learning by choice or for a career. To be honest, they sounded a lot like the things we do in project-based learning. So, maybe it’s not such a bad thing for teachers to incorporate into their classrooms…

Generation

In order to truly understand a topic, you need to generate something about it (hence, this blog post). Your grasp of the material starts out awkward, you aren’t sure where to begin or how to organize anything, but if you can just “blurt” something out, you have a place to begin. Then, your brain takes over and even when you are not consciously acting on that topic, your brain is still making connections. It’s still processing the subject. But you have to engage the material, not just passively absorb it. Suggestions include: creating an interactive program to show what you learned, writing a blog post, or drawing a picture that helps you to remember how everything is connected.

Reflection

While you are generating a piece (written, produced, etc.) on your newly acquired topic, be sure to reflect on what you have learned. What mistakes did you make and how could you correct them? What choice would you make instead of the one you chose? How do others in the field go about solving that problem? Can you visualize a new situation.

Elaboration

Practice and exposure to the topic is important, but deliberate practice matters more. Deliberate practice is hard. It is often regimented and you may need a coach or mentor to help you through. It makes me recall the words of a French teacher. She said that she employs a wide variety of French exposure (cartoons, books, visuals with words, songs) because to truly know another language, you have to “get it in your fingertips.” I think of that expression every time we tackle a new subject.

So what else have I gotten out of this book? I think it’s time to step up my French learning. I need to do more generation and elaboration. And I need to do more frequent testing. I’ve been using Duolingo, but I need to tie it to more consistent learning. It might be time to break out the flashcards.