Mind Mapping Can Improve Your Note Taking

By Nerino J. Petro Jr.

Traditional note taking usually involves a list or other form of hierarchical structure, sometimes numbered or lettered in a descending order of importance under each major topic or subtopic area. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to take notes during a lecture or meeting knows, it is extremely difficult to capture the main ideas, concepts, and comments accurately while also listening and learning from the presentation. This is where mind mapping can have a noticeable effect on the ability to accurately capture key information, concepts, and ideas and also provide a handy and effective reference for review and understanding after the session.

What Is a Mind Map?
A mind map is a two-dimensional drawing or representation or a visual diagram of the critical information and concepts being discussed. A mind map can be used to represent topics, subtopics, words, ideas, concepts, and tasks. It can be used for project management, outlines, and notes, and it can serve to kick-start formative and creative thinking and assist with project development, decision making, problem solving, and even writing. Mind maps are utilized in a number of different environments, including education, business, industry, and family and personal settings.

Mind maps start with a core topic and then use “branches” that flow outward from the central topic to subtopics and key ideas and concepts (see Figure 1). Mind maps can incorporate images and other visual cues that can help you quickly visualize and grasp information in a way that a traditional hierarchical list can’t.

The general concept behind mind mapping has been mentioned in writings for hundreds of years and can be found in publications of a number of different professions and occupations. There is some disagreement as to the origin of modern mind-mapping techniques. British writer Tony Buzan claims to have invented modern mind mapping, and, at a minimum, his writings and techniques have made significant contributions to the employment of mind mapping today.

Why Use Mind Mapping?
Consistent use of mind maps has been shown to improve note-taking skills and abilities, improve creativity in the thinking process, and improve learning and retention—by 10 percent or more—when properly used. These improvements can be linked to the fact that mind mapping requires the use of both sides of the brain. Using pictures and colors activates the creative portion of the brain, while note taking employs the analytical portion of the brain.


Figure 1

Standard note taking is hierarchal in nature and usually done in some form of list, making it difficult to capture everything being discussed or to show the relationships between related ideas and concepts. Wouldn’t you rather employ a process that allows for quicker note taking and provides a more logical method of review in the future?

Mind maps can differentiate between different ideas and concepts using shapes, colors, and images; you can then easily group like concepts and show the relationship between ideas. Mind mapping generally allows you to capture all the information for a session on one side of one sheet of paper, allowing you to utilize both your creative and analytical skills to see all the information. The process doesn’t require you to use a hierarchal structure, so you can easily capture subtopics and supporting ideas and concepts. It also generally requires less writing and allows for much quicker review than traditional list-style notes.

Unlike the sequence in a traditional outline, the branches of a mind map do not have to be uniform. Most of us learned that when creating a hierarchal list with subparagraphs, if we had a “1a” we would also need a “1b” for balance; not so with mind maps.

The mind map isn’t about a rigid structure using formalized rules but rather capturing information that grasps the concepts and key ideas in a non-linear fashion. Mind maps are supposed to be fun to create and use. Although there are a number of free and commercially produced software programs available to help create mind maps, you can quickly create a mind map with simple paper and pen. Buzan and others encourage the use of different-color pens to take advantage of the creative cognitive process and to allow for differentiation that is readily apparent in the mind map.

MIND-MAPPING SOFTWARE

Dedicated mind-mapping software ranges from free programs to more robust software costing several hundred dollars per user. Below are examples for the Windows and Macintosh platforms.

 

Windows

Mac OS

Compendium

X

X

FreeMind

X

X

Freeplane

X

X

iMindMap

X

X

MindGenius

X

 

MindManager

X

X

MindMapper

X

 

MindMeister

X

X

MindNode

 

X

Mindomo

X

X

MindView

X

X

MyThoughts

 

X

NovaMind

X

X

SmartDraw

X

 

VYM-View Your Mind

X

X

XMind

X

X



A Few Caveats
Using effective mind-mapping techniques was not something that most of us learned in school, so it requires that we “unlearn” what we have been taught and re-educate ourselves to this new method. Becoming proficient at using mind maps is not something that you pick up immediately; it entails some dedication of time and practice. However, the more that you work with mind mapping, the easier it becomes, and the effort does payoff for most people.

With our increased dependence on computers, it is natural to turn to software to help us with mind mapping, but the software is still only a tool; it is the digital version of the paper and colored pens, and it actually requires a learning curve that can be steeper than when starting with pen and paper. Using software means you must also have a laptop with you to create your mind map; otherwise, you will find yourself creating your map by hand and then recreating it on the computer—not a particularly efficient model. And although there are a number of free mind-mapping computer programs, those with the greatest ease of use and the most features (such as grouping by concepts, showing relationships, or adding images or links) are generally fee-based, commercial programs that can cost upward of several hundred dollars. (For more, see the sidebar “Mind-Mapping Software” above.)

It must also be acknowledged that some people are resistant to using mind maps, or balk at devoting the time to learn the process, or just don’t believe that they can be an improvement over the way they have always captured notes. Others just don’t understand how to use them—they are unable to visualize the map and the underlying concepts, resulting in a failure to see the relationships of the information.

How to Use Mind Mapping
There is no one standard format for a mind map, and they can be as varied as the people who use them. For some, such as Buzan, a mind map consists of short branches, each reflecting only a single word coupled with images, colors, and curves in the lines (see Figure 2). Buzan believes that this simple structure allows ideas to be built upon and concepts to be easily and quickly grasped without overloading the mind with too much detail. Others feel that a branch can contain as much or as little information and text as necessary to convey the idea or concept, and that you can also attach documents to a branch or link it to a web page. You can, of course, choose some combination of these methods. Ultimately, the structure of your maps is a personal choice—use whatever works most effectively for you.

Mind maps are often created spontaneously, but you can use them when you have structured elements available before a meeting. These elements can be used to help organize the map and speed its creation. For example, you could use a meeting agenda to create the initial mind map structure. Start with the central topic of the meeting and then use the different elements contained in the agenda to create subtopics around that central topic in circles or boxes (see Figure 3). Once the meeting starts, draw additional branches from the core concepts and subtopics to reflect new subtopics and ideas (see Figure 4). You can also add images and drawings to help reinforce key concepts or ideas. You can connect your ideas, concepts, or drawings using arrows or link lines to show that they are somehow related or should be considered together.

The more traditional approach is to create a mind map spontaneously when you begin a meeting or session, noting the central topic and then adding branches for subtopics as they are discussed; the branches can be identified with ideas or concepts using either a single word (as Buzan recommends) or in short and distinct segments that may consist of one or more words or even short sentences. If you’re not sure a subtopic is actually a part of the central topic, you can add it to one of the existing subtopics or a subtopic yet to be discussed by drawing the subtopic on the mind map without connecting it to the central topic. This is one of the ways the flexibility of mind mapping can be used—the relationships on the map can easily be added or changed.

Conclusion
Mind mapping can significantly improve your note-taking ability and allow you to easily and quickly review pertinent information at a later date. The process can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it, and you can get started with nothing more than a pen and a sheet of paper or you can use one of the free or commercially produced mind-mapping software programs. Once you master mind mapping, this skill can be an important addition to your law practice tool kit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Nerino J. Petro Jr. is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He may be reached at practicehelp@wisbar.org.

Copyright 2010

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