Higher Order Thinking With Mind Mapping

When we engage higher-order thinking, an extraordinary pattern of neural networks is activated in the brain. Teachers are well aware of the disconnect that occurs when students are asked to translate these complex and holistic patterns into linear thinking—for instance, when we ask them to generate a thesis or write an essay.

a mind map created for an economics class assignment

Image 1 (get details).

writing process mind map

Image 2 (get details).

ontological argument mind map

Image 3 (get details).

a mind map illustrating trophic relationships of backyard organisms

Image 4 (get details).

Mind-mapping learning activities can help. They enable students to create a visual representation of the relationships between ideas or things and offer an intermediary step between the web of information in the brain and an expository representation of that information. The brain makes sense of the world by discerning and creating patterns; in the same way, learning happens when students perceive and construct patterns.

Mind mapping is a tool peculiarly suited to the ways we process information and know our world. To appreciate the potential for these tools, consider the extent to which we are predisposed to be visual learners:

  • Between 80 and 90 percent of information that we receive from our environment is visual.
  • Our brains can process 36,000 images every hour.
  • Our memory for visual images is extraordinary. In one study, subjects were shown up to 10,000 pictures. Later they were shown some of these images again, mixed in with pictures they hadn’t seen. Subjects were able to identify previously seen pictures with over 90 percent accuracy.

Mind mapping utilizes both our capacity to absorb and retain visual information and our natural ability to create patterns.


Mind mapping can be used at any point students need to clarify and expand their ideas; specifically, it can help them

  • access and record prior knowledge;
  • brainstorm;
  • organize, develop, and edit their ideas;
  • apply concepts; or
  • summarize and review readings and notes.

You and your students can construct different types of visual representations using mind-mapping techniques. Mind maps used to generate ideas and concepts typically are organized radially, while those used to demonstrate understanding of ideas and systems, sometimes called “concept maps,” typically are organized hierarchically and linearly. Both can be constructed by following these steps:

  1. Write or type a label for each content element inside a shape using one of the technologies listed below.
  2. Arrange the shapes on a piece of paper or computer screen. In mind maps, the organizing idea/content element often appears in the middle of the map and related ideas/content elements radiate from it. In concept maps, large or encompassing categories often appear at the top, and a chain of ideas or a sequence of events appears under them.
  3. Draw lines and/or arrows between the shapes to show how they are linked together.

Teaching Tips

Before you decide to use mind mapping to teach, you should have a clear idea of your goals. Share them with your students when you assign the mind-mapping activity, and make sure you adequately introduce it:

  1. Explain the benefits of using graphic tools in order to motivate students to try this technique.
  2. Explain the technique of mind mapping.
    • Show them a mind map you’ve created and talk through the process.
    • Discuss how you benefited from the process—specifically, what does the mind map reveal or clarify?
  3. Explain how you might use the mind map. For instance, if this is the first step in drafting a paper, how might you proceed to the next step? How might you use mind mapping to integrate and synthesize information, to study for an exam, or to generate a thesis?
  4. Explain how you will assess the students’ maps.


You can use hardware and software such as the following to have your students produce and present mind maps:

The advantage of using technology to create a mind map is that the mind map can be stored and shared and can become the basis of an interaction between teacher and student or of a class discussion. Also, students can use color and shape to formalize or codify a system of meaning. Keep in mind, though, that mind mapping is a conceptually sophisticated process. Separate learning how to mind map and learning how to use mind mapping technology. While students develop their skills and comfort level, paper and pen might be appropriate tools.


Instructors and students across disciplines can use mind-mapping learning activities for different purposes. Some of the following examples are activities used in real classrooms, and some were created by our consultants:

  • Representing Labor Relations: John Budd from the Carlson School of Management promotes active learning in his classes by having students in small groups create mind maps (see Image 1).
  • Facilitating the Writing Process: An instructor could have students use our Mind-Mapping Tool to brainstorm, draft, develop, organize, and get feedback on papers (see Image 2).
  • Illustrating Philosophical Ideas: A philosophy instructor could use our mind-mapping tool to illustrate an argument and objections to it. Students could use the tool themselves to check their own understanding of philosophical theories (see Image 3).
  • Mapping Complex Biological Processes: A biology instructor could have students use our mind-mapping tool to map the complex relationships between organisms in an ecosystem (see Image 4).

Assessment and Evaluation Tools

The following tools were created by University of Minnesota instructors to assess student-created mind maps and evaluate a mind-mapping learning activity. A visual arts professor who has students create concept maps in preparation for writing papers developed the first. The instructor of a human resource development course who has students illustrate with mind maps the relationships among concepts and theories addressed in a research article developed the second and third. You may adapt them for your own use:

Related Resources

  • See the Bibliography on our Mind-Mapping TEL Activities Spotlight Issues page.
  • See the Campus Resources on our Mind-Mapping TEL Activities Spotlight Issues page.

Source: Digital Media Center – University of Minnesota