Organizing Ideas: Concept Mapping

Have you ever been at a loss regarding the enormity of information you need to organize in brain when you prepare for an examination, paper presentation, quiz program, memory test etc? If the answer is yes, then probably you are underutilizing the amazing skills of your brain that could easily handle and organize huge amounts of information and data. The key lies in training your brain in simple ordering skills. It is possible to train our brain to organize information in different ways. One of the ways in which we can organise information in our brain and retain it for a longer duration is by doing concept mapping.

It may sound very simple but it does work wonders. You are in fact assisting your brain to organize information in a systematic manner.

 A cocept map is a diagram that organizes  information showing the relationships that exist among various concepts, ideas or images present therein. Making visible the relationship among various concepts in the diagram is the core of concept mapping. it enhances meaningful  and logical learning and assoication of ideas.

How to do a Concept Map

  • Write in capitals, for ease of reading.
  • Use blank unlined  paper, as the presence of lines on paper may hinder the non-linear process of Mapping. If you must use lined paper, turn it so the lines are vertical.
  • Connect all words or phrases or lists with lines, to the centre or to other “branches.” When you get a new idea, start again with a new “spoke” from the centre.
  • Go quickly, without pausing — try to keep up with the flow of ideas. Do not stop to decide where something should go to order or organize material — just get it down. Ordering and analyzing are “linear” activities and will disrupt the Mapping process.
  • Write down everything you can think of without judging or editing — these activities will also disrupt the Mapping process.
  • If you come to a standstill, look over what you have done to see if you have left anything out.
  • You may want to use color-coding, to group sections of the Map.

 Organizational Patterns that you could use in a Concept-Map

  • Use branches. An idea may branch many times to include both closely and distantly related ideas.
  • Use Arrows. You may want to use arrows to join ideas from different branches.
  • Do Groupings. If a number of branches contain related ideas, you may want to draw a circle around the whole area.
  • Make Lists.
  • Add Explanatory/Exploratory notes. You may want to write a few sentences in the Map itself, to explain, question, or comment on some aspect of your Map — for example, the relationship between some of the ideas.

Benefits of Mapping

Mapping may be seen as a type of brainstorming. Both Mapping and brainstorming may be used to encourage the generation of new material, such as different interpretations and viewpoints: however, Mapping relies less on intentionally random input, whereas, during brainstorming, one may try to think up wild, zany, off-the-wall ideas and connections. Brainstorming attempts to encourage highly divergent “lateral” thinking, whereas Mapping, by its structure, provides opportunity for convergent thinking, fitting ideas together, as well as thinking up new ideas, since it requires all ideas to be connected to the centre, and possibly to one another. Paradoxically, the results of brainstorming usually appear on paper as lists or grids — both unavoidably linear structures: top to bottom, left to right. Mapping is less constrictive — no idea takes precedence arbitrarily (eg. by being at the “top” of the list).

Here are some advantages of Mapping, which will become more apparent to you after you have practiced this technique a few times:

  • It clearly defines the central idea, by positioning it in the centre of the page.
  • It allows you to indicate clearly the relative importance of each idea.
  • It allows you to figure out the links among the key ideas more easily. This is particularly important for creative work such as essay writing.
  • It allows you to see all your basic information on one page.
  • As a result of the above, and because each Map will look different, it makes recall and review more efficient.
  • It allows you to add in new information without messy scratching out or squeezing in.
  • It makes it easier for you to see information in different ways, from different viewpoints, because it does not lock it into specific positions.
  • It allows you to see complex relationships among ideas, such as self-perpetuating systems with feedback loops, rather than forcing you to fit non-linear relationships to linear formats, before you have finished thinking about them.
  • It allows you to see contradictions, paradoxes, and gaps in the material — or in your own interpretation of it — more easily, and in this way provides a foundation for questioning, which in turn encourages discovery and creativity.

Where can you apply concept maps?

Summarizing Readings

Summarizing is important for at least two reasons: 1. it aids memory, and; 2. it encourages high-level, critical thinking, which is so important in university work.

Use Mapping in the following ways, to summarize an article, or a chapter in a book:

1. Read the introduction and conclusion of the article, and skim it, looking at sub-headings, graphs, and diagrams.

2. Read the article in one sitting. For longer material, “chunk” it — into chapters, for example — and follow this procedure for each chunk.

3. Go back over the article until you are quite familiar with its content. (This is assuming that it will be useful and relevant to your work — one would not wish to spend this amount of work on peripheral material).

4. Do a Map as described above, from memory. Do not refer to the article or lecture notes while you are doing the Map if you do, you will disrupt the process.

5. Look over what you have done. It should be apparent if you do not understand, or have forgotten, anything. Refer back to the source material to fill in the gaps, but only after you have tried to recall it without looking.

6. Up to this point, the Map is made up of information derived from what you have read. If you want to add your own comments, you can differentiate them by using a different colored pen — or you could make a whole new Map. This is useful if you want to go more deeply into the material — to help to remember or apply it, or to work on an essay. (See the section on “Working on an Essay,” below.)

7. Now, ask questions about the material on the Concept-Map:

– How do the parts fit together?

– Does it all make sense? why, or why not?

– Is there anything missing, unclear, or problematic about it?

– How does it fit with other course material? How does it fit with your personal experience? Are there parts that do not fit? Why not?

– What are the implications of the material?

– Could there be other ways of looking at it?

– Is the material true in all cases?

– How far does its usefulness extend?

– What more do you need to find out?

Of course, not all of these questions will apply to every Map; however, the more closely you look at the material, the more questions will come to you. Try to think of the central, most important question about the material: if something does not make sense, or seems unresolved, try to state explicitly why, in what way, there is a problem. This may be difficult to do, but it is worth the effort, because it will make it easier for you to find an answer.

Summarizing Lectures

Some people use Mapping to take lecture notes. If you find that this works for you, by all means do it: however, if it does not work, you can certainly take lecture notes as you normally would, and summarize them later (as soon as possible after the lecture) in the way described above. Be sure to do this first from memory — then check it over for accuracy. If possible, give yourself adequate time to do this — the more time you spend, the better your retention will be. However, even a brief summary will have very beneficial effects for your memory, and your overall understanding of the material — its salient points and how they fit together.

Making Notes in a Seminar or Workshop

A seminar differs from a lecture in that it lays more emphasis on process: in a more-or-less open-ended discussion among all members of the group, there is a less linear progression of ideas than there is in a lecture. A Map can be useful for keeping track of the flow of ideas in such a context, and for tying them together and commenting on them.

Reviewing for an Exam

Mapping can be a productive way to study for an exam, particularly if the emphasis of the course is on understanding and applying abstract, theoretical material, rather than on simply reproducing memorized information. Doing a Map of the course content can point out the most important concepts and principles, and allow you to see the ways in which they fit together. This may also help you to see your weak areas, and help you to focus your studying.

Working on an Essay

Mapping is a particularly powerful tool to use during the early stages of writing an essay, before you write the first rough draft. When you start out exploring material that may be useful for your essay, you can summarize your readings — using Mapping, as described above — to help discover fruitful areas of research. Finding a suitable thesis is a process of exploration and approximation, and later on, insight. You may want to look for something that you find interesting and somehow problematical, with implications beyond itself that you can explore.

It is often difficult to find a powerful thesis for an essay; hence, there is an inevitable, often unpleasant, and occasionally lengthy, period of confusion. During this period, to progress toward a resolution, it is necessary to know where you stand:

– what you know;

– what your specific questions are;

– what your own opinions or interpretations of the material are;

– whether own opinions are applicable or should be questioned.

Remember, try not to refer to notes or other source material when you are doing your Map. Ask questions such as those listed above (#7, “Summarizing Notes”).

Organizing the material is another common problem that people have when they are writing essays. Mapping will allow you to see the major categories of your essay, but will not impose an order on them. This will allow you to place your ideas in a sequence most applicable to your purposes.

Aside from summarizing readings, always feel free to use Mapping to help you think, when you are working on an essay. Use this technique as often as you like, particularly when you are stuck, and as you become familiar with it, you will find it more and more useful and flexible.

An additional incentive: Tony Buzan notes that “Using these techniques at Oxford University, students were able to complete essays in one third of the previous time, while receiving higher marks.” (Use Your Head, p.102).

When you are mapping for an essay, emphasize arguments, explanations, definitions, and abstract categories and relationships. An example of this sort of Map occurs in the essay entitled “Essay Writing as Play,” (Ed. B-425: Anthropology and Education), in the Student Essay Library, at Counselling Services.

Creative Writing

While you are working on an essay, you may experience a particularly important insight as you are Mapping: of course, you cannot predict what this “creative spark” will be about or when it will occur–however, if you are serious about writing orthinking, you should become familiar with the process that precedes insight. One very effective way to do this is to use Mapping for creative writing. An excellent book on the use of this technique for such literary (and even “therapeutic”) purposes is Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico, who refers to her version of Mapping as “Clustering.”

Resources List

  • Buzan, Tony. Use Your Head.
  • Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way.
  • Counselling Services Handout. “How to Read University Texts.”

Organization Practice: Mapping

Instructions: Read the following passage on principles of classification, and then do a concept map — from memory — of everything you can remember of the passage.

Classification consists of placing together in categories those things that resemble each other. While this sounds simple, in actual practice it may be quite difficult. First of all, we have to decide what kind of similarities are the most important for our purpose. One of the earliest classification schemes placed in one category all those organisms which lived in the same habitat. Thus fish, whales, and penguins were classified as swimming creatures. This type of classification was often based on the principle that creatures possessing analogous organs should be classified together. Analogous organs are organs that have the same function. The fins of fishes and the flippers of whales and penguins are analogous organs because they are all used for swimming. The wings of birds, bats, and insects are analogous organs that make flying possible.

As more knowledge was gained about the anatomy of living things, it became apparent that similarities of habitat and of analogous organs were often rather superficial. The fact that bats have fur and nurse their young, birds have feathers and lay eggs, while insects are cold-blooded and have no internal skeleton suggested that these organisms differ from one another in more important ways than they resemble one another. An appreciation of the truly significant ways in which organisms resemble or differ from one another enabled the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus to found the modern system of classification. In 1753 he published a classification of the plants which was followed, in 1758, by a classification of the animals. For this work he is often called the father of taxonomy, the name given to the study of classification. His system of classification is fundamentally the system we use today. It is based on the principle of homology. Homologous organs are organs which show the same basic structure, the same general relationship to other organs, and the same pattern of very early growth. They need not, however, share the same function. An examination of the bones of the whale’s flipper, the bat’s wing, and man’s arm reveals the same basic pattern (Fig.2-2). Furthermore, all these appendages are found in the same part of the body and develop in similar ways. They are homologous organs, although they are used to carry out quite different functions. Linnaeus felt that the difference in function was trivial, while the homology of the organs provided a sound basis for grouping these animals together. Why is classification based upon homology so significant? The answer to this question was not given until 1859 when Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, According to Darwin, a classification based upon the presence of homologous organs is a classification based upon kinship. He felt that all creatures sharing homologous organs is a classification based upon kinship. He felt that all creatures sharing homologous organs are related to one another, having inherited their homologous organs from a common ancestor. Thus man, the bat, and the whale all had a single ancestor who possessed the basic forelimb structure that these creatures possess – although obviously in a quite modified form – today.

Now, do a concept map of this material without referring to the passage. This will give you practice in remembering, and will show you exactly how much you know and don’t know. It will also provide you with a solid basis for thinking critically about the topic.

Organization Practice — Concept Map

Organization Practice — List Structures

Incapable of Organization

Some material — such as the items in the following list — is not apparently capable of organization. If you are unfortunate enough to have to learn a list consisting of items that are not homogeneous, not mutually exclusive, and not exhaustive (i.e., some items that could apparently have been included in the list have been excluded) — in other words, not logically related in any way — then you will have a difficult time recalling the items, since logical association is one of the most powerful aids to recall. Some disciplines actually require you to know such material, although one would hope never to come across an example as bizarre as the following list:

Classification of animals found in ancient Chinese encyclopaedia

Belonging to the Emperor
Sucking Pigs
Stray Dogs
Included in the present classification
Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
et cetera
Having just broken the water pitcher
That from a long way off look like flies

Tip: If you do ever face the task of having to memorize material like this, try using a memory system in which you visualize the items and link the images one to another in bizarre or humorous ways, as described in Harry Lorayne’s books, The Memory Book and How to Develop a Super Power Memory (in particular, look at the “Link” and “Substitute Word” techniques).

Capable of Organization

Instructions: The following list is capable of organization, but is in disorder. See if you can group the elements of the list in a logical way: or see if you can summarize and explain the information contained in this list.

Black Panthers

Organization Practice — Outline


  • Animals
    • Wild
      • Dangerous
        • Lions
        • Tigers
        • Black Panthers
        • Dingos
      • Harmless
        • Deer
        • Squirrels
        • Woodchucks
        • Possums
    • Domestic
      • Livestock
        • cattle
        • Pigs
        • Horses
      • Pets
        • Dogs
        • Cats

Organization Practice — Summary Paragraph


For practical purposes, animals can be divided into those which are wild and those which are tame or domestic. Wild animals are either dangerous or harmless. Dangerous animals, for example, are lions, tigers, black panthers, and dingos. Harmless animals might be deer, squirrels, woodchucks, and possums. Domestic animals are livestock or pets. Livestock, for example, includes cattle, pigs, and horses while pets usually include dogs and cats.

Organization Practice — Tables

Instructions: The information contained in the following passages lends itself to organization into tables. Read these passages and see if you can make up tables to present the important information.


Rocks seem commonplace enough to most people, but to others they are fascinating, and rightly so.

Rocks are divided into three main types, according to how they were made.

Igneous rock is fire-born. It was once magma, or liquid rock, hidden deep inside the earth. Shifts in the earth’s crust (such as an earthquake) caused this liquid rock to escape. When the hot magma hit the cool air, it hardened, forming igneous rock.

Sedimentary rock is formed from earth materials gradually worn down by water, wind, and snow. Tiny particles of dirt, sand, and clay are washed to the bottoms of lakes, rivers, and oceans. Rocks are formed as layers of this sediment build up, each pressing down and hardening the layer underneath. Again, shifts in the earth’s crust cause the layers to come to the surface.

Metamorphic rock is “made over” rock. Either igneous or sedimentary rock is metamorphosed, or changed, usually through extreme heat or pressure under the earth’s crust. This ever-continuing process has formed the various landscapes of the earth since the beginning of time.

When you are finished compiling a table on “Rocks,” click here to see an example.

Now try doing a table for the following passage:

Shakespeare’s Dramas

Shakespeare’s dramas fall rather naturally into three main groups. Those written during his earlier years conformed to the traditions of existing plays and generally reflected his own confidence in personal success. They include such comedies as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, a number of historical plays, and the lyrical tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Shortly before 1600 Shakespeare seems to have experienced a change of mood. The restrained optimism of his earlier plays was supplanted by some deep disillusions which led him to distrust human nature and to indict the whole scheme of the universe. The result was a group of dramas characterized by bitterness, overwhelming pathos, and a troubled searching into the mysteries of things. The series begins with the tragedy of intellectual idealism represented by Hamlet, goes on to the cynicism of Measure for Measure, and Alls Well That Ends Well, and culminates in the cosmic tragedies of Macbeth and King Lear. The final group of dramas includes those written during the closing years of Shakespeare’s life, probably after his retirement. Among them are The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. All of them may be described as idyllic romances. Trouble and grief are now assumed to be only the shadows in a beautiful picture. Despite individual tragedy, the divine plan of the universe is somehow benevolent and just.

Edward McNall Burns. Western Civilizations N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973, 392.

Organization Practice — Table

Shakespeare’s Dramas





mostly comedy

confidence in personal success

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Romeo and Juliet



disillusionment, bitterness, troubled searching

  • Hamlet
  • Measure for Measure
  • Alls Well That Ends Well
  • Macbeth
  • King Lear


idyllic romances

universe is seen as benevolent and just, in spite of tragedy

  • The Winter’s Tale
  • The Tempest

Organization Practice — Sequential Diagram

Instructions: Try organizing the material in the following passage. You may use a map or flowchart format.

The cattle tick is a small, flat-bodied, blood-sucking arachnid with a curious life history. It emerges from the egg not yet fully developed, lacking a pair of legs and sex organs. In this state it is still capable of attacking cold-blooded animals such as frogs and lizards, which it does. After shedding its skin several times, it acquires its missing organs, mates, and is then prepared to attack warm-blooded animals.

The eyeless female is directed to the tip of a twig on a bush by her photosensitive skin, and there she stays through darkness and light, through fair weather and foul, waiting for the moment that will fulfill her existence. In the Zoological Institute at Rostock, prior to World War I, ticks were kept on the end of twigs, waiting for this moment for a period of eighteen years. The metabolism of the creature is sluggish to the point of being suspended entirely. The sperm she received in the act of mating remains bundled into capsules where it, too, waits in suspension until mammalian blood reaches the stomach of the tick, at which time the capsules break, the sperm are released, and they fertilize the eggs which have been reposing in the ovary, also waiting a kind of time suspension.

The signal for which the tick waits is the scent of butyric acid, a substance present in the sweat of all mammals. This is the only experience that will trigger time into existence for the tick.

The tick represents, in the conduct of its life, a kind of apotheosis of subjective time perception. For a period as long as eighteen years nothing happens. The period passes as a single moment; but at any moment within this span of literally senseless existence, when the animal becomes aware of the scent of butyric acid it is trust into a perception of time, and other signals are suddenly perceived.

The animal then hurls itself in the direction of the scent. The object on which the tick lands at the end of this leap must be warm; a delicate sense of temperature is suddenly mobilized and so informs the creature. If the object is not warm, the tick will drop off and re-climb its perch. If it is warm, the tick burrows its head deeply into the skin and slowly pumps itself full of blood. Experiments made at Rostock with membranes filled with fluids other than blood proved that the tick lacks all sense of taste, and once the membrane is perforated the animal will drink any fluid, provided it is of the right temperature.

The extraordinary preparedness of this creature for that moment of time during which it will re-enact the purpose of its life contrasts strikingly with probability that this moment will ever occur. There are doubtless many bushes on which ticks perch, which are never bypassed by a mammal within range of the tick’s leap. As do most animals, the tick lives in an absurdly unfavourable world — at least so it would appear to the compassionate human observer. But this world is merely the environment of the animal. The world it perceives — which experimenters at Rostock call its “umwelt,” its perceptual world — it not at all unfavourable. A period of eighteen years, as measured objectively by the tick. During this period, it is apparently unaware of temperature changes. Being blind, it does not see the leaves shrivel and fall and then renew themselves on the bush where it is affixed. Unaware of time, it is also unaware of space. It waits, suspended in duration for its particular moment of time, a moment distinguished by being filled with a single, unique experience; the scent of butyric acid.

Though we consider ourselves far removed as humans from such a lowly insect form as this, we too are both aware and unaware of elements which comprise our environment. We are more aware than the tick of the passage of time. We are subjectively aware of the aging process; we know that we grow older, that time is shortened by each passing moment. For the tick, however, this moment that precedes it burst of volitional activity, the moment when it scents butyric acid and it thrust into purposeful movement, is close to the end of time for the tick. When it fills itself with blood, it drops from its host, lays its eggs and dies.

When you are done, set your work aside, so you can’t see it, and try to reproduce it from memory, to see how well it helps you to remember and understand the material.

Organization Practice — Hierarchical Outline

Instructions: Try organizing the material in the following paragraph. You may use a hierarchical format, such as a “tree diagram,” or the horizontal version of a tree diagram — a “standard outline.”

Ocean Currents

In general there are two types of currents which flow through the oceans. There are those which are helpful to marine life, bringing oxygen to the water far below the surface and carrying food to plants and animals. They also scatter eggs and young creatures far and wide, thus aiding the distribution of different forms of life in the sea. But at times ocean currents can be destructive. Currents which carry a marked increase in temperature often kill plants and fish by the thousands, blackening the beaches with decaying matter. The birds off the coast are affected by the shutting off of their food supply, and the warm current often carries torrential downpours which cause terrific floods.

from Gilbert, Doris Wilcox; Study in Depth
Prentice-Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs,
N.J., 1966. Pg. 26

Organization Practice — Hierarchical Outline

Ocean currents — two types:

  • helpful to life — plants and animals thrive
    • bring
      • oxygen
      • food
    • disperse
      • eggs
      • young
  • harmful to life
    • bring
      • increased temperature — plants and animals are killed
        • decaying plants and animals foul shore
        • birds’ food supply reduced
      • increase in rain and flooding

When you are done, set your work aside, so you can’t see it, and try to reproduce it from memory, to see how well it helps you to remember and understand the material

How to Read University Texts or Journal Articles

Choose a section preferrably not longer than 25 or 30 pages – perhaps one chapter, or a section of a chapter – that you can handle at one sitting.

Step 1. Read the title, the introduction, and the conclusion (5 minutes).

Step 2. Read the title, the introduction again, all sub-headings, and the conclusion, again. (5-10 minutes).

Step 3. Read the title, the introduction one more time, sub-headings, the Topic Sentence of each paragraph – usually the first or second sentence, (you may read the last sentence as well, if you have time), any italicized or boldfaced words, lists (you can skim these), and the conclusion (10 minutes).

(Force yourself to do steps 1 to 3 in less than 25 minutes.)

Step 4. Close your textbook.

Step 5. Make a Mind-Map of all you can remember in the chapter. Do not stop until at least half an hour is up, even if you feel that you can’t possibly remember any more–more will surface if you give yourself the time. DO NOT REFER TO THE TEXT WHILE YOU ARE DOING THIS. If you come to a dead end, try alternative memory techniques to the ones you have been using: associating ideas, either from within the section itself or from other related material; visualizing pages, pictures, graphs etc.; recalling personal associations that may have come to mind; staring out the window and blanking out your thoughts; and so on. This is strenuous, but it is rewarding. It will show you exactly how much you have learned of what you have read. Give yourself a lot of time to do this, and you will probably be surprised at how much you actually can recall, and at how you can use all sorts of different strategies for remembering. You should also be noting down questions about things you have forgotten, so you can look them up.

When you are finished, you should try to figure out how all the material you have remembered fits together – not necessarily as it is presented in the book, but as it is organized in your own thinking. Note down your opinions of it, questions about it, disagreements with it, and so on.

Step 6. Check through the text and fill in any important information that you missed. Use a different colour of ink or some other way to mark this material that you forgot, so you can study it later. At this point, you may wish to read through the entire chapter as you normally would, to make sure you did not miss anything. Then do another Map, from memory, to check whether you have learned the new material.

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