Visual mapping

Connecting teachers with learning

08/23/2010  |  TONI KRASNIC
tools for teachers

Although visual mapping is already used by over 250 million people worldwide, including many of the largest companies in the world, it is still relatively little used in schools and unknown to teachers and students. However, once teachers and students get introduced to visual mapping, they find it a fun, engaging, and motivating approach to learning.

What is visual mapping?

Universally acknowledged as a powerful learning tool, visual mapping — the diagramming of ideas and concepts — was first developed by Tony Buzan in the 1970s. Using visual maps allows you to better and more quickly capture, create, organize, analyze, consolidate, and share information and knowledge, and enhance your ability to think, understand subjects, write, solve problems, make decisions, take actions, and learn.

Visual mapping is known by many other names, most notably mind mapping,® but also concept mapping, flow-charting, visual thinking, spider diagramming, memory mapping, semantic mapping, and thought webbing. Regardless of what you call it, the basic principles are the same. A visual map is a graphic tool used to collect, create, manage, and exchange information visually. It represents information via the spatial organization and association of concepts/topics, ideas, words, or other items linked to and arranged in a radial pattern around a central concept. In essence, visual mapping enables you to transition from information chaos and overload to a meaningful presentation of information by organizing and connecting concepts and ideas so that they make sense to you.

Think of a visual map as a tree, where the various outlying branches — the concepts and subconcepts — all connect back to the trunk or central concept. The elements of a given visual map are arranged intuitively according to the importance of the concepts, with the goal of representing accurate and meaningful connections among them. The concepts are typically represented in a hierarchical fashion with the most general (inclusive) concepts closer to the central concept and the less general (more exclusive or specific) concepts placed further away from the central concept.

How visual mapping works

The brain naturally works on the basis of association, connecting new concepts and ideas to existing ideas and concepts. For example, cognitive psychologist David Ausubel suggests that new information must be meaningfully integrated into existing cognitive structures in order to be truly remembered. That’s exactly what you do with visual maps and why visual mapping was developed. When you learn a new concept, you add it to the appropriate place in the visual map, and in order to do that, you have to analyze the patterns and structures of your topic. This promotes better memorization and recall, as well as the ability to apply knowledge in new situations. Visual mapping offers enough flexibility to maintain interest and encourage curiosity and enough structure to keep the learner on track.

How visual maps help teachers

In our data-saturated society, the ability to handle large amounts of complex information is extremely important. Visual mapping enables you to manipulate ideas and concepts with great ease and flexibility, helping you represent available information visually in a comprehensive and clear manner. Properly organizing information allows you to easily understand and evaluate existing knowledge and opens the door for effective application of your knowledge. Although the benefits listed in the diagram below focus on teaching and learning, they span far beyond education and include uses in business, meetings, project management, and problem solving.

How to visually map

Only two steps are truly critical to visual mapping: (1) identify/add key concepts and (2) organize/connect key concepts correctly and meaningfully.

In other words, provided you do these two things, you don’t need to worry too much about the process by which you create your map. In fact, preoccupation with producing the “perfect” visual map can slow your thinking and stymie the process. Visual maps come in many variations and you may encounter other visual mapping guides that describe a different organizational format or number of steps. The visual maps that you make are yours alone, and you can choose the form that best suits your purpose and needs.

How to get started

A great way to get started is to look at some existing visual maps created by teachers and others. An extensive collection of free visual maps can be found at, a site with over 100,000 members.

You’ll also need a visual mapping computer program. Although visual mapping can be done without the aid of a computer program, such programs extend the scope of your maps by allowing you to easily record and manipulate not only thoughts and ideas but also link information from your computer and the Internet. Today, visual mapping programs are sophisticated, easy to use, flexible, and available for almost any electronic platform.

Many free and proprietary visual mapping programs are available. The most popular free visual mapping programs are XMind, FreeMind, Mind42, and CmapTools. They offer robust feature menus and are compatible with other mapping programs. The most popular propriety programs are Mindjet MindManager, iMindMap, Comapping, MindMapper, and NovaMind. Note that most propriety programs offer a free, 30-day trial period, and often provide reduced purchase prices and special semester-long trial arrangement for teachers and students. For a compilation of all major visual mapping programs, resources, and galleries, visit 

Give visual mapping a try. It may be the key to unlocking the full potential of your teaching and your students’ learning, bringing a renewed sense of enthusiasm to your classroom.

Toni Krasnic ([email protected]) is author of CONCISE LEARNING: Learn More & Score Higher in Less Time with Less Effort. For more information
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