Thursday, September 27, 2012

Life is Full of Tough Choices: Mindmap or Concept Map?

In my previous two posts, I introduced Mindmaps and Concept Maps. Today, I'll present some rules of thumb regarding when to use each type of map.
This Concept Map illustrates the similarities and differences among Concept Maps, Common Mindmaps, and Pure Mindmaps. As Roy Grubb stated in WikIT, "Concept Maps have rigor, Mindmaps have vigor." Although this is a generalization, it really rings true regarding the differences between the uses of the two types of map. Since, to the best of my knowledge, all software packages except one create Common Mindmaps, that is what I'll focus on.

To cut to the chase, Mindmaps are best used:
  • When you have ideas in your mind and want to quickly record them,
  • For categorizing, sub-categorizing, and re-categorizing information,
  • For brainstorming, since ideas can be recorded quickly and then be reorganized, as needed,
  • For writing projects, to aid in the generation of ideas, and then to organize those ideas into a consistent, usable form,
  • For notetaking, to either take notes on a book or article you are reading, or to take notes live in a meeting or a lecture,
  • For meetings, to plan the meeting, take notes, and publish minutes,
  • For presentations, the map's central topic is the topic of the presentation, the main (first-level) branches represent the main topics to be covered and the order in which to do so, and each successive level of the map uncovers greater levels of detail of the topics specified by the main branches,
  • For planning or organizational tasks, the Mindmap allows you to quickly record all of the information that needs to be organized without worrying whether you are placing the information in the right spot in the map, and then moving branches around as necessary, after further reflection,
  • For managing the execution of tasks specified in a planning map,
  • For studying or memorizing, the categorization properties of Mindmaps illustrates which ideas are part of of the various higher-level ideas, and the visual design aids in retention of this information, and
  • For problem solving and generally stimulating the flow of creative juices, the Mindmap allows you to see the big picture and details at the same time, presenting you with the opportunity to see associations and new ideas that are not apparent in other representations.
Concept Maps, on the other hand, are best used:
  • When there is a primary focus question to be answered,
  • For breaking down and representing complex knowledge, when the knowledge is complex enough that the representation requires types of relationships other than simple categorization and sub-categorization,
  • To teach a concept as described above, through the use of relationships and their types,
  • As a Human-Computer Interface between you and an ontology and/or a computational reasoning system,
  • For the representation of knowledge in an historical or archival context, where new relationship and concepts are added as they are created or discovered,
  • For the deep understanding of a concept, creating a Concept Map is effective, because if you must have a complete understanding of a concept, the building of a map points out areas where your understanding still has gaps, which you may then fill by consulting external sources, and
  • For the creation of a representation sufficiently rigorous for a computer to reason over, a properly constructed Concept Map is ideal.
To summarize, use Mindmaps for problem solving, stimulation of creativity, planning and organization, and use Concept Maps for rigor, detailed modeling of knowledge, and as a way of representing knowledge in a form that a computer can use to reason with.

These are just examples of uses for Mindmaps and Concept Maps. There are many that I have not mentioned. However, this comparison should provide you enough of the flavor for you to decide which type of map to use for which situations that you encounter.

Once again, thanks go out to WikiT for the image, and next week the Mindmap Shootout actually begins!


  1. I encourage medical educators to use a variation on this called Illness Patterns, where students are encouraged to represent their ideas about illness either with images or text.

  2. Deirdre, Thanks for providing that link. I have seen the Illness+Patterns page and its links and it provides some great resources for everyone interested in Mindmaps, not just those in Medical Education.

  3. Very well done, I guess you took quite sometimes on the concept Map; as I was having similar experience on Twitter-Search Mapping, caused me days to work those out. Great effort, thanks for sharing your findings.

  4. Ching Ya, I'm glad you liked the post. I took a look at the post you mentioned, and I could see how you could appreciate a lot of work foing into a post! That is a great piece of work, and everybody interested in twitter should take a look at it.

    Thanks, Seth

  5. It seem that I will learn lots from your blog, I always have problems with Mind and Time mapping!

  6. Lifethinking, Thanks for coming by. I hope I can continue to help you out.


  7. nice post. Here is a list of some mind map(concept map) tools.

  8. Open,

    That is a great resource and well worth becoming familiar with. It touches upon a few of the tools that I'll be discussing shortly, but Windows users will find it extremely useful for the windows-based tools it presents.

    Thanks for the link, Seth

  9. Excellent post. Your summary of mindmaps perfectly matches my experience after 3ish years of using FreeMind daily.

    The one thing I would add for concept maps is that they are also great breaking down goals into projects and tasks. For example, concept maps make it easy to figure out the steps involved in planning a conference or launching a startup. This is something you can't do using mindmaps, because there are multiple dependencies involved. (E.g., in order to send out invitations for a conference you need to have booked a venue, and you also need to have a guest list.)

  10. Alex,

    Very insightful comment. I'm glad to hear that my views agree with somebody else with experience in mindmapping. Your views on additional applications for Concept Maps is spot on. Concept Maps are great for planning tasks with multiple dependencies. If they had a solid concept of time, we could almost do away with project management software ;o)

    Thanks again for the useful suggestion, and I look forward to more comments in the future.


  11. Hello Seth:

    I enjoyed your posts. I have been doing a lot of work in the field of educational and assistive technology and have used concept maps and mind maps for years with students with disabilities. Teaching teachers how to use these tools to help support students with learning differences has made a big difference. You can view my work at

    Brian S. Friedlander
    AssistiveTek Blog

  12. Brian,

    Thanks for your interest in Tech Landscape. I took a look at your blog, and your work looks very interesting. I'll put a link to it in my list of blogs of interest. I hope that some of your readers would be interested in Tech Landscape, as well.


  13. Do you think Mindmapping would be an effective tool to take notes quickly, such as for a lecture in medical school where the material is gone over too quickly?

  14. Hi, Joseph!

    Thanks for the comment. Mindmapping can be an excellent way to take notes in your lectures. Mindmapping is very well suited to take notes in lectures where the information is coming at you too quickly to write out your usual detailed notes. In order to use this approach, just take your laptop into the lecture with a informal template for a lecture in the subject. The more info you can put into the map in advance, the better. If you have an idea of what will be covered, either by advance reading, or syllabus, then you can put general topics to be covered into the map to start out. If you don't really have any idea what will be covered (your dog ate your syllabus, for example), just put in your central topic with the course name, and date, and the approach will still work fine.

    During the lecture, just add topics as they come up in the lecture. Do not try to write everything down in the map, or you'll quickly fall behind, just like when you were taking detailed note on paper or a word processor. create topics with only enough detail to act as a reminder when you next look at it. Some areas covered might require you to branch out into a number of levels of detail, but you will be the best judge of that. Also key to this approach is the way you structure the map as you go along. You don't! Just create topics/nodes as rapidly as you receive the information with no regard to where you put them in the map. Perhaps the lecture is so fast-paced that you end up with all of your topics branching off from the central topic, and that is perfectly fine. If you have time when the professor drinks some water, you can structure a bit, but it is unnecessary. The import thing is to get the material into the map somewhere, with only enough detail to remind you of the details later. If your Mindmapping software has a 'Brainstorming' or 'Rapid-fire' mode, you might want to use it. In this mode, you can usually just type a topic and then hit enter to go on to the next one, which is much faster than going back and forth between keyboard and mouse.

    As soon as you can after the lecture, sit down and start organizing your map. This is where you start to see the advantages of Mindmapping. It is much easier to restructure a map than prose. As you see your topics, your memory will be jarred and you can put them anywhere in the map, structuring as you go along. As you remember details, just add them to the appropriate place in the map. As you flesh it out, the relationships and structure will allow you to remember the material well in the future, like at exam time. For very detailed info, write it in a note attached to a topic node. Add some graphics to even more firmly set the material in your mind. If you like, you can also add hyperlinks and attach documents to the map, making it the central repository for all info tied to that lecture.

  15. It probably sounds like a lot of extra work, and it may feel strange when you first start taking your notes in this manner, but you'll be surprised at how quickly it all becomes second nature and it really does help you learn the material more thoroughly and remember it more vividly than you have when trying to keep up with the firehose of info in your lecture.

    Before you run to a lecture to become super-duper Mindmapper, there is something that you need to make sure of. You need to match up the software to your laptop. Some of these programs can become pretty resource-greedy. Your memory can fill up, and your processing speed can slow down. It doesn't do you any good to be in 'Rapid-fire' mode when there is a 10 second pause each time you hit the enter key. Test-drive the software, either free or commercial. See if you laptop can keep up the pace. Perhaps you need to shut down other applications running on your computer, but I'm sure you can find something that works for you.

    The approach I mention is just a general outline. Feel free to change the workflow until you settle upon something that works for you. It won't hurt my feelings, I promise. Best of luck and happy mapping!