Using mind mapping to improve students’ metacognition

Chapter 47 Using mind mapping to improve students’ metacognition

This chapter introduces a teaching strategy known as mind mapping and examines its relationship to critical thinking and metacognition. We demonstrate how this strategy can improve the way your students think and learn, and present a pilot study examining the use of mind mapping as a tool to improve the metacognitive skills of nursing students.

A mind map or concept map is a graphic representation of information or the thought processes of an individual (Buzan & Buzan 1996, Novak & Gowin 1984). There are several approaches to teaching students how to build mind maps. In some instances, especially in natural science education, a group of related words or concepts is presented to the student accompanied by a lecture and the students are then asked to create a mind map. The concepts or words are connected with arrows and sometimes there are words along the arrows such as ‘leads to’, ‘causes’, ‘is related to’, ‘becomes’, ‘is needed for’ (Jegede et al 1990, Novak 1990, Okebukola & Jegede 1989). In other instances, an idea or a concept is placed centrally on a piece of paper and students participate in an activity similar to brainstorming, making multiple outward connections from that central point to elucidate how ideas or concepts are related (Dorough & Rye 1997, Novak & Gowin 1984, Regis et al 1996).

We were particularly interested in whether mind mapping could improve the critical thinking and metacognitive abilities of nursing students. The importance of teaching nursing students critical thinking skills, and the applicability of critical thinking to the generation of clinical decisions resulting in favourable patient outcomes, have been documented in the nursing literature (Alexander & Giguere 1996, Baker 1996, Conger & Mezza 1996, Degazon & Lunney 1995, Fonteyn 1995, Oermann 1997, Whiteside 1997). Degazon & Lunney (p. 271) refer to critical thinking as a ‘multidimensional cognitive and perceptual process, including intuition, that involves reflective thought for decision making’. They assert that critical thinking is correlated with nursing competence, and that in order to advance to higher levels of clinical competence, ever increasing and sharpened critical thinking skills are needed. Alexander & Giguere (p. 16) maintain that the development of critical thinking skills in nursing education fosters ‘therapeutic nursing interventions that promote the health of the whole individual’; they define critical thinking as an ‘analytic process addressing not only problem solving but also the ability to raise pertinent questions and critique solutions’.

Teaching of a purely linear, reductionist type of reasoning style provides nursing students with only some of the skills they will need to arrive at prudent clinical decisions. Critical thinking allows decisions to be made through a more reflective and multidimensional thinking process. Students are thus provided with the skills necessary to weigh the importance and relevance of large amounts of data, consider alternatives and options, and ultimately arrive at sound and logical decisions (Baker 1996, Degazon & Lunney 1995, Oermann 1997). Fonteyn (1995, p. 60) views critical thinking and clinical reasoning as the essence of nursing practice, stating that ‘it is intrinsic to all aspects of care provision, and its importance pervades nursing education, research and practice’. She stresses the need for the teaching of critical thinking in nursing curricula, in order to produce graduate nurses with the skills necessary to function effectively and competently in the ever-changing, demanding and increasingly complex healthcare setting.

A closely aligned concept, often equated with critical thinking, is metacognition. This term ‘refers to an awareness of our own cognitive processes (thinking and learning abilities) or knowing about what we know’ (Gordon & Braun 1985, p. 2). ‘Metacognition, broadly speaking, is identified as that body of knowledge and understanding that reflects on cognition itself. Put another way, metacognition is that mental activity for which other states or processes become the object of reflection. Thus, metacognition is sometimes referred to as thoughts about cognition, or thinking about thinking’ (Yussen 1985, p. 253).

The educational psychologists Gavelek & Raphael (1985), in their investigation of metacognitive processes, described two critical areas of learning where metacognition plays a key role. The first area relates to the active role of learners in guiding their own learning processes. It is metacognitive self-knowledge which enables students to function as independent learners. The second area in which metacognition plays a key role is in the concept of transfer. Metacognition is the central way in which learners are able to apply, consider, modify and reflect upon cognitive activity across varying tasks. Indeed, it is this process which allows learners to gain a deeper understanding and awareness of the interactive nature of the learning process. Degazon & Lunney (1995, p. 271) define metacognition as ‘the ability to recognise, analyse and discuss thinking processes’, and suggest that as learners increasingly focus on their thinking processes, their metacognitive abilities likewise improve. They state that due to the nature of metacognition as a tool for self-modification, development of this skill ‘provides a basis for growth as a thinking professional’ (p. 272).

Many of the tenets of mind mapping find their roots in Ausubelian (Ausubel 1963) learning theory. According to this theory, human thinking and understanding are based not only on understanding concepts, but also on understanding the relationships between concepts. In other words, concepts do not exist in isolation, but rather depend on others for meaning. Ausubel distinguished between rote learning and meaningful learning. Meaningful learning occurs when learners take new concepts and incorporate or relate them to concepts or knowledge structures already possessed. Thus learners can widen and enhance their existing knowledge domains. Rote learning, on the other hand, involves an arbitrary assignment of new concepts or knowledge into the present cognitive structure, without consideration of how this new knowledge may relate to, enhance or advance the learner’s existing cognitive structure.

Okebukola & Jegede (1988, p. 490) contended that concept mapping is an effective way to attain meaningful learning because ‘each concept depends upon its relationships to many others for meaning’. Heinze-Fry & Novak (1990) compared students who learn meaningfully to those who employ rote learning. They argued, ‘in contrast to students who learn by rote, students who employ meaningful learning are expected to retain knowledge over an extensive time span and find new, related learning progressively easier’ (p. 463).

Proponents of the mind map as an educational aid point to the similarities between the radiant, associative nature of the brain and the graphic representation of knowledge through a mind map. Buzan & Buzan (1996) describe the highly complex biochemical pathways and architecture of the brain, asserting that the internal brain pathways function associatively and radiantly, and that any outward expression of this internal structure, such as mind mapping, serves to enhance creativity, learning and higher orders of thinking. They suggest that association is one of the major ways to improve memory and creativity, and that ‘it is the integrating device our brains use to make sense of our physical experience, the key to human memory and understanding’ (p. 100). They discuss the inadequacies of traditional note taking as a means to learn, organize and create, saying that ‘by its very nature, the linear presentation of standard notes prevents the brain from making associations, thus counteracting creativity and memory’ (p. 50).

Learning theorists Novak & Gowin (1984), in their classic text Learning How to Learn, encouraged the use of mind mapping as a way of representing relationships between concepts. These authors maintained that the best way to help students to learn meaningfully is to allow them to see explicitly the nature of the relationships between concepts as they exist within and outside their minds. They pointed to the mind map as a means of externalizing relationships and connections between concepts and ideas. They described the mind map as a ‘visual road map showing some of the pathways we may take to connect meanings of concepts’ (p. 15). Additionally, Novak & Gowin asserted that in the process of drawing mind maps, new relationships and new meanings between concepts may arise or become evident in ways that were not readily apparent prior to construction of the mind map.

A large body of research has emerged from the science education field, examining the efficacy of mind mapping as an educational tool. Findings indicate that mind mapping increases achievement, decreases perceived anxiety and promotes meaningful learning. Regis et al (1996, p. 1088) reported positive outcomes from using the mind map as a ‘metacognitive tool to help chemistry teachers and learners to improve teaching and learning’. Barenholz & Tamir (1992) compared learning and achievement outcomes for ‘mappers’ vs. ‘non mappers’ in a high school microbiology programme. They found that post-test scores compared with pre-test scores were higher for those in the ‘mapping’ group. Jegede et al (1990) investigated the usefulness of mind mapping as a means of decreasing student anxiety and increasing achievement in biology. Based on pre- and post-test scores on both achievement and anxiety scales, mind mapping, as compared to traditional instruction, was found to enhance learning and decrease anxiety within the context of biology study.

Heinze-Fry & Novak (1990) found that meaningful learning was enhanced using mind mapping. The students in their study described mind mapping as ‘an integrated educational experience’, and said it helped them ‘make sense out of the material’ (p. 471). Additionally, students in this study reported that mind mapping gave them insight into how they learned and helped to clarify connections.

Okebukola & Jegede (1989) investigated the usefulness of mind mapping as a way to decrease perceived anxiety in the study of ecology and Mendelian genetics. They found a significant decrease in anxiety and perception of subject difficulty among students employing mind mapping compared with a control group. The authors contended that one of the mechanisms accounting for these results was the acquisition of meaningful learning. If students are unable to understand a subject, especially one traditionally perceived as difficult, they are likely to exhibit higher levels of anxiety and perceive greater subject difficulty. On the other hand, if students can identify the intricate relationships and connectedness between concepts and ideas, a greater depth of understanding is attained. Okebukola & Jegede remarked, ‘by making the student feel comfortable when working within intricate and interconnected systems of thought, concept mapping could be said to depress anxiety levels toward such intricate and originally perceived as difficult concepts’ (p. 90).

Study of the nursing literature reveals some information about using mind mapping as an educational tool. Irvine (1995) discusses whether concept mapping could be used to promote meaningful learning in nurse education. This nurse educator describes how the focus of nursing education has shifted from rote learning to methods that help students learn how to learn. Rather than merely transmitting facts, nursing education has become more concerned with facilitating learning. Irvine maintains that the information nurses will need to contend with continues to increase in both size and complexity, and promoting meaningful and effective learning is thus an issue of importance. She suggests that mind maps be used as a metacognitive strategy to promote meaningful learning in nursing education.

All & Havens (1997) encourage the use of mind maps to help nursing students approach and make sense of large amounts of highly technical and complex text book material. They advocate mind mapping as a means of enhancing understanding of classroom activities and helping to organize data obtained before and after the clinical day. They discuss the obsolescence of rote learning in nursing education, and advocate the use of alternative methods of learning which promote the development of the sound critical thinking skills that nurses will need to deal effectively with the complex clinical situations they encounter in their practice.


The use of mind maps was introduced to a group of nine nursing students during a 15-week clinical practicum at a large American teaching hospital. The students were in their third year of a 4-year baccalaureate nursing programme. For this clinical practicum, the students did not come into the hospital the day before clinical to receive a patient assignment and review that patients’ charts; and they did not develop nursing processes (written care plans) for each patient to guide their care on the following day. Fonteyn & Flaig (1994) have challenged nursing educators to question their continued use of this traditional strategy that may not be as effective for developing students’ metacognitive skills as other teaching strategies, such as clinical logs and mind maps.

For this practicum, each student arrived in time for the morning report and was assigned to work with one of the registered nurses (RNs) on duty, who then gave the student a patient assignment. After report, the student quickly looked up the essential information needed to care safely for the patient(s), and then proceeded to do a complete assessment on each patient. From this assessment, the student identified priority problems to be addressed that day, determined a plan of care, and then articulated these findings to the RN and the clinical staff. Thus, instead of using a deductive approach to patient care, the students utilized a more inductive methodology, combining new pieces of data with those previously acquired, thereby furthering their understanding of the patient case as the shift progressed.

For the first 10 weeks of the clinical practicum, students recorded their thoughts about each patient case in a clinical log which they completed at the end of each clinical week and handed to their clinical instructor for review and feedback. We recommend reflective writing in clinical logs as a means of improving students’ metacognition (Fonteyn & Cahill 1998). During the last 5 weeks of the semester, instead of writing in clinical logs, students drew a graphic representation of their thinking about a patient case, a mind map, after having been provided with some explanatory information about mind maps from their clinical instructor. The mind maps were intended to illustrate the mental organization of the students’ thoughts about their plan of care for a particular patient.

Figure 47.1 is an example of a student’s mind map. The central focus of this mind map is the patient’s medical diagnosis, and the map shows other major concepts as equally important. These include: assessment, report, nursing interventions and goals. Data related to each of these primary concepts radiate to form a cluster of associated details.

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Apr 20, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL & FAMILY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Using mind mapping to improve students’ metacognition

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