ISTE 4: Using Mind-Maps to Help Conduct Effective Research

Photo Credit: Wesley Fryer
Photo Credit: Wesley Fryer

This week I am diving into the fourth ISTE Student Standard: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making through the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University and am attempting to answer the following question: “What are ways in which students can use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources?”

I recently started teaching sixth and seventh grade students the research process using the Big6™ Research Model, you can read more about that experience in my last blog post. During that lesson, I found that the students’ biggest challenges were some of the skills I thought would be the most simple. The most notable being, the ability to identify keywords that would help them conduct their research. The students were able to formulate several questions related to their science fair topic but when asked to select three to five keywords based on those questions, they struggled. My intended goal for the students was for them to review their questions, determine how those questions were related, and extract a number of succinct terms that will allow them to conduct effective research. I discovered this was a far too ambitious goal. In an effort to conquer this challenge, I asked myself the following:

How can students use a digital mind-mapping tool to synthesize their basic understanding of a topic and derive keywords to move forward in conducting advanced research?

Putting the Plan to Action

As I reflected on my question and the needs of my students, I realized my goal was not to teach my students how to use a mind-map, in fact, they already use mind-maps in several of their other classes. Rather, my goal is for my students to be able to determine what words will be most effective in finding resources for their science fair research topic. The use of mind-maps is simply the vehicle they will use in order for them to reach that goal. After a bit of my own research, I realized, I was not alone in my challenge, or intended solution; librarian and adjunct professor, Cristine Goldberg has witnessed several occasions where students clearly understand the assignment and have knowledge on the subject, but they cannot compose their thoughts in a logical way that is required to move forward in developing an outline (2004). My students were very adept at creating questions within the Big6™ Model regarding their science fair topic, the trouble arose when they had to translate their questions into succinct categories and simple keywords.

While I would eventually like for my students to be able to sit down and use mind-mapping to launch the initial stages of their research, I think it is a skill that will require me to do a fair amount of front-loading before they are fully prepared to do independently. For the first time practicing this particular research skill, my classmates suggested a number of strategies, one of which really resonated with me; Ryan Ingersoll, Head of Library Technology at Seattle Pacific University mentioned the use of word clouds, a visual representation of text. Users type or paste text in a box and then a “cloud” of words is created, the most commonly mentioned words appearing more prominently than others. Ryan stated, “I’ve found this helpful before with some projects when I am trying to pull out big ideas or concepts worthy to research further.” You can see from the following example that the words that occurred most in my text box were: minds-maps, research, and keywords:

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This simple and fun tool could help students to determine how to identify keywords from their questions. There are several options for word cloud tools, but the one I am most familiar with is Wordle, it is free and very simple to use.

Once the students have identified the most common words from their previously written questions using a word cloud, they can then implement the use of a mind-map. The mind-map will allow students to take those prominent words and put them into different categories. ThinkBuzan is a mind-mapping software company that has done extensive research on the practice and benefits of using mind-maps. In one report, it was stated that mind-maps “help students visualize the overview of the topic and make new connections (ThinkBuzan, pg. 8).

What Would This Look Like?

First, students would copy their questions into a word cloud generator:

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Students would then use that word cloud to determine which words appear most frequently:

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From there, students could use a mind-mapping tool to organize those words into similar categories. As I mentioned earlier, the tool itself is not the focus, therefore, students would be welcome to use the mind-map of their choice; my favorites are and The first step is to add the most common words to the mind-map:

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 8.17.31 PMAt this point, the mind-map would not be very effective at assisting students with their research. The next step is finding categories that are searchable, it all comes together:

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At this point, students are ready to start the first stages of conducting their research. In my example, I have five different variations in keyword searches that will help me to locate information.

Why Go Through All of This Work?

This may seem like a great deal of work for such a simple task, but in my experience as a librarian and life-long student, the research process is far more challenging for beginners than we might recall. There are no straight-forward instructions for finding desired information, it is a great deal of trial and error. With that in mind, all of these steps are intended to help students think for themselves and experiment through the challenges. I have often had students give up their research after trying one search term, they instantly think they information they’re looking for does not exist because it didn’t come up after one search. My job is to remind them to try and try and try again, small variations can make big changes.

Do you have other suggestions to help students identify keywords and locate information? Suggestions are welcomed in the comments section of this post!


Budd, J. W. (2004). Mind Maps as Classroom Exercises. Journal Of Economic Education,  35(1), 35.

Goldberg, C. (2004). Brain friendly techniques: Mind mapping. School Library Media Activities Monthly, 21(3), 22-24.

Nesbit, J. C., & Adesope, O. O. (2006). Learning With Concept and Knowledge Maps: A Meta-Analysis. Review Of Educational Research, 76(3), 413-448.

O’Neal, C. (2008, January 21). Get graphic with Gliffy: sharing mind maps online [Blog post]. Retrieved from

ThinkBuzan Ltd. (n.d.). Mind mapping: scientific research and studies. Retrieved from:

The Thought Process

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8 thoughts on “ISTE 4: Using Mind-Maps to Help Conduct Effective Research

  1. Great post on using mind maps to help students identify find keywords! Using Wordle was a great idea, I didn’t even think about using it this way. I like your conclusion about the importance of going through the mind mapping process. I can see students using this tool throughout their school years and into college. Thanks for sharing, Becky! Great job!

  2. I enjoyed reading your post and appreciate your emphasis on helping students come up with keywords. That aspect is so important in the research process! Thanks, too, for the great ideas on how tech can be integrated to help facilitate this process. Well done.

  3. You question is such an important one to a student learning about anything topic in any class. I was particularly struck by your comment, “There are no straight-forward instructions for finding desired information, it is a great deal of trial and error.” The entire notion of trail and error is often a difficult one for a students to accept when they have a deadline. I cannot wait to implement these suggestions in my own classroom. You have convinced me to spend more time on this first step in the future. Great job!

  4. Great post, Becky! I appreciated how your post–most likely intentionally–walked one through the process of research. You move from using an app to locate keywords then to mind mapping keywords and then moving towards discovering what words to research based on the concepts and ideas formed. Most importantly, you explain why this process is important and I think that is one of the most helpful points of your blog post. Not to mention the great recommendation by your cohort member

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