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'Using learning strategies, techniques and tools to mix MUD and cement learning in long-term memory: Part 4'

Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

IN this column I outline more learning strategies, techniques, and tools that can go into the “Toolbox”, which was introduced in the previous column. The important organising principle is that while each may focus on a specific aspect(s) of the learning process, collectively they support the whole process. For analogy, a highly skilled craftsman with a complete toolbox gets the job done expertly; the same is true for those who have mastered the learning process.

We are primarily visual learners, and we need to exploit this capability.

Our mental activity is stimulated through our five senses, with the visual sense probably the most dominant. As Mlodinow (2012) captures so interestingly: “…an animal that sees better eats better and avoids danger better, and hence lives longer. As a result, evolution has arranged it so that about a third of your brain is devoted to processing vision.”

The important point from a learning perspective (eg, why visual representations work so well) is because:

  • Recall is almost always visually triggered; hence visual representation acts as a cue triggering the full memory system.

  • Only structured information can go into long-term memory, so this helps the transmission from working memory into long-term memory and subsequent recall.

  • They facilitate the ability of learners to see the relationship of a whole to its various parts, which builds understanding.

Furthermore, as Hattie and Yates (2014) pointed out: “The mind does not relate well to unstructured data. We find it extremely taxing to learn random lists or when coping with unrelated materials. We need to learn the organisation, structure and meaning in whatever we learn. We benefit enormously from being shown how to group information, how to locate patterns, how to use order, and how to schematise and summarise.”

Hence, learning strategies that help us to utilise our visual capabilities and enhance the organisation of key concepts and cognition (metacognitive, critical and creative thinking) are especially useful for building understanding. These also help to reduce cognitive overload and facilitate effective retrieval practice. Mind maps and graphic organizers are visual techniques and tools that can be very effective for such purposes.

Mind maps

  • The psychologist Tony Buzan has been credited with the invention of the mind map, which is both a technique and tool that its proponents claim effectively mirrors key aspects of the natural architecture of the human brain. I have used it extensively and find it very useful in all aspects of planning and enhancing learning. However, it does require some prior knowledge in a topic area as well as skill in using it properly (as above) to get the best results. For example, one must be able to identify key concepts and sub-concepts in a topic area, and be able to create a structure that captures the natural organisation of knowledge in the domain one is working in. The following is a summary of how the technique/tool works, and what the potential learning benefits can be.

Key components of mind maps

  • Identify the topic area for the mind map and place it in the centre on a sheet of paper (there are also many technology-based tools). This is the central image/title, which provides the starting point for the mind map (eg, Learning to Learn).

  • Identify and label the main branches of this topic area and radiate these outwards from the central topic theme These branches must represent the key ideas/concepts related to the main theme and label each with single keyword or short phrase (eg, strategies, techniques, tools). I try to keep the number of these to no more than seven.

  • Identify what you see as sub-branches that naturally emanate from the main branches. These should identify content relating to each main branch (eg, mind map, flowchart); then you can further sub-section branches from these branches – but avoid clutter. The aim is to form an accurate and detailed hierarchy of knowledge for the main topic area.

  • Incorporate visual images and colours, as this enhances memory and engagement. For example, colours help to differentiate between branches or highlight important ideas. A picture “paints a thousand words”.

  • Identify relationships between branches and sub-branches and show these connections by using arrows or lines. This helps to visualise how topics/sub-topics link back to the central theme and each other.

Failure to do the above structuring will mitigate the usefulness of the mind map. However, see the mind map as an ongoing iterative process where you can make as many changes/modifications as necessary – it’s a MUD (memorising, understanding and doing) making exercise. However, when done effectively mind mapping can:

Facilitate memory encoding and recall: The visual layout and use of keywords trigger neural memory association, making it easier to remember and recall information.

  • Provide organization of the knowledge domain: Mind maps help to organise information in a hierarchical structure, promoting clear understanding of complex topics.

  • Enhance critical and creative thinking: The process of creating a mind map involves cognitive engagement with the material and facilitates understanding. It also helps to generate new ideas and explore connections between them – which underpins creative thinking.

  • Provide a visual overview: The visual nature of mind maps allows you to see the “big picture” and identify key relationships in one-page format.

Graphic organisers

Graphic organisers are pre-built frameworks for structuring and analysing information in a specific way – usually diagrams or charts that visually represent relationships between facts, concepts or ideas. They simplify and illustrate complex information, helping users to see patterns, relationships and hierarchies more clearly. Two examples that I have used extensively include:

Flowcharts: A flowchart is a visual representation of a process which shows a step-by-step breakdown of its components/paths, making clear what is involved/happens. Developing a flowchart can aid learning in the following two interrelated ways:

  • Problem-solving and decision-making. Flowcharts can map out different approaches to a problem, helping to visualise its components and the choices that can be made. This provides a guide for decision-making, and it can be applied to many areas of the learning process (eg, understanding how things work in engineering, math word problems and business modelling).

  • Critical thinking: The act of creating a flowchart itself encourages critical thinking, as it involves the important thinking skills of analysis, inference and interpretation, and evaluation. This enables identification of the key steps/components/decision points in the process and, at the same time, facilitates visualisation of the overall flow and structure.

KWL chart (Know, Want to know and Learned): This is a simple three-column chart that helps in planning, monitoring, and evaluating learning. The basic methodology involves the following:

  • Know (K): In the first column, brainstorm what is already known about a topic. This activates prior knowledge and sets the stage for new learning.

  • Want to know (W): In the second column, generate questions about the topic to identify areas of interest and what knowledge and skills need to be acquired.

  • Learned (L): In the third column, after learning the required new knowledge (eg, through reading, lectures) record a key-point summary of what has been learned. This connects closely with the strategy of retrieval practice and helps to solidify understanding, identify any gaps in knowledge and evaluate learning progress.

Mind maps and graphic organisers can be powerful tools when used together. For example, in writing a research paper, I typically mind-map the main components of the paper (eg, aim, research questions, literature review), then use a graphic organiser like a KWL chart to structure the knowledge production process.

So far, this series has focused on how the mind and brain work in the learning process – that’s applied cognitive neuroscience – and in the next two columns I revisit the impact of artificial intelligence and how these two powerful knowledge domains will increasingly be combined to reframe the future of learning (and teaching) for the foreseeable future.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer, 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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