Mapping a Path Out of the Information OverloadPosted: Thu 07.14.2011
Concept mapping is my go-to tool when fighting the inevitable “brain wander” that I experience when planning (and sometimes even writing) a research paper. It’s not that I’m not focused or dedicated to the task at hand. Rather, brain wander is the practice of unveiling new and interesting topics that you then want to jam into your research paper. With all the information that you amass while doing literature reviews and preliminary work, there is a tendency to get so wrapped up in the excitement of learning new things and making those connections that you end up trying to fit pieces together that don’t quite mesh.
So, imagine yourself planning a research project or a publication, and you are just overwhelmed with information and ideas, connections and conclusions. How do you work through it? My answer is the concept map. Concept mapping is the practice of using graphical representations (thought bubbles, arrows, and icons) to chart out ideas and topics for a task at hand. My initial introduction to this kind of thought mapping came during my Master’s program where I learned how to map out international conflicts incorporating their players and issues. Start out by writing down your main idea in the center of the page, and circling it. From there, offshoot arrows with the key points you want to cover underneath that large umbrella concept, and work down from there. As you start making associations and linkages, the organization of the paper and the fit of the concepts you are mulling should start to gain clarity. It is during this process you will see the physical fit on the page mirror the conceptual fit, and answers as to what belongs in that paper will also become clearer.
In terms of tools, concept mapping can be done digitally or with a pen and paper. I have done both, but digitally is sometimes more effective, especially when you need the freedom to make frequent changes. Digital tools that I have used with ease and positive results have been Mindmeister, Webspiration, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Being a graduate student with free access to Microsoft Office, the majority of my concept mapping is done using PowerPoint. It does not have some of the collaborative and mobility of the other programs, however using the SmartArt and charting features that have developed since Microsoft Office 2007 can give your concept maps a professional look and the organization you need.
If you have money to invest, Webspiration Pro is the most advanced concept mapping software, with the ability to organize, share, and collaborate easily and effectively. Mindmeister is close behind in terms of usability and there is a basic free account that you can acquire that allows you to create 3 mind maps. Both products also offer a 30-day trial version of their pro versions, so if this is a tool you are thinking seriously about, download and experiment!
Concept mapping is an easy, visual way of organizing your thoughts and ideas when you are feeling mired in the muck of information overload. When you are spinning your wheels, staring at a blank computer screen, start brainstorming with a concept map and the paper will begin to take shape in front of your eyes.