Using Mind-maps to help with Chunking


In a previous article on chunking, I described a scenario whereby you had a concrete use case for learning a specific fundamental concept. In this case we had a bigger picture of what we needed to do, and the only decision we had to make was the ‘level of investment’ in a chunk from that bigger picture. In this article I’ll show how mind-mapping and chunking dovetail wonderfully, using some specific work examples.

When mind-mapping supports chunking

Here’s some ideas where you might want to use mind-mapping to support chunking. All these cases relate to scattered information and a need to organise and prioritise your learning.

  • The company has decided on a hot new technology. However there isn’t much information within the company about it yet. The wiki/collaboration tools from other teams is patchy at best.
  • Someone is leaving the company. You only have a small amount of their time to get hand-over on a legacy system.
  • You’re new to a project with many complexities and dependencies.  You can’t learn it all now and do your job, but you need to keep up with what’s going on.

In these cases, you have to start from the bottom up, piecing together the specifics, and working towards the bigger picture. Once you’ve built the bigger picture from what you know right now, you can drill down again into more detailed chunks as you need to - nice and agile!

Freemind to the rescue

I’ve not yet found a tool better to meet all my mind mapping needs than Freemind.

  • It has keyboard shortcuts, so I can be really productive, I can link articles to the web and to files locally, and it’s trivial to extract a concept into a sub mind-map. It’s free and being Java, will run on Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Looking at the release notes, it’s not updated all that often, but I don’t mind that - it’s been going well for years, and it exports to raw XML, so you’re able to move away from them any time you want.
  • Not being cloud based helps too, I hate my flow being interrupted by a flaky or slow internet connection, and Dropbox allows me to sync the files anywhere I go should I want.
  • If I really want to, I can encrypt nodes with sensitive information, although I must mention I’ve never checked how secure that actually is.

First cut – dump everything into the mind-map

The first thing to do is just to get some time alone just to put together your first cut. This is just a brain dump of information. As David Allen points out in Getting Things Done, once you start putting ideas to paper, your brain trusts you to have more of them. In addition, various sources show that you only have 4 working areas in your brain at any one time, so dumping ideas on paper is freeing these areas up to process more ideas.

Categorise the mind-map into chunks

Even on this first pass, you will start to see patterns emerge, as you are grouping things, they will fit logically into sub-nodes on the map. I will use example for two different scenarios:

  • In one case, I’m gathering scattered information from the bottom up  –  I know I need to secure my girlfriends wordpress site, but only have some reference material but no bigger picture yet.
  • In another example, I’m trying to get the bigger picture of an integration workflow from the top down, but my only current context is from a meeting I’ve been invited to. In this case, I’m looking for two outcomes - getting the bigger picture from the top down, and building out the details of a specific chunk for right now. As I don’t have any pre-made reference material, I’m using mind-maps for that too.

Your mind-mapping and chunking is starting to take shape now. The ideas are getting their own nodes on the map and you can rearrange them as your comprehension improves.

Re-order your mind-map – chunking by flow/priority

Convergence training provide some useful tips for chunking ,which I’ve used here. If you are chunking something with a logical flow of steps, such as an integration workflow, then it’s handy to group by order/flow.
If you can’t do that (I’d always prefer that route if possible as I find it lends itself to a nice segregation of concepts) then you fall back on ordering by your own notion of priority.

Example of Organising by flow

mind-mapping a chunk by flow
An example of mind-mapping a chunking strategy by flow — organised top level chunks on the left, original meeting points on the right

In the mind-map above I’ve used a map taken from a meeting and used to illustrate the general point. The note about ‘Scattered points’ represent the original points taken during the meeting. The chunked flow was created after the event, after the data taken had been reflected on and organised.

Example of Organise by Priority

In the scenario of securing a WordPress website, everything is pretty important, but there is no logical one step to the next as my driver to organise. Therefore I’ve instead done a really quick scan of the actions from the high level chunks and then created a to-do list. Each action links back to the chunk, and the ordering of the chunks is implicit from the action list.

mind-mapping a chunk by importance
Example of mind-mapping a chunking strategy by importance   - the actions list forms the logical ordering of the chunks

Split mind-maps as necessary

Once a subject becomes too large, it’s time to move it out. Going back to the ‘Organise by Flow’ map, I’ve illustrated different levels of splitting:

  • The ‘Data Complete Process’ and ‘Ready to Send logic’ are complex enough to warrant moving out into a sub-map.
  • The Data Send Process and Invoke New Microservice are there as steps in the flow, but I decided that I don’t need to dive in for any more detail just yet.
  • The ‘New Microservice’ and ‘New Subscriber’ topics are expanded upon inline - that’s all the detail I need for now.
    As per the ‘Organise by Priority’ mindmap, there are also actions from the meeting, I’ve left them in to show how the actions from the chunks are separate from the information in the chunks.

You can apply this recursively down into your sub-maps should you wish. Although for an agile project, I’d suggest information on these maps has a fairly finite lifespan. Information is more transient the more specific you get. We don’t want to spend longer maintaining a mind-map than getting value from it. I’d stick with just a single level of ‘sub’ mind-mapping for your chunking. The rest

Flashcards and mindmaps

Learning how to learn has suggested that the role of mind-maps is better suited getting a bigger picture, rather than for retention itself.

I’d tend to agree - rather I see them as complementing flashcards, the tool to get you from scattered thoughts, to specific questions, and finally to comprehension and retention.

I often write my questions on my mind-maps as I go, and filter and refine them into flashcard questions and answers, and then leave my final mindmap as a ‘statement of fact’ in case I ever need to refer to it in future.

However how far you go on this is a call for you, depending on how well your time would be spent getting a deep knowledge drives whether you need to invest the time in flashcards for retrieval or just leaving your notes on the mind map.

As a rule of thumb though, I always invest in trying to retain fundamental concepts, and if any chunk has structured training material available, that’s a good sign it’s in use enough (by others) to warrant worth investing in.

Cheat sheet

Below is a quick cheat sheet to help you with determining the best way to chunking materials, be it top down or bottom up, and depending on what materials you have available to you.

Workflow for deciding a chunking and retention strategy (top down or bottom up)

Workflow for deciding a chunking and retention strategy (top down or bottom up)

Your experiences of chunking and mind-maps

I’d really like to hear from you next. It would be great if you could respond to this article with how you got on with this approach, or what did and didn’t work for you. Likewise if you have any further questions on this, please respond in the comments section too.