Does Digital Mind Mapping Have a Place in K-5 Classrooms?

Organizing information using a combination of visuals and text can be a powerful way to both present new topics and construct knowledge. As part of my inquiry for Teaching, Learning and Assessment 1 in SPU’s DEL program, I wanted to explore what place digital mind mapping tools could play in an elementary school setting. I was introduced to mind mapping software in the 6100 DEL program orientation class and found it immensely helpful in organizing my thoughts and making connections between key concepts. I wondered if it would be equally effective for K-5 teachers and students.

Multiple Names for Similar Concepts

The terms mind map, concept map, knowledge map and synthesis map all refer at their core to organizing ideas or information using a node-link format signifying hierarchy and relationship between concepts.  Figure 1.1 shows how the types of maps relate and differ from each other, according to how they were originally conceived.

Figure 1.1: An Example Concept Map created using
(References: Goodwin & Long, 2002;; Nesbit & Adesope 2006; Ortega & Brame, 2015)

In real-world use, the terms mind map and concept map are often used interchangeably, and in this blog post, I will use mind map to refer to both mind maps as defined by Buzan (Goodwin & Long, 2002) and concept maps as defined by Novak and Gowin (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006).

The Value of Mind Mapping for Learning and Assessment

Mind maps have long been used in education because they lighten the cognitive load when learning new information and trigger metacognitive engagement (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006, pp 418-419).  Through an organized combination of color, symbols, text, images, and (in the case of digital mind mapping tools) audio and video, mind mapping enables better encoding of information and synthesis of multiple concepts by summarizing key ideas and visually relaying the relationships between them. This helps most learners, but can be especially effective for language learners or students with diverse learning styles.  

Even as a teacher-created, semi-passive learning tool, mind maps can be more effective than just listening to a lecture or reading a text (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006). The real power of mind maps comes into play, however, when they are created by students to construct knowledge as active learners (Anderson & Byrne, 2011).

Fig. 1.2: Mind map created using Popplet
Source: Attribution: CC-By-NC-SA. Retrieved from:

Building their Own Connections

When students create their own mind maps, they organize information in a way that makes sense to them and connects to their prior knowledge. This reflects the goal of the ISTE Student Standard 3, Knowledge Constructor, to “…critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others” (ISTE Standards for Students, 2016).

Figure 1.3: The Planets created using iMindMap
Source: Graham Smith. Attribution: CC by 3.0.
Retrieved from:

Students can use mind mapping to take notes in class or while preparing to write an essay or report. This video from Common Sense Media shows how students can actively take notes using a mind map previously created in Popplet while watching a video.  Mind maps can be used to share a student’s knowledge and unique viewpoint, enriching his or her classmates’ understanding of a concept; and they serve as good study guides by summarizing key ideas and showing connections in an easy to remember format.

Mind Mapping as an Assessment Tool

When students create a mind map, it offers a window into how they think and how much they have learned about a topic. Tony Buzan, the creator of the original mind map concept (see Fig 1.1) recommends using a Preview/Review process where students are first asked to map what they think they already know about a topic, then revise their maps once they have gone through instruction and research. For younger students, he recommends a more guided process where the teacher works with the class to build a single preview mind map using an interactive whiteboard.  After instruction and research, students either revise the class mind map together or build their own individual map to show what they have learned. The pre- and post mind maps act as a concrete record of knowledge growth for both the teacher and the students (“Mind maps for pre-and post assessment,”

Buzan’s iMindMap for Education – Pre and Post Assessment 6/11/2010
Retrieved from:

In her article “Establishing Twenty-First Century Information Fluency,” Jennifer Sharkey (2013) describes three types of assessment strategies: assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning. Student-created mind maps can be used in all three types of assessment as they can:

  1. Help teachers determine whether the method they are using to present material is working (for learning)
  2. “Put the student in the center of the process to promote his or her metacognitive development” (Sharkey, 2013, p.36) by using a mind map as a record of learning growth for self assessment (as learning)
  3. Show the depth of understanding and perceived connections students have made at the end of a lesson (of learning)

Collaborative Mind Mapping

Figure 1.4: Geometric Shapes Philippe Packu. Created using iMindMap
Attribution: (CC BY-NC 3.0); Retrieved from:

A number of the resources referenced in this blog post, including Warwick & Kershner (2006), Nesbit & Adesope (2006), Anderson & Byrne (2011) discuss the collaborative aspect of mind mapping as one of its greatest assets. According to Nesbit & Adesope (2006), “student interactions during collaborative concept mapping in science education have demonstrated that this activity can sustain meaningful discourse and co-construction of concepts” (p. 420).  In fact, in K-5, mind mapping should be modeled and scaffolded by the teacher as a class activity so that students understand not only the concept and conventions in mind mapping but also how to use the chosen mind mapping software.

Warwick & Kershner studied two groups of elementary students (6-7 years old and 10-11 years old) in the UK using Kidspiration mind mapping software for science lessons. Among their observations were:

  • Mind Mapping with the younger students was conducted as a whole class activity, with the teacher acting as the mediator and guide of the student’s ideas (p. 119), and at other times “…as merely the physical operator of the technology – the ideas came from the children, as did the reasons for making the links…” (p. 122). The teacher often started with images and key terms already listed on the mind map which was displayed on an interactive whiteboard. The researchers viewed this whole class approach as “…highly effective in encouraging the children to think about school learning and to compare their thoughts with those of others” (p. 120).

  • The 10-11 age group created a “Planet Earth and Beyond” mind map with a group of  4-6 students working on an interactive whiteboard while the rest of the class worked in groups of 2-3 on laptops. The students working on the whiteboard were more concerned with how their maps might look to the rest of the class. There was also more deliberation and negotiation on the whiteboard, and ultimately this group’s mind map displayed “a fraction” of the content compared to the maps created by the laptop groups because “…arriving at consensus seemed very important to these pupils” (p. 115). Also, the researchers noted that “struggling with this construction seemed to help the process of deciding how best to show what was understood” (p. 117).

Benefits of Digital Mind Mapping Tools

Mind maps enhance learning in either a paper or digital format. But digital mind mapping offers these significant advantages:

  • Ease of changing text, color, and node shape and moving items around
  • Ability for students to collaborate online either inside or outside the classroom using the same map
  • Easy storage and retrieval for students and teacher assessment (Anderson & Byrne, 2011)
  • Maps that have been created collaboratively can be viewed/printed out by multiple students so that all can benefit from a personal copy
  • Ability to incorporate more than just text and graphics (video, audio and website links). Imagine if the mind map shown in Figure 1.5 included a recording in Spanish!
  • Some products allow you to export maps into other software for a ready-made outline
  • Tools like Prezi offer the ability to layer nodes for more in-depth knowledge building and the creation of “Synthesis Maps” (Ortega & Brame, 2015).

Digital Mind Maps in Elementary

Figure 1.5: Spanish Class Mindmap created using iMindmap
Source: Liam Hughs; no rights reserved.
Retrieved from:

In their research with elementary students described in the Collaborative Mind Mapping section above, Warwick and Kershner (2006) mention that students sometimes struggled with the technology and typing skills (p. 114), particularly in the younger group, leading to mainly teacher-moderated mind mapping with the younger students. This is to be expected, however, and is true of using any technology in the classroom.  A number of mind mapping apps are now available on the iPad, including iMindMap Kids and Popplet, so clearly software makers are trying to create versions of their products that are more appropriate for younger students.

Mind mapping in some form is an effective teaching tool at all grade levels. In the younger grades, teachers need to provide modeling and scaffolding until students are comfortable using mind mapping on their own. Common Sense Media offers reviews of mind mapping software for various grade levels that can help teachers choose the right product, and Anderson and Byrne (2011) list a number of elementary school activities that can be enhanced by using mind mapping, as shown in Figure 1.6.

Figure 1.6: Elementary lessons that can be enhanced using mind mapping. Created using Prezi.


Anderson, C. & Byrne, R. (2011). Online mindmapping. In S. McLeod & C. Lehmann (Eds.) What school leaders need to know about digital technologies and social media.  Retrieved from

Differences between mind maps and concept maps.  Retreived from:

How to encourage active viewing with Popplet. Common Sense Media. Retrieved 1/26/19 from:

ISTE Standards for Students (2016).  Retrieved from:

Mind mapping and brainstorming apps and websites. Common Sense Media. Retrieved 1/26/19 from:

Mind maps for pre-and post assessment.  Retrieved on 2/3/19 from:

Nesbit, J. & Adesope, O. (2006).  Learning with concept and knowledge maps: A meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, vol: 76 pp: 413. Retrieved from:

O’Connor, L. & Sharkey, J. (2013). Establishing twenty-first-century information fluency. References & User Services Quarterly, 53(1), pp. 33-39.  doi:10.5860/rusq.53n1.33.  Retrieved from:

Ortega, R. A., & Brame, C. J. (2015).  The synthesis map is a multidimensional educational tool that provides insight into students’ mental models and promotes students’ synthetic knowledge generation. CBE Life Sciences Education, 14(2), ar14.  Retrieved from:

Warwick, P. & Kershner, R. (2006). Is there a picture of beyond?  Mind mapping, ICT and collaborative learning in primary science.  In E. Wilson, P. Warwick, & M. Winterbottom,  Teaching and Learning Primary Science with ICT.  Maidenhead, Berkshire ; New York : Open University Press.  Retrieved from:

6 thoughts on “Does Digital Mind Mapping Have a Place in K-5 Classrooms?”

  1. Bridget,
    Your blog introduced the benefits of mind-map for learning. It is listed many good recourses such as iMindMap Kids and Popplet for iPad and also the appropriate activities and software for different grade-level students. Also for the younger learners using mind-map, it is important that teachers act as the mediator and guide of the students’ ideas. Mind-map is a powerful feedback tool for teachers to see what their students have learned and how deep they learned. Thanks for sharing this amazing blog.

  2. Bridget- I agree that mind-mapping can and should be integrated into classrooms to increase more authentic thinking patterns. I loved the statement,”When students create their own mind maps, they organize information in a way that makes sense to them and connects to their prior knowledge”. This shows that their learning is personalized to themselves and keeps them engaged and active in the learning process! I also appreciate the recommendation for modeling and scaffolding in younger grades, as some of these programs and learning models can become a bit difficult for the young learners. Thank you for sharing your research!

  3. I LOVE your blog post on Mind Mapping. The videos showed me how I could use this strategy in my class in so many ways! When these snow days are over, I am going to introduce my kids to mind mapping, starting with the project I am doing with remarkable African Americans. Students using this strategy are going to be able to show knowledge and make connections between the time period and the person’s obstacles! The preview and review strategy by Buzan is a great way for teachers to assess student learning, but even more powerful, for students to see their own learning! Thank you for sharing!!!!

    1. Melissa, thank you for reading the blog and commenting on it. I am so excited that you are going to use mind mapping with your class!! Please let me know how it goes and if there is anything you learned from it or would do differently. What product do you think you’ll use? I can’t wait to hear what your kids think of the process!

  4. I again love your blog post! The content was very thoughtful and cohesive. I feel like your research really summed how mind mapping could be used in the classroom and I learned quite a bit about how I could try it in my own class. I also appreciate that your post was very easy to follow and the graphics really helped me to visualize. Hoping I can find the time and energy to make my blog posts as well planned as yours is here. Thank you for sharing. Did they happen to recommend any good websites or chrome extensions for mind mapping?

    1. Hi Kelli – thanks so much for your comments! Common Sense Media reviewed a number of mind mapping apps and recommend them by grade which is helpful. Though it isn’t mentioned in the review, I like though you have to pay to be able to include links or images, but they do offer an educational discount. I think it would be easy enough for younger kids to use. Popplet has a very simple and clean interface but I’ve been having trouble getting videos to play on the PC version – maybe because I haven’t signed up for an account, but I haven’t wanted to because their website doesn’t have the https encryption.

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