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Using Thinking Maps to Facilitate Research Writing in Undergraduate Classes
Margie Lee Gallagher
College of Human Ecology

What Are Thinking Maps?

Tools that correspond to thinking processes help students organize ideas and in the long run help them to read, write, and think better. Thinking maps are such visual tools.  They are graphic representations of how to organize, analyze, and evaluate what one reads, writes or thinks about.  Thinking maps are similar to concept maps which are often used in teaching sciences to visualize complex key concepts (i.e. control of blood glucose in biology).  While concept maps focus on specific details of a concept (Chan, 2007), thinking maps organize or display a much broader picture (O’Bannon, 2006; Hyerle, 1996, 2000).  An example of such a map with which many are familiar is the organization chart.   An organizational chart is a type of hierarchical or tree map.  These types of maps can also be used show relationships, as between main ideas and supporting details. In addition to hierarchical there are four other main types of thinking maps (Figure 1).  Dialogical maps help define ideas or things in context and are helpful when presenting a point of view.  Metaphorical maps help to define analogies.  Systems or flow maps show processes or events in sequence or show causes and effects of events and predict outcomes.  Evaluative or bubble maps are used to describe qualities or compare and contrast qualities.  Maps become more complex as the student’s thinking and comprehension increases. It is, therefore, likely that multiple maps or different maps be used for different thinking and writing tasks. Therefore, instructors who use maps need to choose those that are useful for what they want to achieve, but also allow for alternative ways of mapping and thus thinking and writing.

Using Thinking Maps in Research Writing for Undergraduates

As the overall US population becomes more biomedically sophisticated, it is becoming increasingly important that students who intend to become nutritional professionals acquire the skills to routinely read, understand, and evaluate the primary research literature in nutrition. In current American Dietetic Associate (ADA) accreditation standards require that the undergraduate curriculum include evaluation of primary literature (ADA, 2007).  Most students do not intuitively have such skills.  The Advanced Nutrition and Metabolism course, which is also writing intensive, is the place in the curriculum where evaluation of primary literature was incorporated into the curriculum.  Thinking maps were used to assist students in developing a process for obtaining the necessary skills in literature evaluation while meeting intensive writing requirements.  The assignments associated with primary literature evaluation included 1) written critical analyses of five primary research articles centered around a central idea or theme and 2) a summary paper that included data from the five primary articles as well as secondary sources to draw an overall conclusion regarding the central idea or theme.

When many nutrition students begin to write about new data in the field of nutrition, their work often looks very similar to the thinking map in Figure 2. This map is called a bubble map. The student is able to determine a central idea (i.e. trans fatty acids in the diet may be linked to disease). They can also use other information to describe or indicate a relationship to the central idea. However, they are not able to evaluate the information or data they find and draw objective conclusions of their own around the idea. In fact, they are often unable to summarize the major findings around the idea.

Much of the problem seems to be related to the students’ lack of critical analysis of the work about which they were reading and writing. The scientific method is at its core a sequence of events. Therefore a flow or sequence map is a good way of thinking and writing about papers that have used the scientific method to discover information.

I constructed a dual sequence (flow) map to help the student 1) recognize the flow or sequence of processes that should be able to be identified in a primary research paper and 2) critically evaluate each of these processes so as to determine the overall significance of the work. This map is similar to the reasoning maps proposed by White (2004). Dual flow maps allow the students to visualize the processes by which the research was conceived and planned, as well as what outcomes (data) were produced. In addition the student is given permission to critique the work at each stage of the process (See Figure 3). Flow maps are highly structured and specific to reading and evaluating primary research articles. However, flow maps do not assist in visualization of the relationship of information from of a series of primary research articles to a main idea or in evaluating the value of each article in elucidating the idea. For this process the map that has helped most students in my classes was a hierarchal or tree map (Figure 4). 

The tree map allows the student to visualize and identify major parts of a summary research paper. First the writer defines clearly and concisely the major idea, purpose, or thesis statement. Secondly the writer can arrange the information by concepts, methodologies, or (least desirable) primary articles. And finally, because the information has been arranged in a format that allows the writer to see all data at the same time, an overall conclusion can be more easily drawn from the readings around the major idea. In the case of the example in Figure 4, study limitations are specifically noted in arrangement of information, since many novice students are hesitant to look for limitations in published studies.

Overall, the use of thinking maps in the Advanced Nutrition and Metabolism course improved the organization and clarity of writing in the first four semesters it was implemented. Student critics of primary literature indicated that they had a better understanding of the research process and were able to write about each article in a more concise and deliberate manner. 


American Dietetic Association. Retrieved August 23, 2007 http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/CADE.html

Chang, Shu-Nu. (2007.) Externalizing students' mental models through concept maps. Journal of Biological Education, 41:107-112.

Hyerle, D. (2000.) A Field Guide to Using Visual Tools. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 160 pp.

Hyerle, D. (1996.) Thinking maps: Seeing is understanding. Educational Leadership, 69:85-89.

O’Bannon, B., Puckett, K., and Rakes, G. (2006.) Using technology to support visual learning strategies. Computers in the Schools, 23: 124-137.

White, Brian. (2004.) Reasoning Maps: A generally applicable method for characterizing hypothesis- testing behaviour. International Journal of Science Education, 26(14):1715-1731.


Gallagher Figure 1
Figure 1: Types of thinking maps from Hyerle, D. 1996. Thinking Maps: Seeing is Understanding. Educational Leadership, 69:85-89.

Simple Bubble Map
Figure 2: A simple bubble map best illustrates the thinking process used by students new to research writing. The maps are often for evaluative thinking such as description and comparing and contrasting.

Use of sequence maps
Figure 3: Use of flow or sequence maps for describing process and evaluating that process in refereed primary journal articles.

Modified Tree Map
Figure 4: Example of a modified tree map to visualize structure of summary research paper.