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Thinking Maps: What are they and how are they used?

Updated on February 27, 2015

Organizational and critical thinking aids

Created as an aid to teaching difficult or complicated concepts, thinking maps are often used in grade school through college classes, and even in business settings, to break down complex ideas into simpler component parts. Although each map is used for a different purpose, they all help organize and provide details on a multi-point topic or multi-step problem. There are eight different thinking maps: flow, multi-flow, bubble, double bubble, tree, brace, circle, and bridge.

Flow Maps

Flow maps are similar to flow charts, except they show a linear sequence of events, rather than branching into multiple possibilities. Flow maps are designed to break down an event or end result into a series of simple steps. Visually, these maps appear as a series of boxes with arrows indicating the direction of flow.

For example, if you wanted to explain how to make pineapple upside down cake, you might write "preheat oven" in the first box, then "make cake mix" in the next, "melt butter in pan" in the third, and "add brown sugar to butter" in the fourth. The fifth could say "place pineapple slices in pan," while "put cherries inside pineapple slices" would be placed in the six box, and "pour batter into pan" in the seventh. Then, the last box would say, "place in oven." You don't need every detail of the recipe in the flow map, just each step in the correct order.

For more complex ideas, each box may have substeps written underneath in their own small boxes, usually connected to the main step with a vertical line. For example, for "make cake mix," you may have "place mix, eggs, and oil in bowl," and "beat until smooth."

Flow maps are useful for organizing How To explanations, mathematical equations, book summaries, or any situation where the main goal is to chronicle a series of steps leading up to some end result.

Advanced Example

The steps for dividing mixed numbers are laid out visually here in flow map form. Note the smaller hanging boxes underneath those larger boxes which require more than one activity to complete the illustrated step. These add increased clarity without sacrificing the simplicity of the design.

Multi-flow Maps

Multi-flows maps are designed to clearly depict the cause and effect of a certain event, circumstance, or idea. These maps have a central square, with branching squares to the left and the right. The left-hand squares (shown in red) list the causes of a particular circumstance, and the right-hand squares (shown in blue) are the effect of the circumstance. Both are linked to the central idea by arrows. Note each cause arrow starts at a cause box and points toward the central box, while the effect arrows start at the central box and point toward each effect box.

For example, if you wanted to show the cause and effect of getting an A on an exam, you would write "A on the exam" in the central box. The cause boxes may include "studied notes," "understood material," and "went to lectures." The effect boxes could include "improved class grade," "teacher approval," and "no need to do extra credit."

Multi-flow maps are best used when wanting to clearly organize the cause and effect of a specific circumstance.

Advanced Example

Chemical reactions always have a cause and effect. A set of circumstances must exist in order for a reaction to take place. Once the reaction occurs, a new set of circumstances results. Here, we see the chemical reaction for the ignition of propane. In order for propane to ignite the air must contain no less than 2.15% and no more than and 9.6% propane, the temperature must be above -156 degrees Fahrenheit in order to continually burn, and the propane must be heated between 920 and 1020 degrees Fahrenheit. The reaction results in a flame as the propane molecules break apart and combine with the oxygen to form water and carbon dioxide.

Bubble Maps

Bubble maps are commonly used to generate details about an object or event. They consist of a central circle listing the name of the object/event described and then branching circles which hold one detail about the object in question.

For example, if you wish to describe a frog, you would write “frog” in the central bubble, and then fill the outlying bubbles with adjectives about the animal, such as “green,” “amphibious,” “insectivore.” etc.

Bubble maps are best used when you have a specific object or event in mind and your purpose is to communicate details.

Advanced Example

Here, a bubble chart of Schizophrenia symptoms breaks down a complex list into easy to see adjectives. The schizophrenic individual may be delusional, apathetic and avolitional (lacking willpower). He or she also may behave inappropriately, suffer hallucinations, and/or exhibit depressive symptoms.

Double Bubble Maps

Double bubble maps are used to compare/contrast. Like bubble maps, they list details of objects or events, but they consist of two main bubbles rather than one. They also have two sets of branching circles. One set (shown in red) is linked to both main bubbles and lists what the objects have in common, while the second set (shown in blue) lists their differences.

For example, if you wanted to compare chicken and steak, you would create two main bubbles, one labeled "chicken" and one "steak." The shared bubbles could then contain words like "protein," "entrée," and "marinated." The chicken-only branches might say "white meat," "white wine," and "poultry"; the steak-only, "red meat," "red wine," and "beef."

Double bubble maps are best used when you need to visualize the similarities and differences between two objects or ideas.

Advanced Example

Both rationalism and empiricism are theories of knowledge often used in philosophy. While both are concerned with the truth, rationalism, also used in politics, employs a priori reasoning, which relies on sensory experience, whereas empiricism, frequently used in science, employs a posteriori reasoning, which relies on experimentation to arrive at the truth.

Tree Maps

Tree maps deal with classifications. Classifying complex ideas or simple concepts, these maps help to break things down into levels of organization, similar to an outline. A family tree is an example of a simple tree map, listing the names of an original couple, then branching down to their children. Each child branch splits into more branches when listing the children's children, and so on. Tree maps are not normally so lengthy as most family trees, however. Often, they only have two or three levels.

For example, if you wanted to categorize the cooking ingredients in your kitchen, you might head the top tier of the tree map with "cooking ingredients," The second tier branches could be "meats," "spices," "dairy," "vegetables." The third tier would then list each item under the appropriate branch. "Meats" might have "chicken," "steak," "fish" listed underneath, while "spices" have "cardamom," "cinnamon," "basil," "chili powder," and so on.

Tree maps are normally used when trying to organize objects, ideas, or concepts into specific categories.

Advanced Example

Above is a tree map of video game genres. While the list is not extensive, it details several popular types of games. Tree maps, like this one, can provide easily organized quick-reference guides to complicated or cumbersome classifications and lists.

Brace Maps

Brace maps are designed to break down a complex object or idea into smaller and smaller parts. There are normally three or more columns in a brace map, each listing more specific elements of the object in question. Each column is linked to the column to the right of it by one or more braces. The left-hand column only contains one item: the object or concept as a whole. The next column will then have two or more listings, breaking the object into a few of its component parts. Since all the parts in column two belong to the object, one brace is used to signify relationship. The third column will list still more component parts, these specific to the parts in column two. Each group of parts in column three will have a brace indicating to which part in column two it belongs.

For example, if you wanted to break down the parts of a formal paper, you would start with "formal paper" in the left-hand column. "Introduction," "body paragraphs," and "conclusion" would be in the next column, linked to "formal paper" with one large brace. The third column would contain "general overview" and "thesis" braced next to "introduction"; "topic sentences," "supporting points," and "transitions" braced with "body paragraphs"; and "reworded thesis," "summary," and "call to action" would be braced with "conclusion."

Brace maps are best used when attempting to deconstruct an object or idea.

Advanced Example

While this brace map does not give a structure for the DNA, it serves to break it down into its component molecules, and then into its component atoms. Brace maps like this one are useful for visually pointing out that even an extremely complex molecule like DNA is composed of only four types of atoms.

Circle Maps

Circle maps are designed to visually show the context of an idea or object. The basic idea or item is written in a circle, and then surrounded by a larger circle in which is written elements of that item. Circle maps are similar to bubble maps in that they have one central circled idea that is described. Unlike bubble maps, circle maps can also describe possibilities and definitions, and are not limited to adjectives. The objective of the circle map is to give that central idea context.

For example, if you used a circle map to describe Frodo from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, in the central ring you would write "Frodo." The outer ring, or the context, could include "hobbit," "lived in the Shire," "chosen as ringbearer," "part of the fellowship," "friend of Samwise," etc.

Some circle maps also have an additional level: a square that surrounds both circles. In the square, there are notes about where this information can be found, who provides it, and how it was obtained. This is often called the "frame of reference." In the Frodo example, the frame might include "J. R. R. Tolkien," "Peter Jackman," or even your friend Jerry who lent you the book.

Circle maps are useful when the context of a concept or idea needs to be explained.

Advanced Example

Literally meaning "from the earlier," a priori is a Latin term used primarily in philosophy to describe a type of knowledge of truth that is based in deductive reasoning. A philosopher using an a priori argument, as opposed to an a posteriori argument, does not need personal experience or experimentation to prove his or her point is valid.

Bridge Map

Bridge maps are used to show analogies. They are the visual representation of the phrase “a is to b as z is to y.” A bridge map is simply a line with an open bottomed triangle in the center. On one side of the triangle the first set of objects in the comparison is written, one above the line and one below. The format is repeated with the second set on the other side of the triangle. The word “as” may or may not be written inside the triangle.

For example, if you wanted to draw an analogy between seasons, you could write “summer” above and “heat” below the line on one side of the triangle, and “winter” above and “cold” below on the other side. Bridge Maps can be extended with more triangles to show further relationships.

Bridge maps should be used only when showing analogies between two or more sets of concepts, objects, or events.

Advanced Example

This bridge map shows the relationships between original algebraic problems and the same problems once the variables have been isolated. It indicates that the complexity of the problem does not matter, the concept and result is the same.

Try a dry erase board for your mapping needs


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