visual language

Concept maps

Broadly speaking, a concept map is a graphic display that attempts to show how concepts are connected to each other. A concept map is a diagram in which labeled nodes represent concepts, and lines connecting them show the relationships between concepts.

There is one type of concept map you’re probably all aware of — mind maps. Mind maps are a specialized form of concept map popularized very successfully by Tony Buzan.

A mind map has four essential characteristics:

  • the subject is crystallized in a central image
  • main themes radiate from it as branches
  • the branches comprise a key image or key word
  • the branches form a connected nodal structure

The essential difference between a mind map and the more general concept map is that in a mind map the main themes are connected only to this single central image — not to each other. In a concept map, there are no restrictions on the links between concepts.

Also, the connections between concepts in a concept map are labeled — they have meaning; they’re a particular kind of connection. In a mind map, connections are simply links; they could mean anything.

Mind maps are also supposed to be very pictorial. In Buzan’s own words:

“The full power of the Mind Map is realised by having a central image instead of a central word, and by using images wherever appropriate rather than words.”

Concepts in a concept map, on the other hand, can be (and usually are) entirely verbal. But the degree to which you use words or pictures is entirely up to the user.

In fact, this insistence on images is one of the things I don’t like about mind maps (I hasten to add that there are many things I do like about mind maps). While images are certainly powerful memory aids, they are not for everyone, nor for all circumstances.

Mind maps and concept maps are really aimed at different purposes, and perhaps, different personalities.

The chief usefulness of mind mapping, I believe, is when you’re still trying to come to grips with an idea. Mindmapping is good for brainstorming, for outlining a problem or topic, for helping you sort out the main ideas.

Concept maps, on the other hand, are particularly useful further down the track, when you’re ready to work out the details, to help you work out or demonstrate all the multitudinous ways in which different concepts (and a “concept” can be anything) are connected.

Concept maps are more formal than mind maps, and are better suited to situations where the concept is to be shared with others. Mind maps are considerably more personal, and are often not readily understood by others.

Both mind maps and concept maps are good at clarifying your thoughts, but because of the greater formality of the concept map — the need to be more precise in your connections — concept maps are better at showing you exactly what you don’t understand properly.

Which is why concept maps take a while to get right!

This is a very important point that I should emphasize — hardly anyone ever gets their map (mind or concept) right the first time. In fact, if you did, you probably didn’t need to construct it! It’s the redesigning that is important.

But concept maps can come in different flavors — from the more formal, to a visual display which simply use the basic idea of nodes and links. You can see a whole bunch of proper concept maps, constructed using cmap, at . And if you’re interested in becoming a cmapper yourself, check out .

And here’s a couple more links to help you learn more about concept maps: (this one has a number of conference papers available in pdf format).

I talk more about concept mapping in my podcast. Don’t forget, if you don’t want to listen to it, you can just read the transcript.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for October 2006

Visual language

Visual Language, a term introduced by Robert Horn, refers to "language based on tight integration of words and visual elements". The visual elements include shapes, as well as images (e.g., icons, clip art).

What does this have to do with memory? Well, partly of course, because the appropriate use of images usually makes information more memorable, but visual language has considerably more to offer than that. To appreciate what it is, first look at some examples: Horn has examples at and another brilliant example is available from an information designer I deeply admire - Richard Saul Wurman - at

To truly appreciate these examples, you really need a full-text version of the same information, but hopefully you can imagine a prose text dense with the same information (realising that much of the information is contained in connections and juxtapositions as well as in the emotional connotations of particular images, all of which would, in a purely prose text, require explicit words to articulate).

There are many advantages in integrating word and image, such as:

  • clarifying meaning
  • reinforcing meaning
  • providing focus
  • facilitating comparisons
  • providing context

and many more ...

but I believe the great benefit of this approach is its power to SELECT and CONNECT.

Those who have read my book, The Memory Key, will be aware that I see these processes as absolutely fundamental to understanding and remembering new information. While there are many tools to help teachers and writers portray the information selected as most important (such as highlighting, and summarising), visual language stands out as offering a tool-bag of particular power. It also, of course, offers powerful tools for demonstrating connections between bits of information.

Look at Bob Horn's representation of an academic debate (can computers think)( )and you will readily see the power of visual language to organize complex information and show connections.

Visual language thus offers a powerful set of strategies for studying.

Some principles of visual language

There are six principles known as Gestalt principles, which are useful to know if you wish to draw effective visual representations:

  1. People tend to group together elements that are physically close to each other
  2. People tend to group together elements that are similar in some way (e.g., same color or size)
  3. People tend to see elements enclosed by lines as one unit
  4. People tend to see connected elements as a single unit
  5. People tend to group together elements that appear to be continuations of each other
  6. People tend to make figures "complete" when some elements are missing

This list is also a demonstration of the need for visual language - it's hard to describe these principles without visual examples; similarly, visual examples on their own would not be enough either. You can see examples of these principles at [ note: the examples here don't precisely match those I give, which are taken from Horn]

The way I have chosen to describe these principles points to another principle that's important for visual language: one we might call the naming principle. Isn't it easier to grasp the principles, and most particularly, remember them, if you have names for these principles? Here are the names of the 6 Gestalt principles:

  1. Proximity
  2. Similarity
  3. Common region
  4. Connectedness
  5. Continuation
  6. Closure

It is always worth trying to find a one or two word label for any bit of information you wish to remember. For one thing, the very act of so doing will help cement the information in your memory. And for another, the label will help you find the information again.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 newsletter.


Horn, Robert E. 1998. Visual Language. Bainbridge Island, Washington: MacroVU, Inc.

Outlines and Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers

  • need more time to process than outlines
  • are of little value when the text is short and simple
  • are helpful for constructing super-clusters


  • are easier and quicker to process than graphic organizers
  • are better for shorter, simpler texts
  • are effective for rote-learning facts

Graphic summaries are summaries that reorganize the text. Two examples of graphic summaries are outlines and graphic organizers.

In an outline, topics are listed with their subtopics in a linear format, like this:

Branches of Government (U.S.A.)


Executive Branch




Represented by:





Can recommend legislation; veto legislation; appoint judges



Length of term:

4 years; maximum term 8 years


Legislative Branch




Represented by:





Can enact legislation; override veto; reject and impeach judges; impeach President



Length of term:

2 years (House of Representatives) or 6 years (Senate); no maximum term


Judicial Branch




Represented by:

Supreme Court and other federal courts




Can declare legislation unconstitutional



Length of term:


Graphic organizers show the same sort of information, but in a more visual format, like this:

This is a tree diagram. Although graphic organizers can come in many forms, most commonly they are either tree diagrams or matrices. Here is a matrix of the same information:


Executive Branch

Legislative Branch

Judicial Branch

Represented by



Supreme Court


4 years

2 or 6 years



Can recommend legislation;
veto legislation; appoint judges

Can enact legislation;
override veto;
reject and impeach judges; impeach President

Can declare legislation unconstitutional

Basically, graphic organizers are visual outlines showing relationships. Both outlines and graphic organizers are useful strategies for hierarchical information. However, while an outline does pick out the most important information and does show hierarchical relations (and, as you may have noticed, can include more detail more easily), it is not as effective in showing the relationships between concepts.

Compare the examples. In the outline, the clusters within a topic are clear, but the relations between topics — between the clusters — are not. The graphic organizer, on the other hand, allows connections between clusters to be more readily seen. Notice how much easier it is to grasp the similarities and differences between the different branches of the U.S. Government when looking at the tree diagram or the matrix, compared to looking at the outline.

In general, graphic organizers are more effective than outlines — but not invariably. In a study involving text summaries, graphic organizers were superior only when the students had enough time to study them properly — but where the students did have enough time, those who had studied the graphic organizer tested just as well after two days as they had when tested immediately, while those who had studied the outline performed more poorly (and those who had only read the text were worst of all). In other words, graphic organizers are much better for long-term recall (which is, after all, what you usually want!). This appears even more true when the text is longer.

But graphic organizers can be less effective than outlines, and this may be because graphic organizers can make it too easy to see the relations, and the reader doesn’t need to work as hard to understand the material, with the consequence that the material isn’t processed to the extent that it needs to be for lasting memory. This doesn’t apply, of course, if you’re constructing the graphic organizer yourself.

Graphic organizers have an advantage over outlines in terms of cognitive load. Working memory is thought to have two sub-systems — one that is essentially visual, and one essentially auditory. When we read text, notwithstanding we are receiving the information through our visual sense, we tend to encode it through the auditory working memory (words are fundamentally sound-based). There is evidence that graphic organizers use visual working memory more than auditory, while outlines use auditory more than visual. The advantage of a graphic organizer, therefore, may lie partly in its reduction of cognitive load — that is, by spreading the load on working memory between both systems.

Additionally, of course, the use of visual information in addition to verbal information creates more retrieval paths, increasing the chances of finding the information again.

All of this means that if outlines or graphic organizers are provided for you, even if the same information is also provided in the text, it’s worth spending time studying the outline/graphic. If an outline is provided, consider re-drawing the information as a graphic organizer.

As far as producing these yourself is concerned, outlines are easier to produce than graphic organizers, which is why they are much more popular. Although outlines are in general less effective than graphic organizers, both are generally more effective than conventional notes.

In two studies comparing note-taking formats in a ecture, both outlines and matrix notes were usually more detailed, better organized, and contained more ideas. Matrix notes were also slightly more coherent. But of course, the material was compatible with a matrix format, which is not always the case.

Although a graphic organizer is more effective, an outline is certainly sufficient in the right circumstances. Because it is easier to construct than a graphic organizer, if the material can be adequately described in an outline, you should use it. This will depend partly on the material itself, and partly on your goal. If you’re simply aiming to learn the “facts” (i.e., you’re not trying to develop your understanding), then research indicates an outline will be just as productive as a graphic organizer. If the text is short (1000 words or less), an outline is probably better. But with longer and more complex material, it would seem that graphic organizers are worth the trouble. In such cases, research also suggests that several graphic organizers are most effective — a warning that we shouldn’t try to cram too much information into a graphic organizer.

Remember, too, that graphic organizers, like outlines, are not designed to provide full notes — so you shouldn’t be trying to include everything. It’s all about selecting what’s important.

This article is taken from my book Effective note-taking

  • Benton, S.L., Kiewra, K.A., Whitfill, J.M. & Dennison, R. 1993. Encoding and external-storage effects on writing processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 267-80.
  • Bera, S.J. & Robinson, D.H. 2004. Exploring the boundary conditions of the delay hypothesis with adjunct displays. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(2), 381-388.
  • Kiewra, K.A., Dubois, N.F., Christian, D., McShane, A., Meyerhoffer, M. & Roskelley, D. 1991. Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 240-5.
  • Robinson DH & Kiewra KA 1995. Visual argument: Graphic organizers are superior to outlines in improving learning from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 455-67.
  • Robinson DH & Molina E 2002. The relative involvement of visual and auditory working memory when studying adjunct displays. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 118-31.

The Science and Art of the Diagram

Carbon cycle diagram

Following the (historically) brief period when we became fixated on text as the sole reliable source of information and means of communication, we are now clearly returning to an appreciation of the value of images, both in encapsulating and expressing information. Accordingly, I was intrigued to see this three-part series on the history, science and art of the diagram.

Clarissa Ai Ling Lee, guest blogger at Scientific American:

Effects of diagram orientation on comprehension

The most popular format of the most common type of diagram in biology textbooks is more difficult to understand than formats that use different orientations.

A study into how well students understand specific diagrams reminds us that, while pictures may be worth 1000 words, even small details can make a significant difference to how informative they are.

The study focused on variously formatted cladograms (also known as phylogenetic trees) that are commonly used in high school and college biology textbooks. Such diagrams are hierarchically branching, and are typically used to show the evolutionary history of taxa.

Nineteen college students (most of whom were women), who were majoring in biology, were shown cladograms in sequential pairs and asked whether the second cladogram (a diagonal one) depicted relationships that were the same or different as those depicted in the first cladogram (a rectangular one). Taxa were represented by single letters, which were either in forward or reverse alphabetical order. Each set (diagonal and rectangular) had four variants: up to the right (UR) with forward letters; UR with reverse letters; down to the right (DR), forward letters; DR, reverse. Six topologies were used, creating 24 cladograms in each set. Eye-tracking showed how the students studied the diagrams.

The order of the letters turned out not to matter, but the way the diagrams were oriented made a significant difference to how well students understood them.

In line with our training in reading (left to right), and regardless of orientation, students scanned the diagrams from left to right. The main line of the cladogram (the “backbone”) also provided a strong visual cue to the direction of scanning (upward or downward). In conjunction with the left-right bias, this meant that UR cladograms were processed from bottom to top, while DR cladograms were processed from top to bottom.

Put like that, the results are less surprising. Diagonal cladograms going up to the right were significantly harder for students to match to the rectangular format (63% correct vs 70% for cladograms going down to the right).

Moreover, this was true even for experts. Of the two biology professors included in the study, one showed the same pattern as the students in terms of accuracy, while the other managed the translations accurately enough, but took significantly longer to interpret the UR diagrams than the DR ones.

Unfortunately, the upward orientation is the more widely used (82% of diagonal cladograms in a survey of 27 high school & college biology textbooks; diagonal cladograms comprised 72% of all diagrams).

The findings suggest that teachers need to teach their students to go against their own natural inclinations, and regardless of orientation, scan the tree in a downward direction. This strategy applies to rectangular cladograms as well as diagonal ones.

It’s worth emphasizing another aspect of these findings: even the best type of diagonal cladogram was only translated at a relatively poor level of accuracy. Previous research has suggested that the diagonal cladogram is significantly harder to understand than the rectangular format. Note that the only difference between them is the orientation.

All this highlights two points:

Even apparently minor aspects of a diagram can make a significant difference to how easily it’s understood.

Teachers shouldn’t assume that students ‘naturally’ know how to read a diagram.


Novick, L., Stull, A. T., & Catley, K. M. (2012). Reading Phylogenetic Trees: The Effects of Tree Orientation and Text Processing on Comprehension. BioScience, 62(8), 757–764. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.8.8

Catley, K., & Novick, L. (2008). Seeing the wood for the trees: An analysis of evolutionary diagrams in biology textbooks. BioScience, 58(10), 976–987. Retrieved from

The changing nature of literacy. Part 4: Models & Literacies

This post is the fourth and last part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at textbooks; Part 2 at direct instruction/lecturing; Part 3 at computer learning.. This post looks at learning models and types of literacy.


Effective Notetaking now available in print

Very excited to be able to tell you that Effective notetaking is now available in hardcopy. It's distinctly larger than Mnemonics for Study, but not large for a workbook. I'm very pleased to have both of these available now as paperbacks as well as digital formats.

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