Brainstorming and mind mapping

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Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a way of generating ideas and organising your thinking on a topic.

If you are feeling anxious about an assignment or lacking in inspiration, brainstorming sets your mind in motion and helps you find concrete ideas.

If you feel that you have too many ideas and are not sure which ones to pursue, brainstorming can help you to narrow them down.

Brainstorming also helps you to place your ideas into a useful order and consider the relationship between them so that you can start planning your assignment.

How to brainstorm

There are many different ways of brainstorming an assignment. As we all think and learn differently, it is important that you find a method that suits you.

In the following sections you will find a discussion of three different approaches: asking questions, freewriting, and mind mapping.

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Asking questions

Asking questions about your assignment is a useful way of breaking down the topic into its basic elements so that you can better understand it.

Many researchers begin with the Five Ws and One H, a series of basic questions that are useful for gathering information about an event or issue:

  • What happened?
  • Who was involved?
  • When did it take place?
  • Where did it take place?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

These questions will not be appropriate for all types of assignments, so tailor your list of questions to suit the task that you have been given.

Example

Imagine that you have been asked to write an essay on the following topic:


On 13 September 2007 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Critically evaluate the capacity of the UNDRIP to promote the interests of Indigenous peoples in South America.

Your list of questions might look something like this:

Who was involved in drafting the UNDRIP? Why did they create it? What were they hoping to achieve? Which South American countries or groups of Indigenous peoples should I focus on? What are their ‘interests’? What are some of the main challenges that they face? What does the text of the UNDRIP say? Which parts of it might help Indigenous groups to promote their own interests? Why and how? What flaws or weaknesses does the document have?

Activity

  1. Take one of your assignments for this semester and break it up into a series of questions. Use the example above to guide you if you get stuck.
  2. Write down answers to these questions.
  3. Now read through your answers and highlight your best points. Highlight the ones that seem most relevant to the task or question that you have been assigned. Highlight, too, the ones that interest you the most, even if you are not entirely sure at the moment why you find them interesting.

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Freewriting

Freewriting is about liberating your thoughts and allowing them to flow onto the page. Set a minimum time or space limit (e.g. 5 minutes or 3 pages) to ensure that you produce a useful number of ideas. If you are writing at a solid pace continue for as long as you wish. If you are struggling to establish a flow of words, take a short break and try again.

Don’t worry about the quality of what you are writing. The objective is to generate ideas, not to produce a polished piece of writing. So turn off your inner critic and just write whatever comes to mind.

When you have finished writing, read the text and highlight the potentially useful points that you have made. You will then be able to think about the further information that you will need in order to write your assignment.


Activity

Read through the example below. Click on the sentences that contain useful ideas that are worth exploring further. Try to focus on the conclusions the writer has reached rather than the parts where she is ‘thinking it through’.

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Mind mapping

A mind map is a visual representation of your ideas, consisting of words, images and colours. It allows you to construct an overview of the topic so that you can see its complexities more clearly and identify relationships between different aspects of the topic.

Activity

Construct your own mind map. You might want to use a topic for an upcoming assignment, the example question on the UNDRIP, or a topic of your own choice.

Choose a medium that you feel comfortable with. You might construct your mind map on paper, on a whiteboard, or on your computer.

If you wish to create a mind map on your computer you can use the drawing tools on Google Drive. There are also several different kinds of mind mapping software available online, such as FreeMind, an open source (free) visual mapping software.

Remember to be creative. Use colours, images, or bold type to highlight key ideas or relationships.

You may like to check out the Brainstorming and mind mapping quick study guide.