Mind maps to support students’ learning in Chemistry: Case-study approach

By Tara Kiran Kurre

    Mind maps to support students’ learning in Chemistry: Case-study approach

    About the Author

    Tara Kiran Kurre
    Faculty Member of Teacher Education
    Bangalore, IN
    1 Article Published
    Tara Kiran Kurre

    I am a teacher educator at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, where I engage in teaching courses on Science education, pedagogy and curriculum to Bachelor of Education students and also actively take part in University’s research and field engagements. Prior to this role, I taught Chemistry to high school students for 10 years, primarily Cambridge curriculum, but also had the opportunity to teach various Indian Boards too. I have a Master's degree in Chemistry and also in Education.
    My subject of interest is Science education. I ran Science Club at school to popularize science among students. I have experience working with students on multiple projects. For one such project on “Sustainable alternatives to plastic”, I got certified as a National Geographic Educator. I also had opportunities to collaborate with educators from across the globe during the 2 years of my study at University of Nottingham. This exposure has widened my ideas on International Education and the best practices around the world. I have been researching Science Education extensively, focusing on digital technologies, innovative pedagogies, misconceptions in Science among students and the role of neuroscience in education.
    In my MA Education course, I had a module on ‘Practitioner Based Inquiry’ that introduced me to the world of action research. This spiked my interest as it showed immense potential as a powerful tool for a teacher to engage in research that has a direct impact on his/her teaching in the classroom, which also has direct implications in the everyday functioning of the school. It provides a framework for teachers to systematically observe their classroom, collect data, engage in analysing and to take appropriate action. Thus, combining both research and action in cycles.

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    Project Summary

    To overcome the difficulty in learning Chemistry for students and in particular to help with their understandings of Organic Chemistry reactions, I used mind maps as a technique. Mind maps are an outline of ideas that emerge from a central theme or concept (Buzan and Buzan, 1993). Each student developed their own mind maps after I taught them first, and the students then used them consistently through one academic year. At the end of the academic year, I probed the effectiveness of using mind maps in making Organic Chemistry easier and simpler via survey and student drawn mind maps. The analysis of the student responses from the survey revealed that the students benefitted from using mind maps as the maps helped the students remember and recollect various organic reactions and to make connections between various concepts and functional groups. I also used this research to find out what the attitude of my students is towards chemistry as a subject. This information has been significant in improving my practice as a teacher. The benefits of using mind maps can be extended to other subjects as mind maps are found to be extremely helpful in organizing complex data in the learner’s brain and to develop a suitable mental model. Mind maps help in making lengthy notes compact, helping students to learn large content in less time (Nyagblormase, Gyampoh, Hinson, Aidoo, and Yeboah, 2021). The visual appeal in the mind maps also helps in quick recall (Brinkmann, 2003; Vekiri, 2002). Teachers can experiment with mind maps as tools for collaborative learning, as assessments to gauze student learning or as worksheets to promote practice among their students. This whole process of studying my students has also helped me to understand the strength of practitioner research to improve the teaching-learning processes in the classroom.

    Project Context

    The research is a small-scale project that I carried out as part of an assignment during my MA in Education studies. I was teaching at a school in India while I was pursuing the degree and had the opportunity to utilize my classroom to conduct research. This provided me with a unique opportunity to use the knowledge and skills developed from the university course to simultaneously apply them in my classroom to investigate the teaching-learning process. This in turn helped to guide my practice as a teacher.

    This project acted as a stepping stone into practitioner research for me. I was a novice as a researcher but my experience of teaching Chemistry to high school students helped guide my research towards questions that arise from my practice in classrooms and school. During my teaching experience, I noticed that many students consider Chemistry as a difficult subject. Many adults also express that they had similar feelings towards the subject when they were students.

    The use of mind maps was an initiative to simplify Organic Chemistry for students. The participants were my grade 11 students, who are enrolled in Cambridge Assessment International Examinations (CAIE) curriculum at a private school located in a metropolitan city in India. The medium of instruction is English and the school caters to an upper middle-class community. The school has grades from Kindergarten to grade 12. It offers both international (CAIE) and national curriculum to students and students choose one of these curricula based on their aspirations. A qualifying teaching degree (referred to as B.Ed) is mandatory for teachers to teach National curricula, but no such degree is compulsory to teach the international curriculum (though alternative degrees like Post Graduate Certificate in International Education (PGCEi) are sometimes preferred).

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Research goal and rationale

    In my ten years of teaching Organic Chemistry to Senior Secondary students, I have seen Organic Chemistry be a daunting subject for students, with difficulties in this course sometimes also affecting students’ overall performance. As a teacher, I wish to know the reason for this attitude of learners towards chemistry. I also hope Organic Chemistry can be made easier, and I think that using mind maps as a strategy, can raise students’ confidence, and lead to an increased understanding of the subject. Such a study also will stimulate my professional development as a teacher. In this project, I explored the following primary question: Can mind maps be used effectively to support students’ learning in Organic Chemistry? Below are the related sub-questions which I set out to explore:

    1. What makes organic chemistry difficult for learners?
    2. Can mind maps be used to promote a positive attitude among learners towards organic chemistry?

    Theoretical framework

    Mind maps are an outline of ideas that emerge from a central theme or concept (Buzan and Buzan, 1993).  Research has shown that students’ learning outcomes, grades and performance has increased when they used mind-maps as a learning strategy (Horton et al. 1993; Abi-El-Mona and Abd-El-Khalick, 2008). Mind maps are seen to be an effective strategy for knowledge retention (Nesbit and Adesope, 2006) and to make meaningful associations between concepts (Nyagblormase et al., 2021).  Research by Astriani, Susilo, Suwono and Lukiati (2020) has shown that metacognitive skills of learners were improved by using mind maps. Mind mapping when used as classroom exercise resulted in greater co-operative learning among the learners and resulted in enhanced learning experience (Budd, 2004; Masnaini, Copriady and Osman, 2018). Mind maps can serve as active and collaborative learning tools against the traditional lecture style teaching in Chemistry (Budd, 2004). However, it has been noted that though the mind mapping technique helped students retain knowledge, it did not help in increasing the understanding of the complex concepts (Nyagblormase et al., 2021). Therefore, teachers must be aware of the purpose of using mind maps before they can successfully implement this technique in their classrooms. Moreover, it requires a good amount of time, effort and patience to construct a decent mind map. In that sense, some students might be deterred from making one. Overall, nevertheless, with a little bit of help and motivation, students can be encouraged by teachers to construct and use mind maps to their advantage.

    In my attempt to gain a deeper understanding of my inquiry, I am taking the constructivist approach as mind mapping is greatly centered around this paradigm. According to this theory, learners construct knowledge actively through experiences, and this knowledge further facilitates the construction of future knowledge (Bodner, 1986). Learners are responsible for their own knowledge and understanding of the world (Wilson, 2003). Students and teachers have different experiences and knowledge, and this often leads to ineffective knowledge transfer in classroom. Mind mapping is an effective tool in solving this problem by providing an opportunity for the learner to construct his or her own knowledge and help the teacher to understand the pupils’ existing knowledge.

    Research method


    Since my current study was a small-scale research assignment, I chose a small cohort of my ten students of grade 11 (aged 16-17) who were pursuing CAIE AS level chemistry. The interested participants volunteered to participate after they were briefed about the study.


    In this work, I was aiming to look closely at the difficulties that my students face in learning and understanding Organic Chemistry and if mind maps might help them in this regard. Case study was seen as the most appropriate research methodology for my study as it would help me to examine my students’ experiences in depth. As Hitchcock and Hughes (1995, p. 214) explain, a case study as “in-depth study of a single case, event, or a series of linked cases or events over a defined period of time, the aim being to try and locate the ‘story’ of a certain aspect….” Thus, case study could help me to find my ‘story’ and as Stake (1998) mentions to develop ‘knowledge of the particular’. Case studies are also apt for studying cause and effect (Cohen et al., 2011) in real contexts unlike some theories which would just predict the outcomes of an intervention.

    Case studies are sometimes not considered a valid and reliable methodology. Quantitative methods are regarded by some researchers as being more valid because the results are seen as more generalizable and therefore can be applied to many contexts. On the other hand, case study provides greater emphasis on the localized context and provides rich descriptions of the case. Thus, Cohen et al. (2011, p. 292) assert about case study that “their peculiar strength lies in their attention to the subtlety and complexity of the case in its own right”.

    The case study that I undertook is an exploratory case study and is very restricted and limited to my own classroom.  I am aware of the fact that the results of this study may not be readily applied to other classrooms which are influenced by multiple other factors. I do not attempt to generalize too, as Stake (1998, p.91) highlights, “Damage occurs when the commitment to generalize or create theory runs so strong that the researcher’s attention is drawn away from features important for understanding the case itself”. But the study can be a starting point to collaboration between teachers in the same or other schools to come together and work. Such collaboration can increase the generalizability of future studies.

    Data collection

    Data from students were collected via students’ work on mind maps and their responses to questionnaires. Since my students had not used mind maps before, I first taught them how to make one. All students were then instructed to create mind maps on their own at the end of every Organic Chemistry chapter. After using their mind maps for a school year, they then completed the questionnaire.

    I chose to use a questionnaire (see questions in the research outcome section below) because of their simplicity for gathering and analysing data (Wilson and McLean, 1994). Since the sample size was small, I could afford to design a more open and descriptive questionnaire that suited my exploratory case study. My questionnaire was designed to be semi-structured, that is, it has “a clear structure, sequence, focus, but the format is open-ended, enabling respondents to reply in their own terms” (Cohen et al, 2011, p. 382). Open-ended questions would also help me to generate themes that could be used in any consequent larger-scale studies. I and my critical friend checked on any leading questions, unclear/ambiguous questions, repetitive questions, as well as the sequencing of the questions and closed questions that may prompt the participants to just answer yes or no. It would have been ideal if the questionnaire was followed by an interview as the disadvantage of the questionnaire is that the responses “have to be taken at face value, but a response in an interview can be developed and clarified” (Bell, 2010, p. 160). Time constraints prevented me from including more in-depth interviews as a part of the study.

    Research outcome

    In the following paragraphs I will analyse the data I gathered via questionnaires from students. A total of 10 students completed the questionnaire. For each of the ten students, pseudonyms/codes are given as S1, S2, etc. to keep their identities confidential. The students used mind maps all through the days when Organic Chemistry was taught, as I constantly encouraged them to do so. After the syllabus was concluded and the students had completed a year end test, the questionnaire was given to understand how the mind maps were helpful in the students’ learning. A few other questions were also asked to  better understand their attitudes towards Chemistry.

    Analysis of the responses from the questionnaire

    Question 1: What is your general attitude towards chemistry? Answer this question in terms of your comfort level, how you perceive the subject to be.

    Most of the students (8 out of 10) used the words ‘fun’, ‘enjoy’, ‘comfortable’, ‘engaging’, ‘interesting’ to express their attitude towards Chemistry. It was very encouraging to see that many of the learners have positive attitude towards the subject. But these positive responses are also followed by expressions (6 out of 8 positive responses) like ‘but got tougher in AS level’, ‘The theory kept getting harder over years’, ‘sometimes it can get a bit overwhelming with new topics’, ‘can be very confusing to learn it in parts’, ‘not very thorough with higher level concepts’, ‘except for some topics’. These responses show that though in general they like the subject, they are not comfortable when the difficulty level in a certain topic/concept increases and can feel overwhelmed. It was also evident from the responses that they find the chemistry syllabus to be tough and vast, which was strongly evident in the responses from student S5 and S10 (who did not have a positive attitude towards the subject). Their responses indicated that for them, respectively, chemistry is ‘Quite complex and vast as a subject, thus difficult to study all of it’ and ‘It is one of the hardest subjects for me and I struggle with it’.

    Question 2: Did this attitude change from high school to AS Level? If yes, please explain the reason from your point of view.

    This question was important to ask because I wanted to know if they had the same attitude before my course, or if attitudes had changed in the current year. The intensity and difficulty level increases by many folds from high school to AS level and therefore I wished to know if this had anything to do with changed attitudes towards chemistry. Students S5 and S10, who showed a negative attitude towards chemistry, mentioned that they had the same attitude even in high school. There was a unanimous response from other students,  who mentioned that the syllabus got tougher in AS levels, which was reflected in responses like ‘chemistry this year is more challenging than last’, ‘a big jump from 10th grade to AS levels’, ‘The theory in AS level was way harder than high school’, ‘in high school I felt chemistry was a cake walk and I wasn’t much worried about it, however in AS levels I found it quite hard’, ‘AS Level has a greater difficulty level than previous years of Chemistry’. What is worth noting here is that, though these young people found AS level Chemistry much harder than their high school chemistry, they still displayed a positive attitude towards the subject. They are taking up the challenges in stride as evident from S10’s and S6’s responses that ‘it definitely does get harder but that’s what makes me like it more as it poses a challenge’ and ‘Earlier I used to find chemistry boring but as new concepts were introduced in AS Level I gained more interest’, respectively.

    To summarise, their attitudes did not change much from high school to AS level. Though there is an increase in the difficulty level and the depth of the subject, the students are motivated and continued to show interest.

    Question 3: Do you find organic chemistry easy or hard?

    Sixty percent of the students said it is easy, 30% said it is hard and 10% said somewhere in between. Though S2 and S3 stated that Organic Chemistry is easy, they also mentioned the conditions under which it is easy. As S2 mentioned, ‘It is easy as long as I know the reagents and don’t forget them,’ and S3 reported that organic chemistry can get slightly confusing but once you understand the concept properly it is actually not that hard’. While analysing the results, I began to feel that the question is vague and could have been rephrased to make it clearer. Easy or hard is a very relative term and the responses do not convey anything beyond just saying easy or hard. Asking them for explanations for their responses would have been a better approach to take. In addition, a simple test that can check their understandings of Organic Chemistry could be a better way to spot specific difficulties in relation to the course content, instead of asking for more general comments, and I plan to implement this in my further studies.

    Question 4: What are your learning strategies while studying organic chemistry?

    This question was important since I wanted to know if the students were using any other strategies besides mind maps. Improved learning outcomes could be due to other factors, and this question could help me to understand this.

    The responses revealed that students did not have any major study strategies besides mind maps, although they did indicate using some other study techniques. Most of them mentioned using either class notes and summary notes to go over the concepts and reported relying on questions from earlier examinations for practice to check their understanding. S3 and S7 mentioned using flash cards. Though S7 did not report how exactly she/he was using flash cards, S3 mentioned that he/she is using them for mechanisms in Organic chemistry. Use of flash cards is a great strategy for learning and understanding mechanisms. S7 also mentioned ‘Designing 3D structures of the molecules using 3D modelling software’. This exercise helps in visualising organic molecules, which is important for understanding several concepts in Organic Chemistry like isomers, mechanisms, etc. It is also evident from the responses that learners focused more on memorizing rather than understanding the reactions and reagents in Organic Chemistry, which is seen in phrases like ‘learn reagents and products again and again’; ‘memorize reactions from my notes’; ‘refer to the class notes often.’

    An alarming behaviour that became quite evident from their responses is that the students did not mention reading the textbooks. It is important to refer to various textbooks in developing a full understanding of the concepts from different perspectives. In this way learners can better construct the knowledge on their own. But the learners here are solely dependent on my explanations and class notes. I should consciously encourage the students to engage in some self-learning and develop the habit of referring to textbooks.

    Question 5: Did you use mind maps? If yes, please mention how they have helped you in the learning process.

    Everyone except 2 students had used mind maps. Out of 8 students who used mind maps, 2 have used mind mapping only briefly in the beginning. The other 6 students have used mind maps extensively and they were able to clearly mention how mind maps have helped them. 

    Themes Elicited from Students’ Responses

    Theme 1: Mind maps are used to organize and visualize complex data by constructing suitable mental models, thus helping in remembering large information.

    This theme is reflected in the following student responses: 

    ‘They helped me to bring all the various pieces of information into a concise map’, ‘points were easier to remember’, ‘mind maps mainly acted as a steppingstone for me to structure large amounts of data’, ‘allowed me to place concepts and reactions in an easily rememberable order’.

    The Mind maps of S2 and S4 (Figure 1 and Figure 2, respectively) show how large amounts of data is organized into simple forms that make it easier to process the data and form a mental model accordingly.

    Figure 1

    Mind map of S2


    Figure 2

    Mind map of S4


    Theme 2: Mind maps help in creating meaningful associations between different concepts

    The statements, ‘makes it easier to connect similar reactions, catalysts, etc.’, ‘Linking concepts within organic chemistry in particular was also a lot easier due to the largely ‘step-by-step’ nature of reaction pathways’ reflect the second theme. The mind map in Figure 3 shows how one student tried connecting different functional groups using a mind map. This way, the student got a broader idea about the reactions and reagents across various functional groups and likely will be able to make better connections.

    Figure 3

    Mind map of S9


    Theme 3: Visual appeal of the mind maps helps in quick recall

    This theme is reflected in the following student responses:

    ‘Images are easier to remember than text’, ‘they help as it makes it easier to picture what I need to remember’; ‘it creates a visual memory of the reactions which makes it a little easier to remember’. Mind maps in figures 1 and 2, are not just compact and neat, but using different coloured pens added a visual appeal, which helps in remembering and in recall.

    Theme 4: Mind maps make lengthy notes compact and makes it easier to learn large content

    The theme is reflected in the response, ‘helps me put down everything I needed to study without having to flip through many pages’. There is no doubt that mind map helps in presenting data in a crisp and compact form and can be employed for note-taking in class.

    Theme 5: Mind maps can be used as revision strategies

    The responses such as, ‘helps to look at headers and recall information to test myself’, ‘plan exactly what I wanted to learn and what was still left to learn’, reflect this theme. Once the data is stored strategically in a well-formed mental model, it can be retrieved efficiently. These appropriate mental models help learners to record the information in long-term memory and to recall it effectively when needed in problem solving (Adodo, 2013).


    From my student responses, I understood that most of the students had used mind maps effectively and had benefitted. I should mention that, in the context that I used mind maps with the students, although mind maps helped them to remember and revise the reactions to a larger extent, the mind maps contributed less towards increasing their understandings of the reactions. In the future, I shall check if mind maps when used differently can increase the student understanding of concepts. The results indicated that my students have positive attitudes towards chemistry, though they believe that Chemistry is a vast and difficult subject. The use of mind maps as a collaborative activity (Budd, 2004) and as worksheets can be explored further. The exploratory case study has provided the awareness of the issues faced by some learners in chemistry, and the study has the potential to lead into action research, where I can actively collaborate with other teachers to work on improving student learning outcomes and to make learning an enriching experience.


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Kurre, T. K. (2023, May 4). Mind maps to support students’ learning in Chemistry: Case-study approach. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/mind-maps-to-support-students-learning-in-chemistry-case-study-approach/

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