Using Mindmaps to Revise

I’ve blogged before about using a concept map for revision and I suspect that most of what I have to say is not news for most teachers. However, I was putting together some resources for my classes and thought I might as well share them here too. I have a sneaking suspicion that I am spending more time on this than my students are.

Mind maps are good, but pupils can get hung up on the wrong bits. These are a few suggestions I give to help keep them on the right track.

  1. Start in the middle and leave lots of space – a concept map is never really finished.
  2. Basic principles or ‘headings start near the middle; work outwards towards the fine details.
  3. Colours don’t matter unless they add meaning. If red is used to mark ‘dangers’, or green for ‘examples’, great. Too often students reach for coloured pencils to avoid thinking.
  4. Bubble writing is a waste of time.

Just because it’s easy to give students mind maps doesn’t mean we should. Copying them, however, is pretty much a waste of time. So how can we make sure that what they produce is worthwhile?

  1. Give them the material (or some of it – differentitation opportunity!) on file cards and ask them to arrange them in a concept map.
  2. Ask each student to write three key ideas on a post-it and then have them make the concept map on a table. Introduce an extra step by having them start by making one in groups, either the whole topic or one part of it.
  3. Give each student or group a specific range of pages in the revision guide, or from their folders, as their source material. Tick (perhaps with a pencil) the notes as they are ‘translated’ into the concept map.
  4. Divide them into groups and have them reproduce a printed mindmap in short bursts – each team member has 20-30 seconds to look at the original, then 2 minutes to write down what they remember. The rest of the team can prompt and suggest but not write in that time. More able groups may be organised enough to each focus on a different branch. Alternatively, let them all look at the same time as see how far they can get together.
  5. Give them a mindmap  but photocopy it with blank areas. Can they fill in the gaps? Can they improve what’s there or add connections? They can use this as an audit to check what they are confident with and what they need to focus on. You could aso give students the main headings so they have some structure, perhaps witht he next link if you think they would benefit.

I think it’s very important to help the students realise how varied concept maps will be. Three people will produce very different maps, even if they have the same headings to start with. This is true for three able students, or even three teachers – it’s not about ability or knowledge but about how we show the links between concepts. Having members of the class compare their mind maps and give constructive feedback to each other can be very interesting – especially if you then have them add comments to the board, divided into ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’. They could be shared electronically through a VLE or mailing list, if you use them with your classes.

I’ve uploaded some printable mind maps below, for AQA Additional: P2.  This is the exam my students are (theoretically) preparing for. I produced them using MindMeister (exporting as gif files works better than pdf I’ve found) as I find this more useful for me; my students tend to prefer which is really quick to use. I’d really welcome any suggestions or ideas for (free) software or weblinks as I feel both sites have weaknesses.

printable: p2 mindmaps as pdf


Adaptations of Santa and Rudolf

What better way to celebrate the festive season than to consider the adaptations of Santa and Rudolf to their annual tasks?

Don’t answer that.

Printable: christmas as pdf

I gave this exercise to my students today and they seemed to enjoy it. I asked them to start by giving me three serious adaptations for each, and we then continued along a more festive theme as we approached the end of the lesson. You could give hints or add arrows to get them started.


  • Use of hat/clothes for warmth.
  • Boots have soles adapted for ice and snow.
  • Reins, sleigh and reindeer are more examples of tool use.
  • Highly developed brain (assisted by written records) for naughty and nice lists.
  • Strong arm/back muscles to carry heavy sack.
  • Large belly acts as a camel’s hump allowing prolonged period of exertion.
  • Use of GoogleMaps for navigation. (You could also demonstrate NorADSanta)


  • Thick fur to cope with Arctic conditions.
  • Wide hooves for moving on ice and snow.
  • Herd behaviour.
  • Streamlined shape for higher speed.
  • Mutation allowing flight.
  • Red nose – adaptation to allow easier navigation (without loss of night sight) or result of friction?
  • Antlers could be sophisticated radar aerial.

AQA P2: Foundation vs Higher

As I was producing this for my students, I thought it was possible others might be interested in it for theirs. I was asked how much variation there was between the Foundation and Higher tiers, and this was the result. More revision materials for AQA P2 (mid-January) will be appearing on the blog as I finish them for my students.

On checking the specification, there’s really not a great deal of difference – it’s how the questions are worded. The Foundation tier (unsurprisingly) leans towards more multiple choice guess answers and far less maths. I had my students compare ‘equivalent’ questions and we produced a summary table, linked to ‘how to revise’ notes specific to each tier.

printable: P2 F vs H as pdf.

I’ve always found it tricky to make tier decisions – almost invariably, some of them turn out to be wrong. They can be a self-fulfilling prophecy (you may be familiar with the ‘Pygmalion Effect‘ of high/low expectations), partly because students entered for the Foundation tier may choose, more or less consciously, not to put in any effort. There are often some students who could achieve B grades on the Higher tier but see aiming for a C by doing Foundation as the ‘easy option’. Sadly this is not always the case. I’d welcome any successful strategies colleagues have used to deal with this.

PS As you’ll see on the left, the blog is now on Twitter, as @teachingofsci. Some of it will be about Teaching Science, some will just be me (t)wittering.

DIY Photoelectric Effect and Electroscope

I suppose I could claim this is seasonal – it does use tinsel, after all! But in reality it’s just that I’ve gotten around to producing the resource to go along with this post.


While teaching AS Physics (AQA A, if you care) I requested, as usual, the apparatus to demonstrate the photoelectric effect; this is one of the first experiments that demonstrated particle properties of light, as later explained by Einstein. The gold-leaf electroscope arrived, with a piece of zinc and a UV lamp. It didn’t work. I did what all good physics teachers do; after messing around a little with the equipment then swore where the kids couldn’t hear me. When I had the chance, I had a look online.
This is a notoriously unreliable experiment in the school science lab. I hoped for some hints and tips to make it work better. What I found was far superior – a version my students could build for themselves in a lesson from odds and ends, starting with a drinks can. It was demonstrated on Youtube and I followed links to a set of instructions, but thought they were rather complicated for the average student. So here’s my own version; drinks can electroscope as a pdf.
I must emphasize that this is not my idea, but I have produced a student-friendly version of the instructions. As far as I can tell this grew out of a demonstration at the American Physics Teachers Conference, and of course there are other home-made electroscopes around.
According to the original instructions, a ‘hand sanitizer’ works well as the UV source. You can get these in the UK direct from the supplier, Wallace Cameron, for about £15.

Why you should avoid Memory4Teachers

'Just say "No" to Memory4Teachers'This looked like such a good initiative – a free memory stick was exciting enough, but the idea of it coming preloaded with all kinds of goodies? I had actually started thinking about something similar myself, a while back – the idea of a small number of resources, easily adapted by teachers to make their lives easier. That idea actually grew into this blog, which hasn’t quite worked out as planned but has still been interesting. The ‘free’ memory stick, however, is yet to come. I had pretty much written it off anyway, but the December newsletter arrived at a time when I had a chance to read it properly. Hmmm. Time to blog about this, I thought. So let’s be organised and separate my concerns.

Talk is cheap

The memory stick never arrives. According to threads all over the place (Times Ed, a forum for history teachers, IT professionals, MoneySavingExpert) most people haven’t received them. More interestingly, different people get told different time scales and reasons for the non-arrival.

I’ve had a look around on the website, but have yet to find a specific reference to (a) the number that have been sent out or (b)how long it will be before they are delivered. There is plenty of information about how good they’ll be, although a lot of the material seems to be aimed at companies offering advertising space rather than at us, the teachers.

They’re not listening

There has been no response to the ‘unsubscribe’ requests I’ve made, using the link at the bottom of the monthly spam newsletter. There’s been no reply to the contact form I filled in on their website. And they haven’t (yet) replied to my email asking for clarification of the figures. Of course, I could phone them – via the 0871 number on their website. Don’t think I’ll worry about that.

Just because a company makes it difficult for us to talk to them isn’t necessarily suspicious. But it is interesting.

The email isn’t for our benefit

On reading the monthly newsletter, it doesn’t feel like it’s really aimed at teachers as professionals. There are some teaching-related items, but these are in the form of adverts for discounted resources or occasionally links to professional groups such as the Royal Society of Chemistry. (More about these in a moment). Many of the adverts are totally unrelated to teaching. Digging a little deeper, I’ve found that it’s effectively a project run by RGS Media, a company offering advertising links to teachers. This suggests to me that the email is their way of telling their customers (the companies and groups paying for adverts, not us the teachers) that they are ‘reaching the target audience’. Presumably they not only have numbers showing how many teachers are being emailed, but also by following through the clickable adverts, or using the discount codes, teachers demonstrate the email is working. Working for them, not us.

A quote I remember on Lifehacker seems to fit nicely: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer – you’re the product being sold.”

Choice of advertisers

I’m sure there are other advertisers with dubious practices – after all, relatively few large companies have completely clean hands. But one in the last email particularly caught my eye.

The ‘Human Values Foundation‘ is a group, international in scope, which offers complete teaching packages to schools. These schemes of work, with lessons plans and other resources, are designed to fill a gap in ‘values-led education – what in the UK is called Personal Social and Health Education or PSHE. Their website suggests that they are values-led but not linked to any particular faith or religion:

“The HVF is a non-denominational and independent body, which does not represent or work on behalf of any particular religion or spiritual interest.”

This is an interesting claim as there is an uncanny similarity between the five guiding principles of the Human Values Foundation (listed here) and those of the teachings of ‘Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the revered spiritual leader who resides in India’. (principles here). Now, despite my own religious preferences (i.e. none to speak of) I have nothing against these ideas – in fact they seem like a reasonable start. My own objection is that the HVF claims to be secular, while in fact being based on the same principles as a religious sect. Maybe it’s a science teacher thing – they either need to give their references or stop making claims!

The sample activities visible seem, to a non-specialist, pretty good. I certainly don’t object to the content, or even to the mode of delivery. I’ve asked on the TES Forums about the complete package, but have had no replies to date, I’m particularly curious about lessons and parts of the course dealing with the usual flash points between religion and citizenship – equal opportunities, sexuality, abortion and so on. Please drop me a line if you have any information!

Anyway, this is just one example of the – shall we say uneven? – nature of the advertisers who use the Memory4Teachers ‘initiative’ to reach us, as teaching professionals. I’m not going to argue that RGS Media should be doing their job differently – after all, they don’t work for us! But having written this piece I have a fresh appreciation for two pieces of advice. One is from one of my favourite authors, Robert Heinlein, the other attributed to another, older science fiction writer, H G Wells:

“TANSTAAFL: There ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” and “Advertising is legalized lying.”

Spot the Physics

As part of a project I’m involved with at the moment (more accurately have been involved with, but haven’t been blogging about) I’ve been looking at ways to get students thinking more about how physics as a subject can affect their future lives. I know we all do loads about context, and how relevant it is, and how our lives would be different etc etc, but this was something different. After talking to some of our sixth formers I realised how few careers they could suggest that had something to do with physics.

Seriously, two; ‘doctor’ and ‘nuclear physicist’.

My first idea was, rather indirectly, inspired by the ‘What Have The Romans Done For Us’ sketch from Monty Python, via the excellent parody at The Lay Scientist. I gave a group the image of a classroom and asked them to suggest all the ways in which people had used physics to make it work. With a few hints – okay, a lot of hints – they came up with loads of good ideas.

As you can see above (click the picture for the pdf) I ‘translated’ this into a poster, which is the stimulus for the next lesson, not necessarily with the same group).

The class get an example, and links to sites like the careers page at the Institute of Physics. They also get, in groups of four or five, a different situation – teenager’s bedroom, football match, doctors’ surgery and so on. They then have to produce an equivalent poster which shows the variety of jobs/careers/roles that involve physics to a greater or lesser extent.

I can’t easily upload the original Publisher versions (without messing with things like Dropbox and similar, anyway) so instead you’ll have to make do with the  printable: spot the physics, saved as a pdf. So you now have a choice:

  1. spend time copying and pasting, or convert them with something like pdftoword if you don’t have pdf editing software
  2. start from scratch, so they end up just the way you want them
  3. email me and I’ll send you the files, free of charge, because I get a warm glow at any hint anyone reads this blog

This wasn’t the only approach I took. I’m working on a big list of science related careers (not working very hard because there must be something out there, right?) for the school VLE. I’m doing some work on combating ‘medicine is the only clinical career’ tunnel vision. And I’ve annotated a ‘highest paid professions’ list with a highlighter to show just how useful interesting profitable physics can be.

But more about those in my next post.

PS These files are the first I’m tagging with the Creative Commons logo. This is just a way of formalising what I’ve posted about several times, that I’m perfectly happy for people to use and edit my content, but I’d rather they (a) didn’t make a profit and (b) credited me or the blog. More information on the specific licence I’ve chosen at Creative Commons: by-nc-sa.