Testing Cmaps for Note Taking

Previously I summarized three features of Cmaps: Knowledge Soups, Compare two Cmaps & Search the Internet. Since the DALMOOC course (re)introduced me to this alternative note taking method, my imagination is now tuned-in to think of Cmaps as a possible solution. I keep thinking of Cmaps projects!

Normally, I avoid alternative platforms such as the Cmap, because they are not sustainable in the long-term, not portable from one OS to another, nor generally extensible in the same way as text-only documents. However, as I mentioned above, some of the features in the Cmap application are interesting and their use may be rewarding in the short term.

Most of the utility for taking notes occurs in the process of writing or recording the note itself. Using the Cmap tool to express ideas with an added dimension is just the sort of insight I enjoy exploring. My normal go-to app for something like this would be a drawing app such as Adobe Illustrator or Google Draw. (The snap-to feature just doesn’t make much of a difference for me.)

What a charting application needs to do to be highly useful is something programmatic. While taking the Edx course Solving Complex Problems, I also explored using visual maps (example). This course introduced highly structured tree structures. Rules included:

  • exclusion of verbs from certain nodes
  • weighted edges
  • top nodes for abstract concepts
  • bottom nodes (leaves) for concrete & measured concepts

While the SCP course didn’t take advantage of the capability, we learned in a course webinar how the methods taught in the course could be applied to programmatic assessment of complex problems.

The Cmap Compare feature brings a programmatic element to trees at the semantic level. This is certainly possible in text-only implementations; however, a programmatic solution of this manner would require prototyping. Cmaps are, for me, a more efficient rapid prototyping tool for developing a long-term solution.

And in order to learn any new tool and use its fancy features, you need content.

Linking Cmaps

I started my own ProSolo project to improve my familiarity with spreadsheet functions and statistical solutions. That’s when I had one of those mind storms and thought how useful a Cmap might be. The Cmap web site uses linked Cmaps to explain Cmaps. It’s completely painful to read, but I couldn’t figure out why. Then I found Ingrid Dethloff’s Cmap in the #DALMOOC twitter feed. I think she totally nailed the problem. There’s no hierarchy.


Reading the Cmap can be difficult. Where do you begin? How do you proceed? [1]. The easiest ways to combat this dilemma is to encode meta-content hierarchy using color, placement, line weights, and/or typography. Also, limiting your map to a focused, single, key question or concept also helps the reader. To express more complex concepts, it’s necessary to utilize the linking feature in Cmaps.

My Spreadsheet note’s content is particularly suited to a system or structure presentation with links. Most mathematical concepts have at some level a primary and succinct definition. Only, once the concept is applied to a problem, the map information-density rises as exceptions, interrelations, and mistaken intuition is corrected. Using a chapter in Schmuller [2] on the Central Limit Theorem, I explore this concept in three Cmaps:

  1. Introduction
  2. Example
  3. Excel formula

You will find encoded in these Cmaps special styles for:

  • Location in the book as chapter headings
  • Main narrative through-line
  • Example through-line
  • code highlight
  • formula highlight

You can test this yourself by downloading the Cmap files (or a tar package of the whole directory). I’ve tried to include all the necessary files, images, etc (whatever was in the project folder). You should be able to just copy this to your My Cmaps folder. Please, let me know what you’re doing with Cmaps. I wish to hear it.

Have fun.


[1] There is a presentation feature in Cmaps, but that’s a whole new use case. Right now the assessment is to determine the usability of Cmaps for personal notes. If I had to sit through a presentation every time I needed to reference a concept I would go mad.

[2] Schmuller, Joseph. Statistical Analysis with Excel for Dummies. 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 2013.
I generally don’t care for the Wiley Dummies books. I check out most books from my public library first, and for the ProSolo project I needed some Excel books Tout Suite–I had no choice. That said, working on this project I realized why I don’t usually read this series. It’s because I don’t casually read technical books. I type notes as direct quotes from the book. And most of the Wiley quotes are, well, too long. The author is intent on making the text accessible to the largest audience, which makes for terrible reference reading. However, since I’m converting these notes into Cmaps, it really didn’t matter. Which interestingly reveals a correlation between an author’s writing style and how you take notes can make a difference in how well you take to the material. I feel the same way about Adobe PDFs. If I can’t highlight text or annotate, I’m much less likely to read the whole report or paper.

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