Mind-mapping my way through grad school with Scapple

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh

Early in grad school, and on recommendation from a family member, a grad student, and a professor, I picked up a copy of Scrivener, a word processor that works differently than any other word processor that I’ve seen. It’s supposed to be great for iterative academic writing, but despite a few attempts, I haven’t quite made it part of my flow yet. I’ve thought about using it for my practicum, and I definitely want to make it part of my dissertation routine, but we just haven’t meshed yet.

At the same time that I bought Scrivener, though, I noticed that the same company produces a mind-mapping app called Scapple. I was intrigued by the idea of mind maps, I had a bunch of App Store money to burn through, so I figured I’d try it out. Despite sounding like a breakfast food that I once read about in a book (which somehow failed to make it sound as gross as that Wikipedia article does), this program and I have swiftly become fast friends.


There may be a near-infinite number of blog posts and YouTube videos about how great Scrivener is, so I think it’s time for Scapple to get a little love. This program makes it really easy to throw a few ideas on a page and mess around with them. There are a number of different ways to format or connect different nodes, which can be helpful for distinguishing different kinds of ideas, and the canvas is functionally infinite, so you don’t have to worry about running out of space. Plus, creating and manipulating new nodes is really easy, so the whole process is pretty quick.

I put all these features to use in two main ways, and I’d love to share them with you:

Virtual white board—I’ve been teaching French for the past several months, and while the focus of the class is oral communication, it’s hard to do without visuals. I usually have some slides ready for my lessons, but I rely a lot on student input, which means that I can’t anticipate everything. There are white boards in the room I teach in, but getting up, finding a marker, writing something down, turning around, and getting back to my chair every time I need to write something is a drag sometimes. Plus, I feel like I lose a lot of the informality that I really appreciate in the class. So, there are a lot of times that I just open Scapple, project it on the TV in the classroom, and use it as a quick and easy virtual white board. As a bonus, I can then export the mind-map as a PDF and send it to the students after class.

Reading organizer—There are a lot of people who want to learn to read faster, but I’m the kind of person that needs to slow down. I read quickly, but for me, that speed often comes at the price of not catching, processing, or remembering everything. If I’m really wrestling with a text that I definitely need to remember (say, a stats textbook), I’ll often open up Scapple and start taking notes there. Sometimes I’m even copying relevant chunks from the text into a mind-map, turning it from a collection of paragraphs into a flowchart that will remind me about important details and guide me through a tricky process. I’ll also use Scapple to connect and compare ideas from multiple texts, so that I can see connections between different authors or even just different works by the same author. Mind-mapping my reading forces me to slow down and really think about the text in a way I usually don’t.

So, that’s that. I’m constantly surprised by how useful Scapple has become over the past year and a half. I don’t know if it would be the first app to roll off my tongue if you asked me for “must have” grad school software, but whenever I open up a new canvas and use it to get something done, I feel like I’m underestimating it. If you head over to the main Scapple web page, you can download it for a free trial. Maybe it will be as useful to you as it has been to me!

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.