Terminology Heat Maps and Seed Terms

 In Study Tips

I like to use what I call terminology heat maps when studying, so much so that I also recommend them to students when teaching classes at O’Reilly (learning.oreilly.com). I describe what a terminology heat map is in class – but its time to give some support to the idea here at the blog. This page will serve as a long-term reference page to introduce the basics and to provide some seed terms for anyone studying for CCNA.

Term Heat Maps and Seed Terms

During the latter stages of studying for an IT exam, your study and review activities need to change. The activities need to exercise your brain, its memories, the relationships between concepts, to reorganize your understanding. In fact, using your primary and secondary study tools from the first 50%-75% of your journey towards passing an exam become not only less important but even a stumbling block to success.

Instead, use activities that use your brain only – no book, videos, notes – and think. Different activities force that. For instance, IT people love labs. But labs work well because they make your brain focus on the topic, retrieve what you know, interpret words and meaning and relationships between ideas, and so on. But any activity that does that helps you learn.

A Terminology Heat Map activity provides just enough structure to help you recall facts you know, connect those facts together, reorganize your memories, strengthen those memories, and prod your brain to wonder about topics you know you just do not quite remember. They can help a lot, and you can use it as a review tool with any topic and with any primary resource.

Before I write more about what to do, note that the activity matters; the finished heat map does not. The goal is to exercise your brain. The end product you see in front of you matters little. So, the activity works like this:

  • Have your tools ready – start with pen and paper.
  • Pick one seed term from something you learned earlier – 3-7 days earlier is optimal, but any term from any length of time since you learned it can work as well.
  • Take 1-2 minutes. Write the seed term and then write as many related terms that come to mind when thinking about the seed term, making a list. Do not define or describe, just list terms, or use a short 3-4 word description if you cannot recall a term.
  • Stop.
  • On a new piece of paper, take 2-4 minutes to make a heat map with the terms in the list. You can add and remove terms.
  • Stop.
  • On the same piece of paper, take 2-4 minutes to review a course or book chapter about the topic to find any lists of terms (common in those study tools), and add those terms to your heat map.
  • Stop. You’re done!

Once you get the process down, you can do these in 10-15 minutes (a design goal for these activities.) Do a couple of these a week throughout your course of study. What happens to your brain?

  • Your brain learns best when you learn a new topic, then forget it a little, and then you interrupt the process of forgetting. Yes, a little forgetting is good. Term heat map activities help you focus for just enough time to review a topic and force your brain to interrupt the process of forgetting.
  • You will not recall every term and relationship from your prior learning. That’s ok. Focusing on the topic area for a little while convinces your brain the topic is important – and it will subconsciously attempt to improve connections between the terms.
  • With a stronger memory and organization of what you already learned handy in your brain, when learning future topics, you will be more effective.

Terminology Heat Maps

The activity begins with one term. For instance, if using my CCNA Official Cert Guide books, you can look to the “Key Terms” list at the end of most chapters and pick a term. Or just choose one from memory. Or use the suggested key terms on this page.

The last step of the activity works best if you use a term and you know the chapter that covers that term the most in your primary study resource.  But you can literally just pick anything from your memory and start with it. If just picking a term, I would suggest a a central instead of fringe topic.

Next, a word about tools. You can use:

  1. Paper and pen
  2. Computer/tablet with freehand writing tool
  3. Computer/tablet with mind map app
  4. Computer/tablet editor or word processor

Of those, I highly recommend using paper/pen the first time or two. Making the heat map works best with a flexible tool, and good-old paper and pen works great! Then you can decide if you want to try a different tool, like an Apple Pencil and iPad, or a mind map app.

So, assuming paper and pen… immediately after choosing the seed word, start writing words. No more than two minutes, write as many that come to mind. You do not need to filter your thinking. If you slow down, think of the seed word, and ask “what other ideas seem related to (seed word)?”

In this step, you use the terms you just listed to create a heat map. What do I mean by that?

Place the seed word in the center. Then look at your list of terms, and look for:

  • synonyms
  • relationships, e.g., terms in a related set
  • Sequences
  • Less related terms
  • Hierarchies of ideas

Think for a few seconds and do not overanalyze. Then start writing. You should place:

  • Related terms near each other
  • Less related terms far away
  • Sets of terms grouped (bullet list, circled, …)
  • Synonyms w/ = Sign
  • Outline form if a hierarchy

Basically, any simple visual representation of the relationships between the ideas behind the terms works. Why? It’s not what you place on the page. It’s the mental process you go through to think about the meanings and relationships to organize the terms.

Also, feel free to expand and contract your list. In fact, you will often think of new terms while analyzing the terms to make the heat map. You will also uncover terms that have less to do with the seed word than you thought – feel free to leave these out.

But stop after around four minutes – especially do not worry about making a beautiful page. There is no correct page. The goal: Make your brain process what you remember today to improve recall and memory organization… in your brain.

If you know the course or book chapter from which you pulled your seed term, that chapter may have a list of terms. If it does, you should find that list and compare the list with the terms you chose for your heat map. If you did not think of some of the terms from the course/book, then make an attempt to add them to your heat map.

Suggested Seed Terms - 200-301 OCG Vol 1 Edition 1

Advice: Be Ready for Step 2 before Revealing Your Seed Term!!!


MAC Address

default router

enable mode

MAC address table


full duplex


spanning tree protocol


Classful IP network


binary mask

resident subnet


routing table

VLAN interface

shortest path first algorithm

reference bandwidth

IP Version 6

global unicast address

link-local address

IPv6 host route

access point

Wireless LAN Controller

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I've Added More Tech Content to the CCNA 200-301 Books!
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I know you mentioned this technique in the O’reilly training. However, I never put it in practice.

Hopefully, I will give it a try after reading this post.

Thank you for sharing this technique, Wendell!

Panagiotis Manolakos

Thanks you very much for the article! You are always the best professor in our heart.

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