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Graphic Organizers

Helping Students See Conceptual Relationships: Graphic Organizers


Making relationships visual is a powerful way to help students understand how the key features of a concept relate. Graphic organizers are the family of activities that present concepts and information in visual form.

The activity

Some graphic organizers are familiar: timelines and Venn diagrams are graphic organizers we all know from high school history and geometry, whereas concept maps and comparative organizers might be new to some of us. This simple concept can be made much more powerful and deployed in any discipline.

Importantly, research has shown that providing students "skeletal" (incomplete) graphic organizers which they then complete leads to better retention than giving students completed graphic organizers (Kityama and Robinson, 2000). Therefore, consider providing skeletal organizers to students with which to take notes, or even put one the board and fill it in collaboratively with the class as a review exercise before a test.

Reference: Kitayama, A.D., & Robinson, D.H. (2000). Getting students 'partially' involved in note-taking using graphic organizers. Journal of Experimental Education,68(2). 119-134.

Example: Concept Map

For any given concept, a concept map charts:

  1. Features, which appear inside circles or squares, and
  2. Relationships among those features, which appear as labeled lines (or arrows, when a relationship is unidirectional).

Here is a concept map of some features and relationships of water:

Water flow chart

Example: Comparative Organizer

A comparative organizer is a matrix in which important conceptual distinctions form the row and column headings. Like all graphic organizers, they are much more effective for students to complete on their own.

Here is a comparative organizer of kinship labels:

Instructional grid example


Organizing material comes logically after students have started acquiring it. Therefore, graphic organizers are quite useful for review exercises but can possibly overwhelm students if it is their first exposure to complex material.

Furthermore, graphic organizers are wonderful as springboards for discussion, so consider either working with the entire class to collaboratively fill in a graphic organizer, or have students work individually and then report back in whole-class discussion how they organized the material.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.

For more, see: Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.