An Introduction to Graphic Organizers

By: Mitchell L Dutch

Teachers are constantly on the lookout for technologies and strategies that might assist students to become better learners. No matter how we look at it, some classes will require a degree of memorization. In the history classes that I teach, many of my students have been honest enough to admit that they are procrastinators and that they cram for exams. Since there are so many names, events, and terms that are entirely unfamiliar to students, cramming almost inevitably leads to disappointing grades.

Some researchers have pointed to strategies that might supplement and possibly support the traditional lecture that is the staple of history courses. One strategy that holds some promise is the use of graphic organizers. Graphic organizers have been and continue to be researched to determine their effectiveness in improving learning among various students. Research has looked at graphic organizers in a variety of settings and among different populations. Once students learn how to develop their own graphic organizers, they should be able to use them to help determine which information is important, which details are subordinant, and what connections exist between topics, ideas, and concepts.


A graphic organizer is a visual and graphic representation that is intended to indicate relationships between people, facts, terms, or ideas related to a topic or lesson. Graphic organizers are also sometimes referred to as knowledge maps, concept maps, story maps, cognitive organizers, advance organizers, or concept diagrams.

Graphic organizers are based on the learning psychology of David Ausubel (1963, 1968, 1978). Ausubel theorized that learning takes place when a learner is able to integrate new ideas and information to existing ideas and information. The visual representation of information in graphic organizers allows learners to see a connection between learned information and new information. Often it seems that students take notes in class and understand information only as seperate facts without recognizing a similarity to or connection with previously learned content.

Research indicates that graphic organizers may support or improve comprehension of information from lecture, discussions, textbooks, literature, films, and lab experiments. Teachers may want to use graphic organizers as part of lectures or in lessons to help students see the connections between people, facts, terms, or ideas related to a topic or lesson. These connections may help some students understand relationships between concepts.

Graphic organizers are used to generate visual representations of information. Graphic organizers may include:

· Descriptive or Thematic Maps a Network Tree
· Spider Maps. Problem and Solution Maps
· a Problem-Solution Outline Sequential Episodic Maps
· Fishbone Maps a Comparative and Contrastive Map
· a Compare-Contrast Matrix. a Continuum Scale
· a Series of Events Chain Cycle Maps

Strategies such as Concept Maps, Descriptive or Thematic Maps, Tree Diagrams, or Problem and Solution Maps may provide a visual representation of how information is arranged and interrelated.

Graphic organizers may be prepared by a teacher in advance, or they may be generated in class. If they are created in class, they might be produced by the whole class or by groups. Hopefully, having students participate in the creation of graphic organizers will interest and motivate them since they will be actively engaged rather than listening passively.

Instructors may sometimes wish to create organizers in order to introduce students to new material. Advance Organizers may be used before a new topic is introduced. These graphic representations may function as a way to focus the learners’ attention. They may assist students to make connections between what learners have already covered or what they already know and what they will be learning. Generally, teachers may focus on the main topics that will be covered in the lesson. They may also be used to help students see connections in a text: ex. themes in a novel, components of a film – the use of lighting or music to influence an audience.

Teachers may prepare Advance Organizers before a class, or they may choose to create them in class working with students. Teachers might ask questions related to prior knowledge and have students provide responses that reveal connections leading to the new information to be covered.

Examples of Advance Organizers might include concept maps, graphics, scenarios, stories, outlines, questions, or other introductory materials that preview a topic and connect it to previously learned information. Strategies such as Concept Maps illustrate how information is related.

Concept Maps as an Example

Concept maps were developed by Joseph Novak as a teaching tool, but they can also be used by students as learning tools. Concept maps provide a strategy to represent textual information in an alternative format. While Concept maps may not present information in as much depth as text, they can be useful in assisting learners by allowing them to analyze information from another angle. Some learners find it easier to process information presented in a visual format. In the Figure 1 below, we can see a simple example with the topic connected to major details which then can be branched off to numerous minor details. Concept maps come in a variety of forms and can be considerably more complex.

Figure 1. Simple Concept Map
Figure 1. Simple Concept Map
Figure 2. Uses a Cluseter Map to Explain the Working of Concept Maps
Figure 2. Uses a Cluseter Map to Explain the Working of Concept Maps

Suggested Readings and Web Sites

Background — concept maps

Concept maps help represent knowledge. They may include names, ideas, theories, and concepts. Since they may be drawn on paper or with computer programs, the concepts may be enclosed in circles or rectangles. The relationships between concepts is indicated by a connecting line between two concepts. Some lines may be blank, but it is often a good idea to include a few words to clearly specify the relationship.

Teachers might use graphic organizers of one type or another to focus the students’ attention at the beginning of class and remind them of previously learned information. They might provide a useful break in a lecture and allow the teacher to demonstrate links between previously learned and new information. To be effective, teachers should explain the strategy to students and model the process until students are comfortable.

Students should be encouraged to develop their own graphic organizers to help themselves clarify their understanding of course content. Students can also use concept maps, descriptive or thematic maps, tree diagrams, or problem and solution maps as note taking tools, to represent the information in journal articles, or to depict the structure, themes, or characters of short stories, novels, films, or plays.

William Trochim (1986) built upon the principle of concept maps as planning tools for the design and demonstrating of organizations. Trochim focused on the idea of having groups develop maps. Students in a chemistry class might, for example, develop a cluster map of the elements. Each student might contribute a section on the attributes and characteristics of one element, and their sections could be combined. The map could be placed on a Web page with hot spots containing links to pages for each student’s research.

Purposes of Concept Maps

Ways to Use Concept Maps

How to Construct Concept Maps

Chain of Events


Comparison – Contrast





Problem – Solution

Spider Map

Venn Diagram

History Frames/Story Maps

Concept of Definition Map

Source: Mitchell L Dutch’s page