Learning is a dynamic, complex, and nonlinear process, and graphic organizers can help support this across a wide variety of learners and disciplines. “A graphic organizer is a visual and graphic display that depicts the relationships between facts, terms, and/or ideas” (Strangman et al., 2003, p. 2); these tools are also known as cognitive organizers, knowledge maps, content webs, ideational frameworks, concept diagrams, and concept, cognitive, or semantic maps.
Strangman et al.’s extensive literature review in K–12 education found graphic organizers improve reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and learning across all academic subjects. While there has been limited research on graphic organizers for adult learners in further and higher education, I believe they are useful for a wide variety of disciplines and can help support many different learning outcomes.
I can attest to the success of graphic organizers in my English language classrooms at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia. I have used them in diverse, multilingual, beginner to advanced classes and witnessed how they help learners remember, understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate information. They are also useful for project-based work, and I have received positive feedback from learners about how graphic organizers help them plan, organize, and reflect on that work. Recently, I have become interested in how I can more strategically select and implement graphic organizers as well as reflect on their success in supporting learning outcomes. Like many teaching colleagues both nationally and internationally, I am now teaching online in the summer term while also preparing for the online delivery of the fall term.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) posits the necessity of presenting information in multiple modes and providing multiple opportunities for learning (CAST, 2018). Graphic organizers fulfil this and serve as learning enhancements and allow for differentiated learning, particularly in tasks where multiple perspectives and responses are the objective. They also support students with learning disabilities by maximizing learning opportunities by making complex information more accessible to all learners (Dexter & Hughes, 2011).
Graphic organizers also
Additionally, you can use graphic organizers to help support strategies proven effective by cognitive science, such as retrieval practice, elaboration, and dual coding (Weinstein et al., 2018). Further, you can increase learner engagement by using a variety of different organizers as well as by giving learners a choice in the selection and the opportunity to personalize them. Providing learner training on how to use different graphic organizers is very beneficial, and the framework below can be used for both learners and instructors.
There are a wide variety of graphic organizers available, but this can be problematic when trying to determine which would be the most useful for different educational contexts and learning outcomes. I used the cognitive strategies framework (Olsen & Land, 2007), which uses declarative, procedural, and conditional criteria to guide learning, but I adapted it to a framework for choosing and using graphic organizers. As instructors, we must first ask: What do we want learners to gain through using a graphic organizer? After we have determined this, we can use the focused questions below to guide us in the process of selecting an appropriate graphic organizer.
Declarative (what): What types of graphic organizers are there? What are the features of each? What are the advantages and disadvantages of different organizers?
Procedural (how): How does a specific graphic organizer work? How should I use it in my teaching and learning context? How will I teach learners how to use it? What concept-checking questions will I ask (to determine not only learner comprehension about how to use the organizer but also learner understanding of the information being presented)?
Conditional (when, where, who): When should I use a specific graphic organizer? To introduce or review material? Is this organizer suitable for independent learning, pair work, or groups? As a main task or to support another task? To list, compare, contrast, sequence, analyze, or evaluate information? Are students using it to, for example, develop a skill, organize content, or reflect on learning? Are they using it for formal or informal assessment of learning or as an evaluation?
It is crucial throughout this process that as critically reflective instructors we ask ourselves: Why am I making these decisions? A considerable amount of instructor decision-making emerges directly in response to learner needs that arise in the classroom. This is true with my spontaneous use of graphic organizers to support learning when learners are clearly struggling. This often occurs after a reading or listening task, and a graphic organizer can help clarify complex information. Reflecting on the choice and efficacy of a given graphic organizer allows instructors to learn more about the teaching and learning process, and internalizing this framework can allow for reflection-in-action, enabling you to make better decisions while in the classroom. Making once tacit or implicit decisions explicit and reflecting on how and why we make these decisions can reveal a great deal about our professional identities and beliefs and lead to growth.
Instructors are now teaching online for the summer term and designing courses and materials for the online fall term. But because so much of our employment, education, and leisure time is now online, it is important to incorporate activities that do not exclusively involve digital or online technology. Learners could therefore also have the option to create graphic organizers by hand, and providing them with choice and agency in their learning reflects UDL principles (CAST, 2018). Encouraging them to personalize and decorate their graphic organizers to explore and develop their creativity could also increase motivation. This will also hopefully give them much-needed enjoyment and relaxation as well as time to reflect on the course material.
After learners have created an organizer, they can present it to the class or a group in synchronous learning tasks, which will help develop an online learning community. It will also promote communication as they can ask questions, compare ideas and give feedback to one another. This could also be done asynchronously on discussion boards; learners post their graphic organizers, and their peers can comment on them. When the graphic organizers are stored online in the learning management platform, they also serve as a class resource. This also increases accountability and helps learners deepen their understanding of the course material as they are able to view one another’s work and refer back to these throughout the course. Using graphic organizers as an alternate form of evaluation is also an option.
Learners could also create organizers in groups, and this has several benefits. It could structure online discussions and make them more purposeful. I have entered a few discussion rooms this summer term and found that there was limited discussion, although there were discussion questions. I am interested to explore whether producing a graphic organizer to capture some of the key points in a visual format would lead to greater success. This could be shared synchronously with the class after the task, or asynchronously by posting it in a discussion forum. The alternatives of writing detailed responses to be posted online or taking notes and then reporting back to the whole class are very time consuming and become repetitive. Graphic organizers could therefore supplement this and add variety to discussions. For this task, learners either nominate one person to create the graphic organizer or use tools that allow multiple users to create the content. (At Camosun College, we use Blackboard Collaborate, which includes an interactive whiteboard that allows multiple users to simultaneously write or draw.) Another important benefit of graphic organizers in online group work is that they strengthen group cohesion as the process of choosing, designing, and presenting the graphic organizer requires considerable collaboration and cooperation.
Graphic organizers can support and scaffold learning in an online learning environment. Using them to prepare for writing and speaking tasks allows the instructor to quickly and easily ensure that learners are moving in the right direction and using them after a task allows instructors to check for comprehension of key concepts. While these are both crucial areas in teaching and learning, they are particularly challenging to address in an online teaching and learning environment. I see our current situation as an opportunity to develop my skills with graphic organizers online, and I will be observing how my learners respond to these in an online environment. Additionally, graphic organizers not only are an excellent tool to support learning but also can be very useful for instructors in course and lesson planning. This is particularly relevant with the rapid move to online teaching and learning, where organizing and presenting ideas quickly, creatively, and conveniently is very beneficial.
CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Dexter, D. D., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Graphic organizers and students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34, 51–72. https://doi.org/10.1177/073194871103400104
National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2013). UDL graphic organizer guidelines. http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines/udlguidelines_graphicorganizer
Olsen, C. B., & Land, R. (2007). A cognitive strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for English language learners in secondary school. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3), 269–303. https://archive.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2385
Sawchuck, P. H. (2008). Theories and methods for research on informal learning and work: Towards cross-fertilization. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(1), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/01580370701628474
Strangman, N., Vue, G., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2003). Graphic organizers and implications of universal design for learning. https://www.cast.org/products-services/resources/2003/ncac-graphic-organizers-udl
Training and Technical Assistance Center at William & Mary. (2015). Graphic organizers: Guiding principles and effective practices. http://education.wm.edu/centers/ttac/documents/packets/graphicorganizers.pdf
Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41235-017-0087-y
Laura Hadwin is an English language instructor at Camosun College. She has taught and delivered teacher training in South Korea, Spain, the UK, Turkey, Qatar, and Mexico. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: https://auroraenglish.wixsite.com/english.