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. For both their attention-getting qualities and their effectiveness for visual learners, graphics, images and visualizations can be especially important to use in a large class setting.

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.

An astounding number of inspiring visualization possibilities can be found at the Visual Literacy website (rollover each of the squares to see a sample of the visualization.)

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.

Concept Map

Concept maps encourage students to make connections among concepts you have presented in lecture and connections to their own prior knowledge or experiences.  This will give you more information about the way that your students conceptualize and organize their knowledge around a given concept.

To use concept maps in your classroom:

  1. Identify an important course concept that has relationships with other concepts or information. This serves as the stimulus to ask students to construct their own concept map. 
  2. Reflect on their understanding of the concept and how it may be connected to other information or ideas.
  3. Illustrate those relationships by placing the target concept in the center and creating a web of connections to other information, concepts, or principles.
  4. Characterize the nature of the relationship between concepts by labeling the lines in the concept map in addition to labeling the circles (or concepts).

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

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:

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.


  • 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.
  • Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
  • Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.