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7 Ways to Use Graphic Organizers to Make Learning Stick

graphic organizers

Every teacher knows the look of a student’s 'aha' moment—that flash of comprehension that’s as rewarding for the teacher as it is for the student. Graphic organizers are one of those classroom strategies that can spark many such moments. They’re not just another item on the lesson plan; they’re a way to make learning stick. After all, as Aristotle pointed out, education can be a bittersweet journey, but the rewards are indeed sweet—and graphic organizers can help us get to that fruit a bit easier.


Why Use Graphic Organizers?

Think of graphic organizers as the educational equivalent of a GPS system for a student's thoughts. They help students navigate through ideas and facts, and lay out a clear path to understanding. John Hattie’s research gives these tools a thumbs-up with a 0.64 effect size, meaning they can significantly impact student learning when used well.

Graphic organizers come in various shapes and sizes—mind maps, Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and concept maps, just to name a few. They can help students plot out ideas for a writing assignment, compare and contrast elements in a story, sequence historical events, or break down complex concepts in science. They’re versatile, and that’s part of their charm.


How to use Graphic Organizers Effectively:

Get to Know Them: Before you introduce graphic organizers to your students, play around with a few different types. Find out which ones you like best and think about how they could fit into your lessons.

Align with Objectives: What do you want your students to learn? Choose a graphic organizer that supports these goals. For instance, if you’re studying the life cycle of a butterfly, a flowchart might be your best bet.

Plan Your Approach: Think about how you’ll introduce the graphic organizer. Will you show an example? Will students work on their own or in groups? Planning this out can save you time in the long run.

Offer Guidance and Feedback: Walk around the room as students work. Offer suggestions and praise. If a student’s organizer looks more like a piece of abstract art than a tool for clarity, help them adjust.

Reflect: After the lesson, take a moment to think about what went well and what didn’t. Did the graphic organizer help? How can you tweak your approach next time?


7 ways to use graphic organizers in the classroom

KWL Chart

Graphic organizers are versatile tools that can be adapted for various subjects and grade levels. Here are 7 ideas to try in your classroom!

Elementary Science - KWL Chart - Solar System

In a 3rd-grade science class, a KWL chart (Know, Want to know, Learned) can be an excellent way to kick off a new unit on the solar system. Before the unit starts, ask students what they already know about space and list these facts in the 'K' column. Then, have them brainstorm what they want to learn and fill in the 'W'. As the unit progresses, students can add new knowledge to the 'L' section. This not only activates prior knowledge but also sets a clear purpose for learning and a sense of accomplishment as they fill in what they've learned.

Elementary - Box Mapping - Reading Comprehension:

In a 2nd-grade reading class, story maps can be used to help students understand the elements of a story. After reading a short story, students can draw a simple map with boxes that lead from one to another and label them with "Setting," "Characters," "Problem," "Major Events," and "Solution." This helps students to recount the story in their own words and ensures they grasp the narrative structure.

Middle School Math - Three-Column Chart - Fraction Comparision:

For a 6th-grade math class learning about fractions, a comparison chart can help students understand the concept of equivalent fractions. Have them draw a three-column chart with the headings 'Fraction', 'Equivalent Fraction', and 'Visual Representation'. In the first column, they can list the fractions from the lesson. In the second, they can calculate and write down an equivalent fraction. The third column is where they can draw a visual model of both fractions to see the equivalence visually. This approach makes abstract numerical concepts more concrete.

Middle School - Cause-and-Effect Organizer - Geography:

For 7th graders studying geography, a cause-and-effect organizer can clarify the relationship between geographical conditions and human activities. For instance, students can examine how mountainous terrain affects population distribution and city planning. One side of the organizer would list geographical features, and the other side would list corresponding human responses, linking the two with arrows or lines to illustrate the cause and effect.

High School - Spider Map - Foreign Language Vocabulary:

In a high school French class, a spider map can be a fun and interactive way for students to expand their vocabulary. When learning about different categories of nouns, such as clothing, food, or occupations, students can create a spider map with the category in the center and legs branching out for each item. On the legs, they can write the French word and an image or a sentence using the word in context. This helps with both memorization and application in conversation or writing.

High School Biology - Flowchart - Cellular Respiration:

During a high school biology lesson on cellular respiration, a flowchart can be invaluable. Students can create a flowchart that outlines the steps of cellular respiration, starting with glycolysis and ending with the electron transport chain. For each step, students can include a short description, inputs, and outputs of the process. This can help demystify a complex sequence of events and give students a clear roadmap of how energy is produced at the cellular level.

High School Chemistry - Trends Organizer - Periodic Table:

In a 10th-grade chemistry class, a periodic table trends organizer can assist in visualizing the patterns in element properties. Students can create a chart that lists the trends (such as atomic radius, electronegativity, and ionization energy) down the side and periods across the top. As they move through the unit, they can fill in the chart with color coding or symbols that represent the trend's increase, decrease, or consistency across periods and groups.


These examples engage students in different ways, asking them to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, which are key components of critical thinking and understanding at any level of education.

What have you tried? Share your favorite graphic organizer below!


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