Graphic organizers have been applied across a range of curriculum subject areas. Although reading is by far the most well-studied application, science, social studies, language arts, and math are additional content areas that are represented in the research base on graphic organizers. In these subject areas, graphic organizers have been shown to have benefits that extend beyond their well-established effects on reading comprehension (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988; Darch, Carnine, & Kammenui, 1986; Herl, O’Neil, Chung, & Schacter, 1999; Willerman & Mac Harg, 1991; Canas, 2003; Novak, 2006; Ciullo 2013). Operations such as mapping cause and effect, note taking, comparing and contrasting concepts, organizing problems and solutions, relating information to main ideas or themes, and alternating between text outline and a graphic organizer view of the same information can be broadly beneficial.
Evidence for Effectiveness as a Learning Enhancement
Before investing in a new technology or instructional approach it is important to know for certain that there will be a sizeable return on the investment. Research studies are designed to put instructional tools and instructional methods to the test: evaluating their effectiveness and exploring the conditions that impact their use (see list below). As such, research studies are an invaluable resource. In the following sections, we discuss the evidence for the effectiveness of graphic organizers based on a survey of the research literature.
Questions that Research Studies Can Answer for Educators
What aspects of learning and achievement can this enhancement improve?
How big an effect does this enhancement have on learning and achievement?
How does the effectiveness of this enhancement compare to other approaches?
Is this enhancement effective for students with special needs?
Can this enhancement normalize the performance of students with special needs to that of other students?
For what grade level is this enhancement effective?
Are their gender differences in the impact this enhancement has on learning and achievement?
How much experience with an enhancement do students need in order to reap benefits from it?
Is this enhancement engaging for students?
What kind of instructional contexts are best suited to this enhancement?
What classroom settings are best suited to this enhancement?
How much teacher training and support is needed to implement this enhancement effectively?
How long do the effects of working with this enhancement last?
Do the effects of working with this enhancement generalize to other situations?
There is solid evidence for the effectiveness of graphic organizers in facilitating learning. Eleven of the thirteen studies investigating effects of graphic organizer use on learning reviewed here reported some positive learning outcome. We focus this overview on two main areas: comprehension and vocabulary knowledge.
The Effectiveness of Graphic Organizers for Improving Comprehension
By far the most frequently investigated learning measure in the studies we reviewed is comprehension. Of 13 studies, 10 reported that graphic organizer use elevated comprehension. These studies included a variety of comprehension measures (see list below). The reliability of these improvements in comprehension is further supported by numerous meta-analyses (Moore & Readence, 1984; Dexter & Hughes, 2011; Dexter, Park, & Hughes, 2011; Ciullo, 2013). As a whole, these meta-analyses found a small but consistent effect on comprehension.
Reading Comprehension Measures Shown to Improve Following Graphic Organizer Use
Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (Boyle & Weishaar, 1997)
Teacher-made tests (Bulgre,n et al., 1988; Willerman & Mac Harg, 1991)
Written summaries (Gallego, Duran, & Scanlon, 1989)
Story grammar tests (Gardill & Jitendra, 1999)
Reading comprehension and writing skills (Hector, 2013)
Although 3 studies reported no effect of graphic organizer use on comprehension, these findings appear to be attributable to deficiencies in experimental design. Carnes, Lindbeck, and Griffin (1987) reported no effect of advance organizer use relative to non-advance organizer use on the comprehension of microcomputer physics tutorials. However, students in this study were not trained to use the advance organizers. This same factor may account for the lack of effect in the Clements-Davis and Ley (1991) study, where high school students received no instruction on how to use the thematic pre-organizers that they were given to assist story reading. Alvermann and Boothby (1986) also failed to demonstrate an improvement in comprehension. In this case, the lack of improvement is quite likely due to a ceiling effect—as comprehension scores were quite high even before the intervention. Thus, weighing the collective evidence there still appears to be strong support for the ability of graphic organizers to improve reading comprehension.
The Effectiveness of Graphic Organizers for Improving Vocabulary Knowledge
Moore and Readence’s (1984) meta-analysis suggests that gains in vocabulary knowledge following graphic organizer use may be even greater than gains in comprehension. The average effect size for the 23 studies reviewed was more than twice as large as that reported for comprehension. Similarly, Dexter and Hughes (2011) and Dexter, et al.’s (2011) meta-analyses of graphic organizers found a moderate to high effect size for measures of vocabulary. Thus, graphic organizers appear to be a very effective tool for improving vocabulary knowledge.
Factors Influencing Effectiveness
A wide variety of factors have been investigated for their influence on the effectiveness of graphic organizers for improving student learning. In this section, we review important findings that have emerged from this kind of analysis, starting with the issue of disability.
A fair number of studies have included students with disabilities in their investigations of graphic organizers. Successful learning outcomes have been demonstrated for both students with learning disabilities (LD) (Anderson-Inman, Knox-Quinn, & Horney, 1996; Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Bulgren, et al., 1988; Gallego, et al., 1989; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987; Newby, Caldwell, & Recht, 1989; Sinatra, et al., 1984) and students without disabilities (Alvermann & Boothby, 1986; Bulgren, et al., 1988; Darch, et al., 1986; Willerman & Harg, 1991). Table 1 provides a basic description of these findings.
Table 1. Main research findings regarding the impact of graphic organizer use on students with disabilities.
Focus & Impact
Boyle & Weishaar (1997)
Students with learning disabilities
Students who were taught to generate cognitive organizers for use during reading and students who were taught to use expert-generated cognitive organizers during reading scored significantly higher than untaught peers on a comprehension test of literal and inferential comprehension.
Bulgren, et al. (1988)
Students with learning disabilities and students without learning disabilities
When teachers used a concept teaching routine to present concept diagrams to students, students with and without learning disabilities significantly improved their performance on tests of concept acquisition and improved their note-taking skills.
Gallego, et al. (1989)
Students with learning disabilities
Learning and rehearsing a semantic mapping procedure was associated with a significant increase in quantity and quality of in-class verbal contributions and a significant increase in the quality of student-written summaries.
Gardill & Jitendra (1999)
Students with learning disabilities; one student with neurological impairments, all experiencing difficulty with reading comprehension
Direct instruction with an advanced story map procedure led to an improvement in students’ basal comprehension scores and story grammar comprehension.
Idol & Croll (1987)
Special education students with reading comprehension problems
Training to use story-mapping procedures led to an improvement in most students’ ability to answer comprehension questions.
Sinatra, et al. (1984)
Students referred to a reading clinic
Students who took part in instruction with a story mapping procedure answered significantly more comprehension questions correctly on average than students who took part in a directed reading approach.
Meta-analysis that focused on the use of graphic organizers with LD students also showed a positive effect on learning outcomes. Dexter and Hughes’ (2011) meta-analysis of the use of graphic organizers with LD students showed they had positive gains on vocabulary and comprehension measures.
Graphic organizers have been investigated with student populations across a range of grade levels, including elementary, junior high, and high school. There are consistent although more modest effects for elementary populations (Moore & Readence, 1984; Dexter & Hughes, 2011; Dexter, et al., 2011; Ciullo, 2013).
Typically, in post-secondary educational settings, students are expect to acquire a large volume of academic knowledge and skills in a relatively short period of time through reading texts and from listening to lectures. Additionally, high-stakes mid-terms and final exams are the primary means for students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Students’ experience, and expertise with, using graphic organizers to facilitate reading and listening comprehension and to study for exams can be crucial to their success. On average, the largest effects of graphic organizers on learning from text have been reported for university populations (Moore & Readence, 1984).
Point of Implementation
Graphic organizers may be introduced as advance organizers (before the learning task) or as post organizers (after encountering the learning material). A review of the research from 1980–1991 (Hudson, Lignugaris-Kraft, & Miller, 1993) concludes that visual displays can be successfully implemented at several phases of the instructional cycle. Indeed, positive outcomes have been reported when graphic organizers are used as both advance (Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Gallego, et al., 1989) and post (Alvermann & Boothby, 1986; Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987; Newby, et al., 1989; Sinatra, et al., 1984; Willerman & Mac Harg, 1991) organizers.
However, the precise point of implementation does appear to influence the degree of graphic organizers’ effectiveness. In their comprehensive review, Moore and Readence (1984) report that the point of implementation is a crucial factor in determining the magnitude of improvement in learning outcomes. When graphic organizers were used as a pre-reading activity, average effect sizes were small. In contrast, graphic organizers used as a follow-up to reading yielded somewhat large improvements in learning outcomes. Thus, efforts to improve learning outcomes may be more successful when graphic organizers are introduced after the learning material.
In reviewing 11 years of research, Hudson, et al. (1993) note that positive outcomes for curricular enhancements require the use of effective teaching practices. Merkley and Jefferies (2001) note that, “It is important, however, that GO planning extend beyond construction of the visual to the deliberate consideration of the teacher’s strategies…to accompany the visual.” Thus, instructional context is another determinant of the effectiveness of graphic organizers for improving learning.
Without teacher instruction on how to use them, graphic organizers may not be effective learning tools (Carnes, et al., 1987; Clements-Davis & Ley, 1991). Graphic organizers can successfully improve learning when there is a substantive instructional context such as explicit instruction incorporating teacher modeling (Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987; Willerman & Mac Harg, 1991) and independent practice with feedback (Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987), strategy instruction (Anderson-Inman, et al., 1996; Boyle & Weishaar, 1997; Darch, et al., 1986; Scanlon, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1996), story mapping (Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987), semantic mapping (Gallego, et al., 1989), and concept teaching routines (Bulgren, et al., 1988). Most successful interventions include, at a minimum, a teacher-led introduction describing the purpose of the graphic organizer and setting the reading purpose.
In the absence of systematic study of the role of instructional context, it is difficult to identify with confidence specific aspects that are tied to success. However, in our review an interactive/collaborative approach involving teacher modeling, student-teacher discussion, and practice with feedback appeared to be consistently correlated with learning improvement (Alvermann & Boothby, 1986; Bulgren, et al., 1988; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999; Idol & Croll, 1987; Scanlon, et al., 1996). Thus, contexts that provide opportunity for student input and interaction with the teacher and/or one another (Darch, et al., 1986; Gallego, et al., 1989) may be especially effective.
Also useful are Merkley and Jefferies’ (2001) specific suggestions for teaching with graphic organizers. Their guidelines include verbalizing relationships between the concepts represented within an organizer, providing opportunities for student input, connecting new information to past learning, making reference to upcoming text, and reinforcing decoding and structural analysis.
A relatively new area of research is the investigation of digital technology-based methods for presenting graphic organizer instruction. Digital-based graphic organizers can facilitate meaningful learning by enabling students to create and edit visual representations of information and alternate between different views of the same information (Novak, 2006). The flexibility and productivity affordance of digital graphic organizers also serves as an evaluation tool. Students graphical representations of content can be evaluated to identify understandings, misconceptions, and competencies (Novak, 2006). Ciullo’s (2013) meta-analysis of digital-based graphic organizers with LD students showed high effect sizes in social studies measures and moderate effects in written expression and reading comprehension measures.
Similarly, Herl, et al. (1999) tested the effectiveness of two computer-based knowledge mapping systems in a population of middle and high school students. Students either worked individually using an artificial web space to augment and revise knowledge maps or networked with one another across computers to collaboratively construct maps. Knowledge mapping scores (determined by comparison to expert maps) were significantly improved for individuals working individually to elaborate maps but not for students involved in collaborative construction. These findings indicate that a digital-based system can be successfully used to instruct students on how to develop concept maps. They also suggest that web searching methods may improve students’ abilities to develop sophisticated maps. Student collaborative approaches, however, may be less effective.
Carnes, et al. (1987) constructed computerized advance organizers to help introduce high school physics students to microcomputer physics tutorials but were unable to establish a significant improvement in learning rate, retention, or performance on a teacher-made achievement test. However, the lack of effect is likely attributable to the absence of teacher introduction of or training with the organizers.
Findings by Anderson-Inman, et al. (1996) found substantial variability in the adoption of computer-based graphic organizer study strategies. Some students became quite skilled and independent with these strategies, while others developed only basic skills and remained reluctant in their use. Their finding that differences in adoption level were correlated with reading test and intelligence scores suggests that it may be possible to predict levels of user proficiency.
Successful learning outcomes can be obtained in a variety of classroom settings, including special education classrooms (Anderson-Inman, et al., 1996; Boyle & Weishaar, 1999; Gardill & Jitendra, 1999) mainstream classrooms (Alvermann & Boothby, 1986; Bulgren, et al., 1988; Darch, et al., 1986; Willerman & Mac Harg, 1991) and one-on-one instruction (Idol & Croll, 1987; Newby, et al., 1989; Sinatra, et al., 1984). However, the relative ease of implementation is an important determinant of this success (Novak, 1980; Canas, 2003; Novak, 2006). Some instructional contexts that have been successful in research studies are unfortunately difficult for teachers and/or students to implement. For example, Scanlon, et al. (1996) developed—collaboratively with teachers—a 5-step strategy and sub-strategy for helping students in academically diverse classes to process information and put it into a graphic organizer for studying and/or writing. Teachers in the study implemented the prescribed teaching behaviors to much less of a degree than they had promised and expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of fit with their regular teaching routine. Students trained with the strategy performed better than controls on a strategy performance test, but only to a modest degree. They were at best ambivalent about the utility of the strategy for improving learning. Moore and Readence (1984) make similar observations in their meta-analysis, noting frequent reports that students were unable to appreciate the value of graphic organizers to learning and felt that these tools were out of place in the current instructional context. To draw more solid conclusions about the best ways to implement graphic organizers, more systematic investigations of the role of instructional context are needed.
Research studies show that graphic organizers are effective enhancements for students with and without learning disabilities. Successful learning outcomes are contingent on certain other factors (see list below). Important considerations are grade level, point of implementation, instructional context, and ease of implementation. Thus, smartly implemented, graphic organizers have the potential to positively impact learning by offering teachers a means to improve all students’ reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and learning across academic subjects.
Important Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Graphic Organizers
Grade level: the largest effects have been reported for university populations; consistent but more modest effects have been reported for students in elementary grades.
Point of implementation: graphic organizers generate larger improvements in learning when used as a follow-up to reading rather than a pre-reading activity.
Instructional context: graphic organizers can be effective learning and evaluation tools when implemented within a substantive instructional context, particularly an interactive/collaborative approach involving teacher modeling, student-teacher discussion, and practice with feedback.
computer-based graphic organizer instruction can be successful if there is thorough teacher introduction of and training on graphic organizer use.
graphic organizers can be successfully used in a variety of classroom settings including the mainstream classroom, special education classroom, and in a one-on-one context.
The next section of this report introduces the reader to the theory and research behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL). We then investigate the links and connections between UDL and graphic organizers. Additionally, we identify methods and materials that may be used to support the implementation of graphic organizers in concert with the principles of UDL. Finally, a set of guidelines for UDL implementation are provided including a listing of web resources to provide further information on the concepts presented in this report.