MET:Graphic Organizers: Cognitive Origins, Constructivist Implications

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Created by Jasmeet Virk and Heather Wik (May 2011)


Graphic Organizers are non-linguistic, visual tool that enable the learner to

  • Connect new information to their existing knowledge
  • See how concepts relate to each other and fit in
  • Recall information easily

Ellis and Howard (2005) define Graphic Organizers as:

-“…Visual devices that depict information in a variety of ways. Most commonly, they employ lines, circles, and boxes, to form images which depict four common ways information is typically organized: hierarchic, cause/effect, compare/contrast, and cyclic or linear sequences. These images serve as visual cues designed to facilitate communication and/or understanding of information by showing how essential information about a topic is organized." (p.1)

Cognitive Origins

Graphic Organizers find their origin in the cognitive theories of learning[1].Cognitive theories of learning attempt to explain how people learn on basis of thought processes. There is a presumption amongst cognitive theorists that the mental processes operate in an organized, predictable fashion. Incorporating use of graphic organizers during the learning process will enhance the functionality of these processes and improve memory retention and retrieval.

Subsumption Theory[2] : Ausubel (1963) believed that learning occurs when new material is related to relevant ideas that are already present in the existing cognitive structure. Graphic organizers can facilitate this process by providing students a framework for relating existing knowledge to the new information learned.

Information Process Theory[3] : George Miller (1962) presented the idea that students learn better by chunking [4] information. If they are able to chunk information successfully and meaningfully in their short term memory[5], they will be able to successfully transfer it to their long term memory. Use of graphic organizers facilitate chunking of information and help with learning.

Dual Coding Theory[6]: Allan Paivio(1986) postulated that memory has 2 systems for processing information- verbal and visual. The verbal system processes and stores linguistic information, while the visual system processes and stores images. Both these systems interconnect to allow dual coding of the information which helps with understanding, comprehension, and retention. Using graphic organizers aid the visual process of memory and help in the learning process.

Schema Theory[7]: In his Schema Theory Anderson (1977) states that memory is composed of a network of schemas. A schema is a knowledge structure created by the learner based on his existing knowledge. Using graphic organizers allows the learner to insert the information in his existing schema.

Cognitive Load Theory[8]: Cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1998) maintains that the working memory can deal with only a limited amount of information at one time and if its capacity is exceeded, the information is likely to be lost. Graphic organizers can reduce the cognitive load and free the working memory to continue to learn.

Constructivist Implications

Constructivism[9] has its roots in the beliefs of cognitive and developmental theorists. It believes that cognition helps make sense of an individual's subjective experiences and constructs mental structures of the experiential world. This construct of mental structures grows within the context of our social and cultural experiences.

Constructivist learning is:

Constructed: Learner uses his existing knowledge and the new information presented to construct new knowledge. This process occurs in social and cultural context.

Active: While the teacher facilitates, the learner creates his own knowledge by interacting with information.

Collaborative: In the learning process a group of learners work together, at their own level, to examine and create knowledge.

Reflective: Learners reflect on their own learning and the learning process.

Problem-Based: Learners solve problems to learn new concepts.

Evolving: Knowledge is not absolute and static.It evolves as learner examines concepts critically and become aware of his thinking( metacognition).

Studies have found that many constructivist beliefs are realized when learners use graphic organizers:

  • It allows learners to work actively to construct their understanding (Alshatti et al., 2011)
  • It facilitates visual thinking as it represents what the learner understands(Beissner, Jonnassen and Grabowski, 1994, as cited by Kang, 2004)
  • It makes thought and organization of thoughts visible and lead to deeper understanding(Kang, 2004)
  • It helps process and restructure thoughts and information (Kang, 2004)
  • It facilitates elicitation, explanation of a concept (Kang, 2004)
  • It promotes recall and retention through synthesis and analysis (Kang, 2004)
  • It facilates conceptual change (Alshatti et al., 2011)
  • It facilitates metacognition skills (Alshatti et al., 2011)
  • It enhances critical thinking or higher order thinking skills (Brookbank et al., 1999;DeWispelaere & Kossack, 1996).
  • It improves problem solving skills (Alshatti et al., 2011)

Types of Graphic Organizers


Graphic Organizer Samples

There are a variety of software applications available that utilize graphic organizers to visually explore and organize concepts and ideas. Inspiration Software has produced Inspiration, Kidspiration, and Webspiration which are widely used in classroom across North America. IHMC CmapsTools Software is another well known program that enables students to create concept maps.

For a quick introduction to several of these programs, click on the links below:




Online Resources

Education Place

EdTech Solutions - scroll down to Graphic Organizer Section

Enchanted Learning

Inspiration Software



National Centre on Accesible Instructional Materials

Ausubel's Assimilation Learning Theory: Theoretical Basis for Concept Maps and E-Maps

Schema Theory


References and Additional Readings

Alshatti, S., Watters, J., & Kidman, G. (2011) Enhancing the teaching of family and consumer sciences: The role of graphic organizers. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 28(2), pp. 14-35. Retrieved from

Brookbank, D., Grover, S., Kullber, K., & Stawser, C. (1999). Improving Student Achievement through Organization of Student Learning. Master's Action Research Project, Saint Xavier University & IRI/Skylight.

DeWispelaere, C., & Kossack, J. (1996). Improving student higher order thinking skills through the use of graphic organizers, Elk Grove Village, IL: Master’s Thesis, Saint Xavier University.

Ellis, E., & Howard, P. (2005). Graphic organizers: Power tools for teaching students with learning disabilities. Graphic Organizers and Learning Disabilities 1, 1-5.

Hall, T., & Strangman, N. (2002). Graphic organizers. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. Retrieved from

Kang, S. (2004). Using visual organizers to enhance EFL instruction. ELT J 58(1), 58-67. doi:10.1093/elt/58.1.58

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., and Pollack, J. (2001) Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Ruffini, M. (2008). Using E-Maps to organize and navigate online. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 31(1), 56–61. Retrieved from