Differentiate use of graphic organizers for specific learning purposes, study says

mind map abstract on blackboardGraphic organizers (GOs) are already very popular with teachers, but two Pennsylvania State University researchers recently decided to examine the accepted wisdom that GOs are effective learning tools. Specifically, they were interested in GOs’ impact on students with learning disabilities (LDs) and how teachers could use them more effectively.

Based on a meta-analysis of 16 studies on GOs involving 808 participants from grades 4 12, the two researchers concluded that GOs deserve their reputation as effective learning tools. Use of GOs improved factual comprehension for students with LDs and also seemed to improve vocabulary and inference/relational comprehension, reports the Learning Disability Quarterly.

GOs had the greatest impact on science learning and the smallest in math.  One reason for the math finding, the researchers write, is that GOs are not yet widely used in math, and when they are used they tend to be visual displays. Visual display GOs (e.g. intersecting circles) had a more moderate effect size on learning in the meta-analysis than more semantic types of GOs.

Factual recall and far transfer

A major implication of the study, the authors write, is that teachers should use some types of graphic organizers for immediate factual recall and others for maintenance of learning for far transfer of learning. In far transfer, students are able to apply skills and knowledge to changing situations.

Visual display GOs were linked with far transfer and maintenance while more instruction-intensive GOs (e.g. semantic mapping and semantic feature analysis) seemed more effective for immediate factual recall.

“This knowledge can help teachers in designing GOs for initial instruction and for re-teaching, studying, and retention purposes,” the authors write.  “For instance, a semantic map for initial instruction followed by a simpler visual display for review and study will potentially maximize the effects of recall, maintenance, and far-transfer for students with LD.”

Another implication of the study is that teachers must explicitly teach students about using a given GO, especially students with LDs. They need this explicit instruction to understand how concepts are related and to recognize differences between main and subordinate ideas, the authors write , no matter how obvious a GO may seem.

“A thoughtful combination of types of GOs will help make the learning process more efficient for upper-elementary, intermediate and secondary students with LD,” they write.

The study provides a good review and classification of GOs and discusses previous research on how to use them more effectively.  These are some of the different types of GOs:

Cognitive Mapping uses lines, arrows and spatial arrangements to describe text content, structure and key conceptual relationship.  Teachers often use cognitive mapping to help students understand challenging text. Researchers recommend using keywords and simple drawings rather than complex sentences or elaborate drawings. Students can also be asked to fill in blank parts of the mapping.

Semantic Mapping (SM) typically will use lists to display relationships among concepts (e.g. places to live: city, country, suburbs)

Semantic Feature Analysis (SFA) uses a matrix form to show and predict, related, unrelated or ambiguous relationships. (e.g. dog characteristics and dog breeds).

Syntactic/Semantic Feature Analysis (SSFA) is nearly identical to SFA but with the addition of cloze-type sentences that students must complete. Students must use the context of the sentence and matrix to fill in the blanks.  (e.g. fill in the name of a dog in a sentence describing a characteristic based on a matrix of breed attributes).

Visual Display presents concepts or facts in a visually efficient manner. The information is presented in one of 5 ways: temporal (e.g.timeline), spatial (e.g.decision tree), sequential (e.g. flowchart), hierarchal (e.g. taxonomy) or comparative (e.g. Venn diagram)

Findings from previous research on the use of graphic organizers, primarily with college students, include:

  • Students with low verbal ability gain more from GOs than students with high verbal ability
  • Students with little or no prior knowledge in a subject gain more from GOs than students who already have knowledge of the subject
  • GOs are especially helpful assisting stu- dents with far-transfer tasks, as well as near-transfer tasks and factual recall
  • GOs should be explicitly taught to stu- dents for greatest impact
  • GOs should not be cluttered with a lot of information. Students should be able to easily see the phenomena or relations that are important
  • GOs are effective because they minimize demands on working memory
  • GOs can be effective when used before, during or after a lesson.

In the current study researchers used 6 selection criteria for inclusion in the meta-analysis. Studies had to include students with disabilities, have participants in the grades 4-12,;measure the effect on near or far transfer of verbal material, use an experimental or quasi-experimental design, have enough information to measure effect sizes and have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Of 55 studies reviewed, only 16 met the section criteria.

The researchers note that the studies took place in self-contained resource classrooms, which may not be typical of today’s grade 4-12 classrooms.

“Graphic Organizers and Students With Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis,” by Douglas Dexter and Charles Hughes, Learning Disability Quarterly, 2011, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 51-72.

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