students thinkingPart of the focus of my work over the last few years has been on identifying instructional strategies that are effective in improving the learning of students with disabilities.  Graphic organizers have been broadly researched, and their effectiveness in improving learning outcomes for both students with disabilities and general education students has been widely demonstrated (see, for instance, Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Because much of my work centers on improving literacy outcomes, I was particularly interested to learn that there is solid research evidence that graphic organizers promote both comprehension and vocabulary development. Through a meta-analysis, Strangman, Hall & Meyer (2003) found that the use of graphic organizers resulted in an increase in reading comprehension in 9 out of 12 studies. The effect size for increased achievement in vocabulary knowledge was twice as large as that for

Graphic organizers, also sometimes referred to as knowledge maps, concept maps, story maps, cognitive organizers, advance organizers, or concept diagrams, are defined by Strangman et al. as “visual and graphical displays that depict the relationships between facts, terms, and/or ideas within a learning task” (Strangman, Hall, and Meyer, 2003). They serve many functions and can be used as organizational tools, providing a framework for visually organizing information, developing a scope and sequence of events, and clarifying relationships; as conceptual
tools, providing a structure to clarify the big idea or purpose that unites details, to show how parts contribute to a whole, and to break down complex ideas; or as review tools and study aides, enhancing recall of key ideas and details by visually laying out and highlighting details, events or steps in a process. Graphic organizers can also be used as assessment tools, where students can demonstrate the degree to which they have mastered skills and strategies that have been taught.
In this article I want to focus on two particular types of graphic organizers:  Mind Maps, developed by Tony Buzan in the United Kingdom, and Thinking Maps, developed in 1988 by Dr. David Hyerle, an American educator.

Mind maps help students arrange and organize their thinking through mentally mapping words and/or concepts. The basic rules of mind mapping are very simple and are as follows:

  • Begin with a circle or a square in the center of the paper depicting the main idea.
  •  Inside the figure write the mind map topic.
  • Draw lines from the center circle or square. Using only key words or images begin to write these ideas on the lines. Try to get as many ideas down as you can and don’t worry about neatness.
  • Use different colors to make particular themes and associations stand out.
  •  As you begin to work outward the mind map will grow to depict key words and images.
  • When new ideas emerge draw new lines. If ideas are part of the central lines draw a branch from one of theses lines.
  • Don’t start a new sheet if you run out of paper, instead paste additional sheets of paper onto the original.
  • Analyze your mind map once you have finished generating new ideas.

Mind maps are easy to draw and allow students to quickly develop ideas related to a central topic or theme using words or phrases. As students think through complex problems, mind maps help them organize, summarize and consolidate the information. A mind map can be used to take notes using only key words and images. Mind mapping is a great strategy for note taking, creative writing, report writing, and studying.

Unlike mind maps with their fluid design, thinking maps provide a common visual language for learning through a consistent design. Thinking maps are lifelong thinking tools that
students can use throughout their academic and working careers. They can be used for problem solving and to develop higher order thinking abilities. Different types of thinking maps can include:

  • Circle Maps for brainstorming and for activating prior knowledge
  • Bubble Maps for identifying qualities using descriptive language
  • Double Bubble Maps for comparing and contrasting ideas
  • Tree Maps for classifying objects and ideas within a frame of reference
  • Brace Maps for analyzing whole-part relationships
  • Flow Maps for sequencing and ordering information
  • Multi-Flow Maps for analyzing cause and effect relationships
  • Bridge Maps for understanding analogous relationships

Th ere are many benefits to using thinking maps. Learning objectives can be communicated more effectively and efficiently. Students can learn to use them independently to organize and reflect on information in front of them. Teachers can have students complete them before lessons to better assess prior knowledge of the lesson content.

The most important factor in the use of any graphic organizer is that students must be explicitly taught how to use them. It is not enough to just hand them out; students must be taught both how and when to use which graphic organizers. Teachers must use modeling, demonstration, and think-alouds to ensure that students become proficient and confident in using them on their own.  Graphic organizers can be enlarged and placed on walls in the classroom to facilitate this process.

Ready to get started with graphic organizers? Here are some links for a wealth of information on this important instructional tool.

  • Read some of the theory behind Thinking Maps and watch a video of their use in the New Rochelle public schools:
  • Read an article by Dr. Hyerle called “Thinking Maps® as a Transformational Language for Learning”:
  • Read “Aiming High”, an article on using Thinking Maps with English Language Learners: les/AH_maps.pdf
  • Visit these sites for templates for a wide range of graphic organizers:,,


Budd, J. W. (2004, Winter). Mind maps as classroom exercises. Journal of Economic Education, 35(1), 35-46.
Howitt, C. (2009). 3-D mind maps:  Placing young children in the centre of their own learning. Teaching Science, 55(2), 42-46.
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Strangman, N., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2003). Graphic organizers and implications for universal design for learning:  Curriculum enhancement report.  National Center on Accessing the
General Curriculum, Th e Access Center.