Most useful Graphic Organizers for Humanities Students

Graphic organizers are thinking and planning tools that can make a big difference in the learning outcomes of humanities students. They allow students to collate information in a meaningful way, by guiding research and helping the learner to explore relationships between facts and ideas. These connections can often make it easier to plan essays or projects by structuring information and enhancing critical thinking. Because of their visual nature, graphic organizers are also an aid to knowledge retention, as information is represented both visually and verbally.

For teachers, they can provide a quick appraisal of a student’s readiness to begin the writing phase of any assignment. They can demonstrate organizational and note-taking skills, and help to facilitate brainstorming sessions.

Graphic organizers, also known as concept maps, should be an essential part of every student’s learning armory. For those studying English and the humanities, there are literally dozens to choose from. But which ones are the best?

One of the most widely used organisers is the KWHL. This is basically a table of four columns, with each letter standing for an important part of the learning process. ‘K’ represents what the student already knows; ‘W’ is what they would like to find out next; ‘H’ is a guide to how they can learn more; and ‘L’ stands for the new knowledge that has been acquired by reading, viewing or listening. KWHLs are highly recommended for any research task, as they challenge the student to go beyond what they already know, or think they know.

Another type of chart or table is the PMI, developed by Edward de Bono in the early 1990s. Here, the focus is on decision-making. The ‘P’ column examines the plus or positive side of any topic or issue; the ‘M’ represents the minus or negative aspects of it; and ‘I’ stands for all the interesting ideas or implications that may result from a particular decision.

For example, the topic might be, “Should I buy a car?” In the ‘P’ column, the student could note that a car would mean greater independence, or the chance to take an after-school job. The ‘M’ column could recognize the high costs in running and maintaining a car; and the ‘I’ column could ask, “What if I had an accident?” For essay topics that require the examination of a controversial issue (“Is the death penalty a reasonable punishment?”), a PMI will greatly help the student to think about all sides of their argument.

A Tree Diagram is a simple mind map that assists in the organization of facts and details. The trunk represents the topic, with the branches standing for sub-topics and the leaves providing examples or specific details. If the topic was, for instance, “Big Cats”, one of the branches might be labelled “Tigers”, while the leaves could mention facts about tigers, such as their stripes or that they are the largest members of the cat family.

A Brain Bug is similar to a Tree Diagram in that it asks the student to provide examples and details around a topic. But it also has features of a PMI chart, in that it guides the thinking process. The bug’s body is an oval shape which contains the topic, while each of the four legs asks the student to consider a particular aspect of the topic. The legs are labelled ‘Causes’, ‘Effects’, ‘Senses’, and ‘Feelings’, and the toes on each leg provide examples. This graphic organizer is especially useful for essay tasks or creative writing.

For example, if the topic was, once again, concerning the death penalty, ‘Causes’ would refer to the perceived need for it (retribution, or the desire to remove murderers from society permanently); ‘Effects’ would discuss what presumably results from its application (murderers can’t kill again, or closure for the victims); ‘Senses’ would stand for everything that is physically experienced (loud bang from a firing squad, or the appearance of blood); and ‘Feelings’ would give the student the chance to discuss its emotional ramifications (fear, or sense of injustice). The end result should be an organized picture of all main aspects of the topic. In the case of literature or historical tasks, they can be used to think about characters or events in a complete way.

The ‘Five W’s’ – who, what, where, when, and why – are the foundation for all research or interpretive questions. They can be drawn up in a table form, or as a flower or star design, to challenge students into asking the right questions about an event or story. Five W organisers are just as useful for analyzing a news story or current issue as they are for looking more closely at an event from a text.

Invented by English mathematician John Venn in 1880, the Venn Diagram is a graphic organizer that compares and contrasts two (or three) similar but distinct aspects or characteristics of a subject. Composed of interlocking circles, the diagram asks students to complete the part outside the intersection with unique features, while the shared space is for what features are common to all examples. Venn Diagrams can be used to organize information about animal species, religious beliefs, groups of people, or any topic which can be considered in terms of subsets.

Last, but not least, humanities students should be aware of the DUB chart, which is a simple table that can be used to promote complex thinking. DUB charts are especially useful for helping students to understand the lives of large or small groups of people that they encounter while studying history, geography or sociology. ‘D’ stands for Do – everything that the group might occupy themselves with, from work and play, to education; ‘U’ stands for Use – all the tools and skills of the group, from computers to spoons; and ‘B’ stands for Believe – the laws, morals and religions of the group.

The trick with using a DUB chart is to use one column to formulate questions for the others. If, for example, the topic is Ancient Egypt, the student may consider that Egyptians built pyramids, a Do piece of information. If the student cannot answer how they were built (Use) or why they were built (Believe), then these are questions that need to be noted in the respective columns.

This article has touched on a handful of important graphic organizers for humanities students, but there are many others. Several online resources offer downloadable or printable copies of these and more. If students are not fully understanding the content, if they are failing to research properly, or if they simply don’t know what they don’t know, then a graphic organizer or two might be just what is required to help streamline their thinking.