Making relationships visual is a powerful way to help students understand how the key features of a concept relate. Graphic organizers are the family of activities that present concepts and information in visual form.
Some graphic organizers are familiar: timelines and Venn diagrams are graphic organizers we all know from high school history and geometry, whereas concept maps and comparative organizers might be new to some of us. This simple concept can be made much more powerful and deployed in any discipline.
Importantly, research has shown that providing students "skeletal" (incomplete) graphic organizers which they then complete leads to better retention than giving students completed graphic organizers (Kityama and Robinson, 2000). Therefore, consider providing skeletal organizers to students with which to take notes, or even put one the board and fill it in collaboratively with the class as a review exercise before a test.
Reference: Kitayama, A.D., & Robinson, D.H. (2000). Getting students 'partially' involved in note-taking using graphic organizers. Journal of Experimental Education,68(2). 119-134.
For any given concept, a concept map charts:
Here is a concept map of some features and relationships of water:
A comparative organizer is a matrix in which important conceptual distinctions form the row and column headings. Like all graphic organizers, they are much more effective for students to complete on their own.
Here is a comparative organizer of kinship labels:
Organizing material comes logically after students have started acquiring it. Therefore, graphic organizers are quite useful for review exercises but can possibly overwhelm students if it is their first exposure to complex material.
Furthermore, graphic organizers are wonderful as springboards for discussion, so consider either working with the entire class to collaboratively fill in a graphic organizer, or have students work individually and then report back in whole-class discussion how they organized the material.
We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.
For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:
Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.
Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.
For more, see: Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.