What instructional designers need to know about advance organizers

What instructional designers need to know about advance organizers

Story, Carol M


From their first introduction advance organizers have been the subject of much debate and of numerous studies. This review examined advance organizer research to determine its implications for instructional designers as they plan learning activities and instructional media, particularly with regard to the relationship between form of advance organizer and form of media. Study results did indicate the effectiveness of advance organizers in learning and retention with students of various age levels and abilities and in many content areas. However, few studies compared forms of organizers or the relationship between form of organizer and form of media. The review indicated a need for further research in these areas, particularly as newer technologies are used in instruction.


The goal of an instructional designer is to produce a plan for instruction, whether for a complete course, a unit, or a single lesson, that stimulates and supports the learning of individuals. Instructional design emphasizes a systems approach to planning for teaching and learning (Ledford, 1996). Many models for instructional systems design exist; however, the components of any of those models “can be characterized into one of three functions: (1) identifying the outcomes of the instruction, (2) developing the instruction, and (3) evaluating the effectiveness of the instruction” (Gagne, Briggs, & Wager, 1988, p. 21). In order to identify appropriate outcomes or goals and objectives and to develop effective instructional activities, the instructional designer must consider and use existing knowledge of how individuals learn. The purpose of this paper is to examine one particular learning theory, David Ausubel’s advance organizers theory, and its implications for instructional design.


Organizers, as described by Ausubel, were introductory material presented “in advance of the learning material itself’ and “at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness” than the learning material itself (Ausubel, 1963, p. 81). This advance organizer model derived from Ausubel’s theory of meaningful verbal learning in which he advocated “expository teaching (presenting, explaining, and discussing material) which entails reception learning (material presented to the learner in final form)” (Hawk, McLeod, & Jonassen, p. 161). For this reception learning to be meaningful to the learner, it must be related to knowledge already possessed by the learner. The organizers provided the link between the new material to be learned and the learner’s cognitive structure and helped the learner see where new information fit in relation to the general knowledge associated with the material or to what he or she already knew (Hawk et al.). Ausubel’s organizers were in the form of sentences, paragraphs, or questions. However, they were different from overviews. His description of an overview was “a summary presentation of the principal ideas in a passage that is not necessarily written at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness, but achieves its effect largely by the simple omission of specific detail” (Ausubel, 1978, p. 252). Additionally overviews were not relatable to ideas and information the learner already knew.

Extensions and adaptations of Ausubel’s notion of advance organizers also appeared in the literature examined by the author. R. F. Barron in 1969 suggested a change in format of the advance organizer to a tree diagram utilizing the vocabulary of the concepts to be learned; he called these diagrams structured overviews (Hawk et al., 1985). Though these graphic organizers were thought to activate a learner’s prior knowledge, they differed from advance organizers in that they were written at the same level as the material to be learned rather than at a higher or more abstract level. The use of lines, arrows, and spatial arrangement to depict text structure and relationships differed from the prose of Ausubel’s advance organizers (Alvermann,1981). Other educators further developed Barron’s modification to a more pictorial or visual form, still attempting, however, to link new material to prior learning. Further, they described two forms of graphic organizers -participatory, on which space is left for the student to fill in definitions of key terms and details, and final form, which have all the information already filled in (Hawk et al.). Joyce and Weil (1972) listed a variety of forms organizers could take including statements, paragraphs, questions, demonstrations, films, dialogue, and stories. Additional forms of organizers mentioned in the literature were audio, slides, computer programs, objects, games working models, video tapes, maps, manipulative materials, concrete models, and comparative materials. Kenny (1993) referred to organizers – both advance and graphic -as instructional organizers. Since so many forms of organizers existed in the literature and not all of them conformed to the strict definition of an advance organizer, perhaps the term instructional organizer was more appropriate and inclusive.


In order to apply advance organizer theory and best utilize advance organizers (and other kinds of instructional organizers) for teaching and learning, the instructional designer must know what research has shown about their use and effectiveness. Particularly as the instructional designer makes decisions about what type of media to use in the learning activities of the instructional design, he or she must know what form of organizer, if any, is most effective with each medium. Should organizer and medium be of the same form? Exactly where do organizers fit in the systematic approach to instructional design? Should different types of organizer be used with different types of learners? Is the use of organizers indicated for all content areas? This report summarizes research results which can aid the instructional designer in answering these questions.


In reviewing the literature in search of answers to these questions, the author found conflicting and confusing research. Ausubel’s research appeared to have demonstrated that advance organizers do facilitate learning (Kenny, 1993). In analyses of advance organizer research, a number of critics concluded that organizers did not facilitate learning and that a clear definition of advance organizers did not exist (Kenny, 1993; Moskow & Ledford, 1986). Mayer refuted the critics, reinterpreting Ausubel’s theory and setting forth the conditions which must be met for advance organizers to work (Moskow and Ledford, 1986). He also rated reviewed advance organizer literature and concluded that there was a small but consistent advantage for groups of students using advance organizers (Kenny, 1993). These analyses used a variety of techniques which have been criticized as subjective; later reviews of studies used the meta-analysis technique, a statistical technique which allows the comparison of studies which vary in design, sample selection, and setting. One such meta-analysis (Luiten, Ames, & Ackerson, 1980) found that advance organizers had a small, but facilitative effect on learning and retention and that they facilitated learning in all content areas examined and with individuals in all grade and ability levels. A meta-analysis by Stone in 1984 (as cited in Kenny, 1993) reported that advance organizers facilitate the long term retention of new, unfamiliar material. A study of research between 1984 and 1992 of eleven studies reflected the same inconsistent results as the earlier studies (Kenny, 1993). Some of the studies tested learning only, some retention only, and some both learning and retention. One study found that concrete or comparative organizers had a positive effect on learning, but that abstract or expository organizers negatively affected learning. Much of the evidence from these studies appeared positive but quite variable.


Individual studies examined by the author yielded conflicting results as well. In a study investigating the effects of a textual advance organizer on Spanish listening comprehension, Dixon (1991) found better listening comprehension for students given a textual organizer than for those given a visual cue or no cue. Rinehart and Welker (1992) found that advance organizers, both presented orally to the students and given as silent reading for the students, enhanced test recall. They also found that when teacher-guided discussion was added to the organizers, recall was greater than when the organizers were used without the discussion. Reviews of studies using advance organizers with video, television, and computer-assisted instruction also presented differing results. Saidi (1993) used two treatment conditions in studying advance organizers. One condition used an advance organizer as the first event in computer-assisted video instruction; the other condition used the computer-assisted video instruction without the advance organizer. He concluded that under the conditions of his study “advance organizers did not facilitate near-transfer of rule-learning in CAVI” (Saidi, 1993, p. 37). A study of the effect of captioning and of the use of discussion questions with students with learning disabilities when viewing television or video presentations found that groups receiving advance organizers and standard and edited captioning demonstrated lower comprehension scores and those receiving highlighted captions and advance organizers received higher comprehension scores. When the same conditions were used with general education students, neither the captioning nor the advance organizers particularly affected the students’ comprehension (Kirkland, Byrom, MacDougall, & Corcoran, 1995). Research investigating the effectiveness of using advance organizers to introduce video in French language classrooms and investigating the use of video as an organizer to a written passage in an elementary school French class yielded more positive results. Students in beginning-level college French classes who were presented an advance organizer in the form of short sentences summarizing in chronological order the scenes in the upcoming video demonstrated better comprehension and retention of information than students not receiving the organizer (Herron, 1994). In a following study the same researcher and others compared student retention of information in French videos in two different advance organizer conditions. In the description only organizer condition, the teacher read aloud six sentences that summarized in chronological order major scenes in the video. In the description plus pictures organizer condition the teacher read the same six sentences and with each sentence showed a picture related in context to the sentence, but not a translation of it. The visual support provided by the pictures significantly improved comprehension of the videos (Herron, Hanley, & Cole, 1995). A 1992 study by Herron and Hanley found “that a video shown prior to the reading of a thematically related written passage facilitated the retention of cultural information in the written text” (Hanley, Herron, & Cole, 1995, p. 58).This study with fifth graders did not compare the video advance organizer with any other form of organizer. However, a later study continued and expanded that study and compared the effects of two visual advance organizers on comprehension and retention of a written passage in a foreign language. The narrative for both organizers was identical; the difference was that the narrative was presented in a short video clip for one group of students while for the other group the teacher presented the narration by reading it aloud and showing four still pictures related in context. The test scores on both the midterm and the final test for students in the video groups were significantly higher than for students in the teacher narrative plus pictures group (Hanley, et al., 1995). Similar to earlier research findings, the more recent findings appeared to vary widely though many results were positive.


In search of studies of other variations of the advance organizer, the author extended her review of the literature. She found many studies about graphic organizers but few concerning other advance organizer media. Moskow and Ledford (1986) reported on a number of studies involving graphic organizers and found that graphic organizers aided comprehension of text, of materials presented via teleconferencing, and of reading comprehension in beginning French. Kenny (1993) noted that in a meta-analysis in 1984 Moore and Readance concluded that the structured overview form of the graphic organizer did have an effect, particularly for university students, that vocabulary learning was most positively affected, and the post-organizers were more beneficial than advance organizers. In a study of tenth grade students Alvermann (1981) found that graphic organizers aided the comprehension and retention of material presented in a text and that the effect was stronger for less well organized text than for well organized text. In studies with Boothby, Alvermann found that graphic organizers facilitated comprehension and retention of social studies text by fourth graders and that graphic organizers had an effect on a transfer of learning task (Kenny, 1993). Additional studies cited by Kenny also indicated that the structured overview form of the graphic organizer affected learning and retention.

Other graphic organizers found were more pictorial than the structured overview graphic organizers. Research studying the effects of pictorial graphic organizers generally indicated positive effects. At both junior and senior high school levels students who used pictorial graphic organizers scored significantly higher on 100-point teacher-made achievement tests than students who did not use the organizers (Hawk, McLeod, & Jeane, 1981, as cited in Hawk, McLeod, & Jonassen, 1985). In the same article the writers cited a study with college geography students in which findings showed a significant increase in the grades of students using pictorial graphic organizers compared to students not using the organizers. A 1983 study by Jonassen and Hawk (as cited in Hawk et al., 1985) reported that other studies indicated positive effects of pictorial graphic organizers on immediate recall but no effects for retention and no effects for either recall or transfer. In a semester-long study involving middle school life science students Hawk (1986) compared the achievement of groups of students receiving instruction using pictorial graphic organizers with that of students receiving instruction without the organizers. Results of the study indicated a statistically significant effect in favor of the students receiving instruction using the graphic organizers. Horton, Lovitt, and Bergerud (1990) indicated that participatory graphic organizers used in middle school science and social studies instruction and in high school social studies instructions produced significantly higher performance upon testing than did self-study. This was true both for students with learning disabilities and for general education students. Graphic organizers were found to produce improvement in solving of math word problems by Braselton and Decker (1994). Kenny (1993) cited other studies that generally supported the facilitation of learning by pictorial graphic organizers, both participatory and final form. Two of those other studies investigated the effects of using pictorial graphic organizers in computer-based instruction. The first one was a 1991 study by Kenny, Grabowski, Middlemiss, and Van Neste-Kenny comparing the effects of participatory pictorial graphic organizers to those of the identical final form versions on the learning of third year nursing students from a computer based interactive video (CBIV) program. Though the group using the participatory form did score better than the final form group on a test of learning, the difference was not statistically significant. On the retention test the final form group scored higher, although again the difference was not statistically significant. Extraneous note-taking by both groups may have affected the results. In the second such study cited, Kenny himself compared the use of an advance organizer to use of participatory and final form graphic organizers with a different CBIV. In that study the final form graphic organizer had the greater positive effect on tests of both learning and retention with a statistically significant effect for learning. The participatory graphic organizer had the smallest effect, with the advance organizer in the middle. Kenny concluded that based on these studies, there is mild evidence suggesting that pictorial graphic organizers and advance organizers could be effective with computer-based instruction.

The author found research on one additional type of graphic organizer – the concept map – described as a visual representation of the hierarchical relationships between concepts in a discipline. Though Platten (1991) advocated the use of student-made concept maps, studies cited by Willerman and Harg (1991) indicated that evidence was not sufficient to determine whether all students became competent concept mappers nor to indicate whether students who used studentmade concept maps learned or retained more than students who did not. Willerman and Harg determined to study the effects of presenting students with blank concept maps as advance organizers. Results of their study indicated that concept mapping used as an advance organizer did significantly improve achievement by eighth-grade science students (Willerman & Harg, 1991).


Although the studies investigated were difficult to compare because of so many different variables and although the findings were somewhat inconsistent, the author did come to some conclusions regarding the implications of advance organizers and their derivatives for instructional designers. Many studies did indicate that the use of advance organizers was effective in increasing learning and retention of what was learned. Therefore, the instructional designer should include organizers as part of the instruction he or she plans. A number of different kinds of organizers were named in the literature; however only a small number of the studies compared kinds of organizers. Few studies sought to determine what form of organizer was most effective with each of the various media instructional designers can select in planning instruction. Moskow and Ledford in 1986 concluded that the small number of studies they found which measured the relative effects of different advance organizer media suggested a lack of recognition of the relationship between the instructional medium and the advance organizer medium and that further studies investigating this relationship were needed. The author found this to remain true in 1996. The studies found did indicate use of instructional organizers with a wide age range of students, with students of varying abilities, and with many different content areas. Many of the studies had reading and lecture as the instructional media, although more recent studies did investigate the use of organizers with newer media such as video and computer presentations which have become more widely available to teachers. Organizers were found to be beneficial for instruction using these media; in fact, Herron (1994) concluded that there “is reason to believe that the advance organizer strategy … would be effective for videos in general, not just those of French in Action. There is also reason to fear that, unless teachers are presented with empirical data on the effectiveness of advance organizers that are simple to create and that take little time to present, they may be tempted to skip over using them to the possible detriment of comprehension” (p. 196). Kenny’s conclusions indicated that this could be true of computer-based instruction as well. The Hanley et al. study indicated that videos were effective as advance organizers; with the extensive use of videos in instruction, this is certainly an area warranting further investigation. Convinced of the importance of advance organizers, Joyce and Weil (1986) developed the Advance Organizer Model of Teaching. They stated that “whenever ideas or information needs to be presented, renewed, or clarified, the advance organizer is a useful model” (p. 83). They also indicated that the Advance Organizer Model can be used with other models of teaching and with various learning activities. Other researchers concluded that use of graphic organizers does not change the pedagogy of the teacher. Indeed, “whatever teaching styles the teacher uses – teaching centers, learner activities, field trips, etc. – are unaffected by using graphic organizers. Graphic organizers represent an adjunct instructional aid that provides additional structure to the material and provides advance notice of what is critical for the student to learn” (Hawk, et al., 1985, p. 176). That these researchers believed organizers to be important for all forms of instructional media is further indicated by their treatment of graphic organizers adapted for electronic media. In conclusion, even though additional research is needed, instructional designers can feel confident that advance organizers are an important part of their instructional designs, that organizers are needed whatever the media of instruction, and that organizers themselves can be delivered by a variety of media.


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