Visual, spatial displays aid students with learning disabilities

University Park, Pa. -- Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty with basic academic skills, such as reading, as well as with organizational and study skills. For them, connecting new material to prior knowledge, identifying and ignoring extraneous information, identifying main ideas and supporting details, drawing inferences, and creating efficient problem-solving strategies can be a challenge.

According to Penn State Professor of Education Charles Hughes, graphic organizers -- visual and spatial displays that make relationships between related facts and concepts more apparent -- often are recommended as an instructional device to assist students with learning disabilities in understanding the increasingly abstract concepts that are presented in upper-elementary, intermediate and secondary grades.

“Graphic organizers are intended to promote more meaningful learning and facilitate understanding and retention of new material by making abstract concepts more concrete and by connecting new information with prior knowledge,” he said.

For example, he said, cognitive mapping -- a type of graphic organizer -- assists in making major ideas and relationships explicit by using lines, arrows and spatial arrangements to describe text content, structure and key conceptual relationships; semantic mapping -- another type of graphic organizer -- enables students to recognize relevant information from lectures and texts, delete isolated details that may not be relevant to overall understanding, and highlight key concepts that may have not been fully developed in a lecture or text.

Hughes and his colleague, assistant professor of education Douglas Dexter, identified and evaluated 16 studies in which graphic organizers were used with upper-elementary, intermediate and secondary students with learning disabilities. The team’s goal was to determine whether a pattern exists regarding the influence of graphic organizers on student learning as measured by post-test results. The analysis is published in a recent issue of the journal Learning Disability Quarterly.

“All of the studies we evaluated showed a large, positive effect of graphic organizers on post-test performance of students with learning disabilities,” said Dexter. “The studies also showed a medium effect of graphic organizers on post-test results one to four weeks after conclusion of the intervention, suggesting that the use of graphic organizers can help students retain their learning for a period of time, especially if they are structured in a simple way that facilitates understanding and perception of concept relationships and if the duration and length of intervention sessions are long enough to positively affect maintenance.”

According to the researchers, the more instruction-intensive types of graphic organizers, such as semantic mapping, are better for immediate factual recall while more computationally intensive types are better for maintenance and transfer of information. “This knowledge can help teachers in designing graphic organizers for initial instruction and for re-teaching, studying and retention purposes,” said Hughes.

In a related study published in a recent issue of the journal Thalamus, Dexter investigated the major theories about graphic organizers, with a goal of understanding how graphic organizers help facilitate understanding of unfamiliar material and clarify relationships between abstract concepts. “Graphic organizers are often cited as effective content enhancements, yet little attention has been paid to the underlying theories on why and how they work,” he said.

Dexter found that students with low verbal ability gain more from graphic organizers than students with high verbal ability; that students with little or no prior knowledge in a subject gain more from graphic organizers than students with an abundance of prior knowledge in a subject; that graphic organizers are especially helpful in assisting students with far-transfer tasks, such as applying knowledge to new or unusual situations, in addition to near transfer tasks and factual recall; and that graphic organizers are effective because of their computational efficiency, minimizing stress on the working memory.

“It is clear that graphic organizers may greatly assist students with learning disabilities in connecting new material to prior knowledge, identifying main ideas and supporting details, drawing inferences, and creating effective problem-solving strategies,” said Dexter.

He said the team has followed up with a series of studies examining the effectiveness of graphic organizers on intermediate students in science and social studies. “This research has been conducted in inclusion classrooms and we have found strong, positive effects not only for students with learning disabilities, but all students.”

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Last Updated December 20, 2011