Advance organizers are a great way for instructors to introduce students to a new lesson or topic and to activate prior knowledge.
As part of the Basismodul Hochschullehre, a module for university instructors that promotes excellence in teaching in higher education, participants get to create their own advance organizer for a course they are teaching or planning to teach. They then present their advance organizer to the whole group, and often, the feedback will be a resounding: “Ok, now I actually get what this course is about, and if I were a student, I’d definitely enroll!” – great incentive to formally introduce you to the art of advance organizers right here on this blog.
At the beginning of a new term, instructors will usually hand their students a tabulated syllabus detailing each class meeting and the respective topics that are going to be covered. This is meant to give students a sense of what they can expect to learn over the course of the semester. However, most of the information on these lists isn’t particularly meaningful to them. For instance, most course outlines don’t include any concrete information on how the course is structured, how and what kind of content is going to be delivered, or what they can expect to get out of the course. This can lead to a lack of motivation, and it often stems from students looking at these syllabi and feeling overwhelmed thinking that they don’t have the necessary prior knowledge needed for the course or not knowing the exact learning goals.
And that’s where advance organizers come in.
What Is an Advance Organizer?
The basic idea of what we now refer to as an advance organizer was developed by Ausubel (1974), who argued that texts should be enhanced with organizational and visual aids and signposts in order to improve reading comprehension and support meaningful learning. Central to this idea is establishing an organizational framework, a.k.a. the organizer, which is supposed to help in our ability to structure new information and activate prior knowledge. In the context of a college class, this would be something like a course outline.
An advance organizer, in essence, is a visual aid that helps students contextualize information input at the beginning of a class and is usually presented as a short 10-minute presentation.
Advance organizers usually include:
- A visual presentation of the central themes and concepts for each class meeting
- A clear and concise introduction to key terms
- An illustration of how new information connects to students’ prior knowledge
Basically, advance organizers are learning aids that help students navigate information input ahead of, or in advance of, a new class.
How to Create an Advance Organizer
The basic idea is to transfer, or translate, the content of a given class meeting into a graphic. Imagine you go up to one of your co-workers and want to tell them about a course you’re teaching this semester and how you plan to go about teaching it. You’re excited to teach this class, so you most likely wouldn’t be citing from your syllabus or course outline, but instead go for a short rundown that touches on some of the central themes and concepts, or you would use interesting examples to illustrate your ideas. You would probably also mention the teaching methods you plan to use to achieve the learning goals you’ve set for the course.
To create your own advance organizer, think about the following steps as a sort of guiding principle:
- Start by listing central themes and any relevant terms or concepts.
- Group them together by importance to get a better overview and to highlight focal points and umbrella terms.
- Now start connecting the dots. Put things into context, highlight logical developments and elements that connect different topics.
- Transfer what you’ve worked out into a graphic, if possible one that has a connection to the topic at hand (e.g. sheet music and staves for a musicology class, a doctor’s bag for medical school).
- Also present learning goals for the course and the tasks you are assigning so your students reach these goals.
Common Advance Organizers
1. The temple
The following graphic shows what a typical advance organizer might look like (it’s a simple graphic with sample content): The temple consists of three main elements, namely the foundation, the columns, and the roof. These are supposed to represent the most important phases of the course. Additionally, the crane that helps to build the structure can be used to symbolize the role of the instructor and students. Advance organizers like this are a great way of showing students how theory connects to practice, how assignments play into the development of their own academic skills, or even why instructors use certain teaching methods and how they serve a specific function in achieving set learning goals.
2. It´s the Journey, Not the Destination
The graphic below is another example of an advance organizer, this time on the topic of molecular virology in the field of medicine. The stages of a mountain climb are used as a metaphor, and the individual topic areas are grouped by color into different phases. This allows students to visualize the entire journey from prerequisites to achieving their learning goals.
3. Different Phases of a Course
This advance organizer shows how the Basismodul Hochschullehre is structured. The goal with this graphic is to break down the various elements and phases of the module (Zoom meetings, in-person workshops, job shadowing, etc.) into a simple overview that participants can easily refer to and understand. The questions under each block represent the respective goals set for each phase of the course.
Where Else Might Advance Organizers Come in Handy?
After you present your advance organizer right at the beginning of class, you can continue to use it as a template for other class meetings, or to link one session to another, for summaries, and more. Your advance organizer can also be interactive and collaborative, allowing students to add their own personal takeaways from the course, address any open questions, or work in some of the examples and conclusions they’ve come up with in class. Basically, an advance organizer can be a tool you can come back to as often as you like, one that you can continuously work on and expand upon, revisit and rethink. It can serve as a valuable instrument that’s directly linked to your course and group of students to document their learning progress.
How Do Advance Organizers Support Learning?
Advance organizers create cognitive connections and highlight central ideas early on in the learning process. Students can then use the organizational scheme that is presented in the advance organizer to absorb new information and connect it to their prior knowledge. You can also encourage your students to create their own advance organizers in the form of a mind map or concept map so that they can document their own individual insights and eureka moments as well as useful examples.
What Makes an Effective Advance Organizer?
Advance organizers should ideally showcase the following characteristics:
- clear and concise: Emphasize main points and key terms rather than details, focus on those aspects that promote understanding and learning (e.g. connections). Clearly outline the entire “journey” from start to finish, including all the different phases and stages along the way.
- easy to understand: Explain any technical terms or illustrate them with examples. Another helpful thing to do here is to point to your students’ prior knowledge.
- motivating: The point of an advance organizer is to strip a complex set of ideas and goals into digestible pieces of information. Try to understand what aspects of your course might be especially interesting to your students and help support their learning and comprehension, create goals that are attainable, and track their progress.
Ausubel, D. P. (1974). Psychologie des Unterrichts. Weinheim: Beltz.
Suggestion for citation of this blog post:: Neger, T. (2021, July 1). From (A)dvance To Organi(Z)er. Lehrblick – ZHW Uni Regensburg. https://doi.org/10.5283/ZHW.20210701.EN