Organising Knowledge: Ausubel’s Advance organisers

The Situation 

Expert teachers create and maintain, almost automatically, complex networks that link concepts, ideas and facts within their domain (Ambrose and colleagues 2010 P.43). Furthermore, experts have richly connected and meaningful knowledge structures which allow them to use knowledge more efficiently and effectively. In contrast, most of our students have sparsely connected knowledge structures as they have not yet developed meaningful ways of organising the information they encounter.

There are decades of research on the topic of knowledge organisation. Both Chi and colleagues (1989) and DeGroot (1965) investigated how knowledge organisation differs between novices and experts. These two landmark studies concluded how students organise knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. The distinction between novices and experts is useful in helping us recognise how best to organise knowledge. The differences between novices and experts are not, however, upon further inspection, a distinct binary. It is a continuum which students can move along.

Illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli. Adapted from How Learning Works (Ambrose 2010)

Most students will begin with sparsely linked and superficial knowledge organisations, but effective instruction can help students move along the continuum towards the connected and meaningful knowledge organisations possessed by experts. Students with a strongly connected network of concepts and ideas will be more efficient at retrieving knowledge (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982; Reder & Anderson, 1980; Smith, Adams & Schorr, 1978).

Knowledge organisations need to match the way they are going to be accessed and used. In an interdisciplinary subject, like Geography, students need to know about the employment/industrial structure of a developing country they study. It would be easy for them to recall that India is still dependent on agriculture, especially rice farming. But to understand why requires students to organise knowledge in a much more interconnected and causal fashion. Students must see the connections between rapid population growth, the importance of the monsoon rains and the perennial rivers that feed the northern plains of India. Without instruction, demonstrating how experts organise their knowledge, students will continue to remember some of the facts, and in isolation. 

In Applying Cognitive Science to Education (2008), Frederik Reif asserts, poorly organised knowledge cannot readily be remembered or used. Moreover, students don’t know how to organise their knowledge effectively. Beware of the curse of knowledge. As an expert, you possess knowledge organisations which allow you to easily access the information you need. Don’t expect your students — who lack comparable organisational structures — to be able to do the same. As the teacher, demystify knowledge organisations, by demonstrating how experts do it. Below you will find practical steps to help your students develop densely connected knowledge organisations.

The Remedy

Advance Organisers

The term is almost perfect. Popularised by the psychologist David Ausubel (1968), advance organisers provide the conceptual framework for the incorporation and retention of new information. They should be presented in advance of a new topic (or sequence of learning) and at a higher level of abstraction than the learning that follows. Many researchers have studied Ausubel’s idea of advance organisers. The findings of many studies are usefully curated in Robert Marzano’s 2001 book, Classroom Instruction That Works. 

Marzano’s findings reveal there are four types of Advance Organiser — expository, narrative, skimming, and graphic. Meta-studies for each report impressive results, but of the four, graphic advance organisers have the largest effect size (1.24).

Illustrated by me

An expository advance organiser (effect size 0.80) describes the new learning to be covered. A teacher could write a short explanation of the key concepts and ideas the students will learn. Students are nominated to read parts of the description to the whole class. The expository organiser can be consulted throughout the topic, offering a bridge between knowledge already possessed and new information to be learned.

Narrative advance organisers (effect size 0.53) employ the power of story-telling. Personal anecdotes are used to help make connections to the real world. Afterwards, the teacher highlights the main ideas and concepts illuminated in the story. A narrative advance organiser triggers students’ prior knowledge and capitalises on their familiarity with narrative genres to provide a framework for the incorporation of new information.

Skimming (effect size 0.71) is an example of an advance organiser whereby students skim for information before reading. To get the most from skimming, demonstrate how to do it. Once students have grasped how to skim-read, direct them to go back and read in great detail. To check for understanding, you can have students rehearse by using think pair share.

Graphic advance organisers are by far the most effective (effect size 1.24). Transforming an overview into a graphic organiser helps teachers and students identify the key concepts and their links. Expository, narrative, and skimming advance organisers can be enhanced when supplemented with a graphic organiser (Link to my previous vlog explaining how to construct graphic organisers).

Novak suggests concept maps are a useful way for teachers to organise knowledge for instruction, and for students to identify the key concepts and principles in reading and teacher explanations. By principles, Novak is referring to the rich associations between ideas and concepts.

Below is a graphic expository advance organiser I created, in partnership with Helen Reynolds (@helenrey), based on her original concept map. As you see Helen and I have explicitly presented seven key concepts and the links between them.

Helen Reynold’s advance graphic expository organiser, illustrated by me.

Helen shared this concept map in advance of the new learning ahead; providing her students with a clear organisational structure to incorporate new information. For Helen, it allowed her to recognise how she organises her own knowledge, thus improving her ability to communicate this clearly to her students.

Presenting students with a view of the big picture helps them to identify the key concepts, their interrelationships and how everything fits together.

You can find out more about advance organisers in our (Oliver Caviglioli and I) forthcoming book, Organise Ideas, due to be published 2021.


Ambrose, S., A., Bridges, M., W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., C., & Norman, M., K. (2010) How Learning Works, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ausubel, D., P. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Bradshaw, G. L., & Anderson, J. R. (1982) Elaborative encoding as an explanation of levels of processing. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 21, 165 – 174.

Chi, M.T.H., Bassok, M., Lewis, M. W., Reimann, P., & Glaser, R. (1989) Self – explanations: How students study and use examples in learning to solve problems. Cognitive Science, 13, 145 – 182.

DeGroot, A. (1965) Thought and choice in chess. New York: Mouton.

Novak, J. (1998) Learning, creating, and using knowledge: Concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Reder, L. M., & Anderson, J. R. (1980) A partial resolution of the paradox of interference: The role of Integrating knowledge. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 447 – 472.

Reif, F. (2008) Applying Cognitive Science to Education: Thinking and Learning in Scientific and Other Complex Domains. London: A Bradford Book.

Smith, E. E., Adams, N., & Schorr, D. (1978). Fact retrieval and the paradox of interference. Cognitive Psychology, 10, 438 – 464.

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