Cool Tool of the Week: A Cure for Messy Heads

So often we forget that we teachers are usually people who were pretty good at the game of school. (Not all of us, to be sure, and some of the former not-so-greats make the best teachers, at least in my experience.)  The strategies that came to us naturally, or that we adopted so early that we have forgotten how we learned them, are sometimes the ones we forget to introduce, because we feel that they need no introduction.  I mean, how else would you do this?


Charts (Photo credit: GrapeCity)

Still,  the best information that we can offer our students may have less to do with the subject we teach and more to do with how to tackle it.  Anatomy and physiology, the subject that I teach and adore, is laden with intimidating content: hundreds of tongue-twisting terms, complex physiologic algorithms, and category upon category of cells, tissues, glands, hormones, enzymes, bones, muscles and assorted minutia. For us literal-minded left-brain types, there is only one clear way to tackle this monster—grapple it to the ground with a graphic organizer, aka, a chart.  I mean, how else would you do this?

I am surprised that so many of my students, with all their fancy gadgets, have never made a chart.  I suppose that when Latin and diagramming sentences fell out of vogue, the systematic approach went out with the bath water.  However that misfortune happened, it’s really a lot of fun to introduce students to the joy of the self-made chart.  Here’s how I approach it:

  • The first chart is a mandatory assignment given early in the course.  First-semester students make a chart of the chemistry of organic systems; second-semester students make a chart of the endocrine glands and their array of hormones.
  • Students are given a great deal of latitude in the form that their charts take.  They may use color, lists, concept maps, computer-generated charts, fold-outs, posterboard, whatever.  I do make it clear that a sheet torn from a composition book with a few scribbled words will not pass muster.
  • This is a pass/fail assignment.  I do point out that the better your chart, the more you will learn.
  • Students are warned that their first charts will probably be a mess and reassured that this is a very good thing!  The act of revising the charts is the magical part of the process.  If you know why you want to tear your chart up and start over (not enough space? wrong categories? unclear relationships?), then you have already learned something.  In setting things right, your mental image will become ever clearer.
  • I refuse to provide a sample chart: “Any chart that I show you will be an image of how my brain works, not yours.  I have a very boring brain that thinks in outline form…utterly non-creative. I am sure yours is much more interesting, and your chart needs to be a reflection of your better brain.”  Invariably, a student who thinks like me will sheepishly present a chart almost like the one I would have made.
  • Exception to above rule: When I know that a lot of utterly confusing territory is ahead, I will provide a framework to keep students from becoming hopelessly lost.  On the day that we tackle tissue types, each of which has several sub-types, I pass out a blank template with suggested categories.
  • I allot time during class for groups of students to compare charts.  Students are given a prompt that guides them in evaluating the different types of charts.  (“What good idea did you see on another student’s chart?  What did you see on another chart that you wish you had included? Make 5 good exam questions based on the information that can be gleaned from the charts in your group.”)  This is a great team-building exercise and helps students to respect each other’s learning styles.
  • I circulate and award credit for adequate charts.  Inadequate charts…usually only a few… must be revised and presented to me later to earn credit.
  • Then, I never mention it again.  This was a great leap of faith at first. Years of parenting have taught me the futility of nagging and the value of wait-and-see. Sure enough, the strong students quickly grasp the value of charting and use it for every chapter.  When confused classmates ask for assistance or admire the star’s quiz grades, I often hear, “Well, I made this chart that helped me…….”  Charting can be contagious in the best sense of the word.

If you, like me, have difficulty imagining more than one type of chart, visit A Periodic Table of Visualization.  Who knew there were so many cool charts?  I may be forced to think beyond the outline.


Do you have a good way of using charts or graphic organizers in your classes?  Please share!


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