Knowledge Organisers: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Knowledge Organisers: A teacher's guide for using them as an effective classroom study strategy.

What is a knowledge organiser?

A knowledge organiser is a simple (mostly) one-page document that contains a summary of the facts and key knowledge of a topic. In this article, we will explore how this popular concept has been embraced as an approach to schools instructional practice and why it has become integral to so many curricula.

A one page knowledge organiser
A one page knowledge organiser

Most knowledge organisers contain:

  • Factual knowledge about an array of topics, in easily digestible chunks;
  • Technical terms and key vocabulary with the meanings
  • Visual representations such as diagrams or maps;
  • Popular quotations, if available.

What is included in the knowledge organiser mainly depends on the curriculum subject or the topic. For instance, a knowledge organiser for the mountain range and the stone age, both include pictures but the former would include a map, and the latter would need a timeline.

What information is provided in a knowledge organiser?

In each curriculum subject, there is essential knowledge on which students should pay more attention and build on their knowledge over time. Here, knowledge organisers provide help, as they concentrate on one topic or subject and gradually increase their complexity.

But, it can be difficult to decide what to write about any particular topic on the two sides of A4. This difficulty is a blessing in disguise as it compels us to think about what children should learn. Education experts believe that the actual power of knowledge organisers lies in the fact that they make people think hard about what must be taught to the children. 

Child created knowledge organiser
Child created knowledge organiser

Who uses knowledge organisers?

Knowledge organisers can be an essential tool for the children, parents and class teachers. Most commonly, teachers make the knowledge organiser, to show what they want from the children to learn about a topic – and to elucidate their own perception about what is important.

Subject leaders, headteachers and school leaders, may assess a series of knowledge organisers to check for continuity and progression both across and within curriculum subjects and to assure that expectations and standards for learning are being accomplished, and if not, what continuing professional development is required.

Students can revise, review and assess their subject knowledge using their knowledge organisers. The secret to success lies in regularly revisiting the concepts to be learned. This helps students to transfer chunks of knowledge from their short-term memory to long-term memory.

And lastly, knowledge organisers provide a precise and easy to understand way to parents to become more aware of what their children are learning at the school.

Knowledge organisers for GCSE revision
Knowledge organisers for GCSE revision

How are knowledge organisers used in the classroom?

There are numerous ways to use knowledge organisers, but the following are the most important ways to make the most of knowledge organisers in a classroom setting.

  • Teachers can use knowledge organisers as teaching resources and give them to the children before starting a new lesson. It is also recommended to send a knowledge organiser's copy home.
  • Knowledge organisers can be used as a retrieval tool. Teachers will ask the children if they know more than what is included in the knowledge organiser. Children will be asked ‘why’ questions to broaden their understanding and add detail. This will not only help the students to improve their knowledge beyond the baseline outlined on the knowledge organiser but they will also build stronger subject schemas.
  • A major benefit Of Knowledge Organisers is, they can be used as an assessment tool to identify gaps in knowledge throughout the topic.
  • A large copy of the knowledge organiser can be displayed on a working wall saves teachers time for the class. Easy access to the knowledge organiser will make it easier for the learners to add new details around it.
  • Teachers in primary schools can use knowledge organisers to strengthen their knowledge in any subject area in the primary curriculum.
  • Children can keep the knowledge organisers in their topic books for regular reference to basic knowledge or to focus and enhance their knowledge in a specific area.
  • A fantastic knowledge organiser serves as the handy vocabulary and spelling reference tool. Keeping the knowledge organisers visible at all times help the children to use the correct vocabulary appropriately.
  • Knowledge organisers must be provided at the beginning of the topic, to ask the children what information has stimulated their interest, and if they want to ask any questions.
  • Contextual Knowledge organisers provide a great way to make links between students' learning. For instance, children can be reminded of a past year’s knowledge organiser and discuss how their new knowledge connects and builds upon their previous knowledge.
  • When adopted properly, students frequently use their knowledge organisers in class and for their homework tasks. In secondary classes, teachers give specific home tasks focused on the knowledge organiser, or students can use their knowledge organisers to revise any topic.

Transform information into knowledge with the Universal Thinking Framework
Transform information into knowledge with the Universal Thinking Framework

What are the benefits of using Knowledge Organisers?

Knowledge organisers have many benefits for students. The primary benefit of knowledge organisers is they provide teachers and children with the ‘bigger picture’ of a topic or key concepts of a party subject area. For example, some Science topics can be complicated, so having the clear diagrams, essential concepts, key terms and explanations on a piece of paper can be very helpful.

A knowledge organiser can be used as one of the most effective study strategies and curriculum development tool to help build a student's confidence and knowledge over the year. Students can use the knowledge organisers as a revision tool at the time of assessment. Using a Knowledge Organiser Template allows students to make links, which allows information to move into their long-term memory.

For teachers, the knowledge organiser serves as a powerful knowledge tool that provides supports while teaching a lesson. Teachers can construct their lesson around it to ensure that they include the main information in a sequence of lessons and that they test knowledge-based outcomes on basis of their teaching. However, a teacher must have complete knowledge of the concept maps, the outline of knowledge, conceptual framework, and paper copies of the knowledge that they want their students to learn over time. These resources can end up forming the basis for retrieval practice. Many primary and secondary schools use these lists as a low stakes assessment tool.

Organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation and the Chartered College have facilitated explored the efficacy as an effective study strategy. They are certainly useful for independent study in the run-up to exams.

What are the potential drawbacks of using knowledge organisers?

Like other tools and education-related experiences of students, knowledge organisers have their potential pitfalls too. Some of the recent criticism is related to the idea that they are nothing more than a basic contents list of information. We know that a basic linear list is difficult to remember as it lacks any semantic structure. If you are exploring models of memory in view of improving students retention of knowledge we recommend that you explore the Universal Thinking Framework. This knowledge building toolkit enables students to construct robust schematic understanding.

Graphic organisers give knowledge organisers meaning
Graphic organisers give knowledge organisers meaning

Some of the criticisms of knowledge organisers are listed below:

  • It can be tricky to create knowledge organisers. It takes a lot of time to create them and teachers must read deeply about their subject. It can be difficult to decide what to omit and what to include, and other teachers may have different opinions.
  • Facts should be correct, relevant and updated. Only trusted sources of information must be used.
  • The knowledge provided in the organiser must be clear and age-related that children can depend on and use on regular basis.
  • Some children may not feel comfortable and they may need other kinds of visual or verbal resources such as flashcards or audio recordings to understand the concept.
  • Finally, knowledge organiser contents must be thoughtfully decided. Not everything related to a topic can be included on a knowledge organiser. One may need to carefully decide which details are ‘spoilers’ and which may stimulate curiosity.

The above potential pitfalls can be easily avoided and must not stop someone from using and creating knowledge organisers for the students. Indeed, knowledge organisers provide an essential curriculum tool in teachers' resource toolkit, supporting a well-planned and coherent curriculum.