Using Graphic Organisers in Practical Legal Training

Did you know that substantial research shows that Graphic Organisers (such as mind maps, flow charts, and other visual representations) can produce improvements in learning outcomes with average effect sizes of 1.2 to 1.3?

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Many lecturers involved in practical legal training (PLT) are familiar with some form of graphic organiser; for example, the various representations of the Proof Making Model used in the Civil Litigation subject.

I think graphic organisers might be underused in PLT, especially given that Marzano (1998) found that where students create their own visual representation of a topic, this can produce an average effect size of 1.24 (based on a meta-analysis of 43 studies).  Petty (2009) observes that an effect size of 0.5 is generally equivalent to a 1 letter grade improvement compared to a control group

If graphic organisers are used in conjunction with advance organisers, the effect may be reinforced. Advance organisers are summaries supplied to the students before they start an item of coursework, to help them to structure their own learning on the topic. Marzano found advance organisers can produce an average effect size of 0.48 (based on a meta-analysis of 358 studies). Hattie (1999) found an average effect size of 0.46 (based on meta-analysis of 2106 studies). Advance organisers could produce substantial improvements and they involve a comparatively small amount of work for the lecturer.

It is important that you first model the use of a graphic organiser, and provide  your students with an exemplar. Then ask your students to make their own graphic organiser on a new topic as a part of their coursework; this is part of providing the optimum conditions for effective results. Not all students will like using visual learning at first; but evidence shows that avowed non-visual learners will generally ‘come around’ to using visual tools and appreciate the positive results.

The familiar Proof Making Model is but one kind of graphic organiser, there are lots more…

The format of the proof making model is similar to a tree diagram or organisational chart and is excellent for setting out hierarchical relationships.

My colleagues and previous visitors to my blog posts know that I have a fondness for Mind Maps. Petty observes that mind maps (or “concept maps”) can take a number of forms, however two distinct forms are the ‘atomistic’ mind map, and the ‘holistic’ mind map. As the name suggests, an atomistic mind map divides a topic into a number of parts, which are shown separately but might indicate relationships by proximity, or through hierarchical relationships, or express connections. The holistic mind map can show the topic as an undivided central idea with branches radiating from it to associated concepts. When using any graphic organiser, it is important to consider how well adapted it is to your intended teaching goal.

Diagrams can involved graphics arranged to quickly convey basic information in a contextual way. A television weather map is probably the most familiar everyday example of this.

Venn diagrams can be used to develop a concept or to help distinguish same but different concepts.

Continuum diagrams can be used  to situate concepts in a spectrum of possibilities. Crossed-spectrum diagrams can be used to show kinds of connection between two variables.

Principles diagrams state a general principle at the top, with examples to illustrate and the the ‘reasons why’ the principle applies, set out underneath. This is a useful way to not only learn a legal principle, but also how the student might argue for the principle during the course of submissions.

Storyboards, timelines, and plot flow diagrams can each graphically represent ideas involving the passage of time or developments.

Reasoning diagrams and decision trees build on flow diagrams and are really useful for breaking down complex decision tasks. Litigation lawyers would be most familiar with the excellent evidence flow charts provided on the Judicial College of Victoria’s website.

There are many more variations on these graphic organisers, but by now I think you would have the idea. Remember, there is substantial evidence to show that using graphic organisers can improve your students’ learning outcomes, compared to those who are denied graphic organisers (so in the interest of equity and parity, all students should be given access to those resources).

I would be interested to know your experiences with using graphic organisers, please feel free to comment below.

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Hattie, J 1999, ‘Influences on Student Learning’, retrieved 8 January 2012, <>.

Marzano, RJ 1998, ‘A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction’, retrieved 8 January 2012, <>.

Petty, G 2009, Evidence-based Teaching – A Practical Approach, 2nd edn, Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham, UK.