Organizers: Text and Graphics

Clarifying & Accelerating Understanding & Organization



A digital organizer is a bridge builder. It can create the bridge between the teeming and increasingly chaotic masses of data from the world's information explosion (Houghton, 2012) and the shaped information of a presentation of ideas for almost any media. We shape information in order to solve a problem, that is to make an impact on a particular situation. This shaping involves collecting, clustering, labeling, structuring and sequencing ideas. In spite of its power, the use of outlining in paper format quickly becomes awkward, a 'penguin on land' as the outline grows in scale. This contrasts sharply with its digital implementation where the process takes on an exciting character as the activity becomes fluid and fast, like putting the penguin back in the water. These thoughts discuss the values of outlining, strategies to use when outlining, the range of application genres and devices that can handle digital outlining, some examples of specific digital organizers, specific screen movie tutorials for Word and a discussion of using outlining for assessment purposes.

To outline is to analyze in order to organize. To organize is to summarize, to label the patterns that emerge as headings in the outline as information is searched, encountered and collected. This and other sub-processes make outlining an excellent vehicle through which to apply and study cognitive strategy instruction (Conley, 2008). Graphic organizer tools have also provided great improvement in the communicating of one of the most difficult of the higher order skills to teach, critical thinking (Gelder, 2005). Outlined elements might include ideas, activities, events or mathematical processes, which are expressed as text, images and other media of the digital palette. Outlining concepts also appears in some overlooked and unexpected places.

The Values of Outlining

To outline means to find and organize the relationships between the main and subordinate points of an idea, activity or argument. This requires demoting or hiding less important details in order to 'see the forest for the trees'. That is, an outline is a kind of concept map, an overview of a set of ideas, an organized and terse summary of key ideas and categories expressed as outline headings. Outlining comes in many variations, from the classic Harvard outline to the designs called concept mapping, webbing, mind mapping, diagramming, thematic mapping, graphic outlining, and bubble mapping. Outline designs help us remember and understand better through connecting ideas that we know and understand with new ideas. These designs help take the results of study, brainstorming and planning and makes it easier to organize, prioritize and prune the thoughts that emerge, then proceed with the expansion of the structure that is left standing into something more formal and finished. Outlines provide concise visual ways to organize and represent knowledge.

An outline can be the bridge between a complex reading and understanding its ideas by operating in a top down fashion, finding the structure of an already completed composition. It facilitates the use and understanding of text structures that are important to both reading and writing (Strickland, Feeley & Wepner, 1987). The process of organizing ideas in the compositions of others with outlining and graphic organizers contrasts sharply with the process of rote learning. Many have argued that outlining and graphic organizers used for this purpose are not only better for comprehension, for meaningful learning, but better at fostering effective retention, that is, long term memory (Kaczor, 2005). Digital organizers also provides many other academic and professional uses for thinking assistance (Altman & Kirsh, 1996; Horney et al., 1991; Hyerle, 1996; Novak, 2005; Price, 1997; Rico, 2000).

The outline might emerge from the bottom up to give emerging structure to a list of brainstormed ideas, to a review of fictional or scholarly literature or to observations done for science or social experiments. In the CROP model's Look stage of the problem solving process, the Internet provides dozens of tools to bring firehoses of information to a desktop computer. Once data is selected from the deluge, the information needs summarizing, organizing and pruning. This organizing must happen before a composition can emerge using the wide variety Evoke stage composition tools. The outline might also emerge from the top down, gradually expanding as a reader continues to read, using the outline process reveal the hidden structure of an already completed story or document. Creating or organizing existing sets of data as an outline is also useful to test and evaluate understanding. These ideas might be organized using just text or as a drawing or graphic or some combination. Some organizers are text that needs to be organized vertically and indented; some organizer move images and text both horizontally and vertically and enable switching between classic outlining and graphic outlining.

The idea of bottom up organizing also extends the information under a heading, the body text of quick phrases that explain the headings. They will turn into sentences and paragraphs. If separate sentences are keep on their own lines for a while, this supports rapid reorganization of the sentences of a paragraph. Then when the paragraph sequence appears stable, the line feeds at the end of each line can be removed, revealing the standard formal paragraph.

Outlining has been criticized for being too time-consuming for practical use. This depends heavily on whether outlining is implemented in paper or not but in fact any outlining activity can become more extensive than is needed for the purpose at hand. Beyond a short outline of a few lines of major headings though, there has been a marked decline in the school assignment of paper outlines for longer, more significant projects. Because it is even more time consuming to make changes to the outline by recopying it, outlining was criticized as being stiff or inflexibile, even though conceptually the outline should make it easier to see where ever larger global edits are needed. However, in a digital environment, outline creation shifts from the frozen state of ice to the fluidity of water. Any element or entire sections of the outline can be repositioned in the time it takes to think of it and that is just a taste of what the computer setting provides.

Later, screen movies of this process will provide a basis for practicing outlining skills and more. Online outlining enables entire teams to be involved in the creations. This digital fluidity transforms the outline's value from being regularly shunned in the world of paper to one of the key 21st century skills of a computer literate person living in the information age.

Outlining skills empower people to create meaningful change in the world by organizing and reorganizing and reorganizing again the constant flow of data.

Digital Outline Designs in A Computer File

Electronic outline processing or outliners began with stand-alone applications in the 1980's (e.g., Ready, MORE, ThinkTank) and only were later integrated with programs that also address basic word processing and other needs. Outlining using similiar designs for expanding, collapsing and moving is now a standard feature in Microsoft Word, Appleworks (Macs before 2007), and Corel Word Perfect Office (which also runs on Linux operating systems) and embedded in many other computer operations. Outlining was extended into new territory with graphic organizer applications such as Kidspiration, Inspiration, CMap, and many online graphic organizer applications. These will be briefly reviewed. Outlining apps are also available on a range of mobile devices (e.g., smart phones, tablets, phablets) by searching the app store for outlining and some of these outlining apps work across multiple devices from smartphone to large desktop screens.

Text-based outlining - Microsoft Word

The most commonly available word processor is Microsoft Word. Since the early 1980's an outlining tool has been part of Word. The graphic at the top of this page is in Word's basic outline format. The critical key advantage that digital outline processors provide over paper is the ability to collapse or instantly move any section or sections of an outline. The white plus and minus signs are used to indicate the presence or absence of further information. The plus sign is also used as a clickable item that collapses and expands outlines. The graphic on the right is an outline in Microsoft Word in the classic Harvard outline format taught in many English and language arts classes. The Outline command under View in Microsoft Word activates outlining mode. Different versions of Word may put it in different places but in one version under Format, the Bullets and Numbering commands allow selection of different outline numbering designs. However, as Word outlining demonstrates, the formal Roman numeral outline style is totally unnecessary to effective and powerful outlining activity.

Text-based outline processing tools are often the most overlooked and the most powerful applications for analytical thinking on the workstations of most computer users. In this writing, the concept of outlining represents both text based organizers and graphic organizers. Others use the phrase outlining tools to refer to text outlining and use the term graphic organizers for outlining with icons and symbols. However they are labeled, many applications have been created for text outlining tools and graphic organizers (Buckman, 2003).

Less understood and used is outlining to organize and manage daily life with its numerous events and projects. sample outline in Word Study the example graphic to the left. This outline is used to create a personal project management system outline, an outlined to-do list. The problem processing tools section of this outline contains direct active links to online web pages with useful research tools and to applications on the user's desktop. The headings of tier one, two and three represent three levels of priorities, with tier one being the highest priority needing the most immediate attention. As tier one events are completed, elements from tier 2 and 3 might be dragged into tier one. Completed activity headings represented by the white plus signs are dragged to the dated archive to make periodic reports of activity easy to complete. Within each level, as the expanded section of tier two shows, items are prioritized by dragging the most important one to the top of the list, and then the next in importance under that and so forth.

The text "due diligence" which is blue and underlined is an example of link to an online web page. Clicking this link automatically activities the start up of a web browser, the search for the page and its display. That is, Word allows the user to make a link not only to web sites, but more importantly for personal project management, a link can be made to anything on the user's computer. That means that links can be made directly to files in other folders. Further, links can be made to application files, for example, those from other word processing files, spreadsheets, databases and slideshows such as Powerpoint. Also, links can be made to the applications itself, for starting up a spreadsheet application such as Excel or even a video editor. That is, all the files and applications needed for a particular assignment or project can be linked within an outline. Personal management is a practical and useful place to start in exploring the power of digital outlining.

Graphic Outline Organizers

As more graphic oriented computers made their appearance, it became possible to create many variations of concept mapping software. Users could quickly draw symbols, boxes and text and to draw lines between those symbols or boxes showing how a series of concepts as nouns are integrated by phrases or verbs. This graphic or concept map could then also be converted to a standard text outline, a step that can be done done automatically by the computer. Two widely known applications are Kidspiration and Inspiration.

These two YouTube clips demonstrate some Kidspiration features, an application aimed at primary grades. The first reviews how to make a bubble map. The second shows how that skill can be used to teach grouping. The adjacent YouTube clips demonstrate bubble mapping and basic grouping concepts at a first grade level, a building block for important ideas in mathematics and other content areas. More tutorials can be found by searching YouTube for Kidspiration tutorials.

Bubble Mapping in a Graphic Organizer - Kidspiration

Grouping Logic

The Inspiration application is designed for older learners and has more in depth resources for converting to outlines and writing projects. Their Web site has many fine examples of Inspiration's use in language arts, science, social studies and mathematics. Many other demonstrations of its use can found by searching YouTube or TeacherTube for "Inspiration software". Hundreds of pictures of these concept maps created by students and teachers (lesson planning example) (example using concept of oil) can be found in online image searches for "Kidspiration" and "Inspiration".

As examples of other graphic organizers, Axon's Idea Processor and Cmap, a completely free and downloadable application, are available for all personal computers and network servers. Both text and graphic oriented idea processor tools are closely related in spirit to Buzan's concept of mind mapping. Microsoft's electronic slideshow program called Powerpoint also can shift to a text based outline view with slides which can contain many different kinds of media including text.

Online Outlining

Outlining in a networked environment, notably the World Wide Web, has created a whole new set of opportunities, notably allowing a team of people to all work on the same outline.

Several online competitors to desktop graphic organizer applications like Kidspiration and Inspiration are available. They include:

Search-Based Outlining

Outlining has also been used in search engines where it used to guide the exploration of information. A fascinating web search engine called Kartoo emphasizes the use of outlining to aid understanding, showing relationships graphically to display the organization of search results. Kartoo uses two layers of graceful lines to indicate relationships and differing sizes of symbols to indicate the relative importance of the ideas found. In the example search for "duck" in the graphic on the left note the larger icon for duckstamps indicating that the greatest amount of information for the searched term is likely to be found at this web site. The 3 terms in green are related category or concept terms. Dragging over one of these terms adds it to the search terms, for example putting the cursor over water creates the search phrase "duck water" and a single click of water will start up the search for "duck water". The left column of the screen not shown here also shows a list of categories related in some way to the search. Kartoo's graphic layout might even be used as a tool to suggest different structures for essays and presentations. In should be highlighted that not only is Kartoo unique in providing visual outlines or concept maps, but Kartoo is also unique in that a search not only searches for the term or terms entered but also is a search for related concepts or categories. These concepts or categories are then available with a click for further related searches.

Team Management Outlining

As previously indicated, managing projects and events in the world is another role for outline design. Outlines as concise sketches of ideas can also be more than the classic Harvard outline structure or bubble maps. A brief list of terms, contact information notes, due dates, and data on location of documents and files needed for the management of a project is also a kind of outline. This kind of design can also be done with online tools. Two online applications created by a company called 37 signals emerged in 2004 that served this goal and both offer access to at least some of their features with free accounts. One is designed more for the needs of organizing personal lives (Weber, 2005), a powerfully simple organizing tool called Backpack (see organizing for meeting example but scroll this screen for dozens of other examples). The second is called Basecamp (see sample Project Overview screen or Dashboard screen) that is designed for managing multiple complex projects with collaborative access by many.

Basecamp extends the idea of outlining from a personal activity to a group and team activity. In the example screen display to the right, one section has been cut out and moved around in a graphic editor to compress the display; in actuality the information is spread out and entirely readable. From this outline view of elements, five major areas are displayed: (1) late or overdue events; (2) coming due events; (3) current activities underway by others on the team; (4) a blog-type notification system that passes postings of information to other team members; and (5) a list of those involved in the group's work. Other headings at the top of the page play the role of collapsing and expanding different views of related information that are shared by the team.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction: Lesson Suggestions for Outlining Activity

Whether the outlining is done in text or on paper, in a word processor, with concept map visuals or with project management dashboard summaries, several basic concepts apply across all  of these approaches. They all can benefit from and use a standard sequence for outlining activity: brainstorm: cluster/sort; prune; and sequence. Use this cognitive strategy sequence with learning or teaching the use of any one of the above approaches to outlining. Apply and teach these skills and this sequence for any project, content area and age level.

Outlining Files of Information through Folders

Multiple files of information need organizing just as the information within those files needs organizing. Information for outlining can be thought of as coming in different size chunks. An outline might organize lines of information within a single computer file, such as creating a to-do list. An outline is also useful in organizing that single computer file within a structure that includes many other files and folders on a computer's hard drive. As information gathers in the form of dozens and then hundreds and thousands different computer files, folders, drives and network drives, it can be hard to find what is needed without some degree of organization. All computer operating systems use a hierarchy of folders to store files. These folders can be nested, placing one folder inside another. Think of the first folder in a set of folders as folder I. and two folders inside that folder as folder A. and folder B. in an outline which in turn could contain their own folders as folder 1. and folder 2. and so on. Different operating systems expand on this outline concept in different ways.

The Windows OS uses the outline features ofWindows Explorer to display the hierarchical structure of files, folders, and local and networked drives. To start this up, click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, and then click Windows Explorer. An easier and more frequently used way to enter Explorer is to right click on any folder and select the Explore command. Once selected a two-column window appears showing the names of a set of folders and drives in the left column. Clicking an item in the left column causes anything contained in the folder to appear in the right column. The plus signs in the left column indicate that further information is contained within a folder and the minus sign indicates that the folder is open showing an indented listing of the files in that folder. Clicking the plus sign in front of a folder expands the view of the information (files, folders, drives) that are available. Clicking the minus sign collapses or closes the folder to make it easier to see the rest of the information that is available.

Beyond showing overall organization, this two column design also provides a fast and easy way to move files from one folder to another. That is, by clicking & dragging on a folder or file in the right column, the item can be dragged into a new different folder in the left column. Not only individual items but multiple sets of items can be selected at one time. This can be managed in three different ways: (1) to select consecutive files or folders, click the first item, press and hold down SHIFT, and then click the last item; (2) to select nonconsecutive files or folders, press and hold down CTRL, and then click each item; and (3) to select all the files and folders in the window, on the Edit menu, click Select All or use CTRL A . If learning these features for the first time, it is important to try these features several times to master their function.

Both the Macintosh and Linux operating systems also take advantage of the concept of outline hierarchies, providing for nested folders and related features.

Learning Digital Outlining

Graphics and symbols make an important contribution to the idea of outlining, but as text based electronic outlining is a standard part of common word processors such as Microsoft Word, text outlining becomes a convenient place to begin in the study of outlining and its application to the writing process (Rico, 2000). Text outlining provides an efficient format in terms of display space for showing a large set of ideas and provides a powerful capacity to manipulate and reorganize sets of information. This further study includes discussion of criteria for selecting outliners and provides tutorials for outlining.  The Appleworks (formerly known as ClarisWorks) tutorial uses screen movies. The Outlining in Word tutorial uses screen images and screen movies. Though the particulars differ in how outlining is handled, the best outlining programs incorporate at least the five major concepts that are explained and discussed in the tutorials below: expand, collapse, promote, demote and move. This is followed with consideration of the educational relevance of outliners, lesson suggestions and a bibliography.

Criteria for Selecting Outliners

Of all these options, how should educators choose where to begin learning and teaching outline skills? The primary consideration for most educators in teaching outlining is simply to have an outline application commonly available to students and teachers, one that does not require extra cost and extra instructional time. A second consideration for outlining is ease of use. A third consideration is the ability to shift to a normal or standard writing view that hides the outlining structure but keeps it always available. The outlining application that best fits these criteria is Microsoft Word.

Tutorials for Basic Text Outlining Features

Based on these criteria, for most educational institutions, there is little choice. Microsoft Word is everywhere. The Appleworks or Clarisworks application is also very common in educational settings. Many other outliner products are available and listed in the Web Bibliography but no one has yet created a comparison table of a wide range of outliner products that compare features with Word that would make it easy to size up the relative merits of the different applications. Consequently, the tutorial activity in the table below below concentrates on Word and Appleworks.

Tutorials for Graphic or Visual Organizers

There are other numerous online resources provided by the creators of computer applications to teach their use. Here are some. For Windows Explorer, see Managing Your Files. For Inspiration, use their FAQ page which list resources for the several versions of their program and access to their 30 day free trial period, For Cmap, use their online help pages, and their home page to download this fully featured and completely free program. For Backpack, use the 6 online screen movies and related suggestions found on their home page, to try out their free version.


Outlining for Assessment

By this point, readers have learned a wide range of concepts and terms as well as practical hands-on skills through following and trying the skills shown in the screen movies. Educators should also explore the idea of outlining for assessment. Assessment activity is easy to create. First, teach student to use an outline application such as Word, Kidspiration or Inspiration that is available to students. Next, create an outline of a topic that is to be taught. Save this file as topic teacher (e.g., civilwar-outline-teacher). Now scramble the outline by moving some or all of the elements out of order and save the file as topic student (e.g., civilware-outline-student). The student activity might be done as group or whole class activity with teacher assistance using a single computer or a class projection system. More individualized results can come from a lab environment with each student or pair of students at a computer; distribute the files to each workstation and ask students to "put the puzzle back together again" and print out the results. Such activities are useful for formative or summative evaluation.

As practice for this concept, right click the link to download the Microsoft Word version of this essay, Outlining-practice-demoting.doc, and put its elements in the correct sequential and hierarchical order. Can you do it? To keep it simple, all items are in the correct sequence, but not all items should be promoted to the first level. What should be demoted under which headings? Can you do it fluently, that is in an efficient manner that demonstrates mastery of the basic concepts? Note, the Word file will not be an exact duplicate of this online web page nor will it be as current. Not counting the title, did you have six major headings at the first level? That would be correct. If that seems too easy, have someone else click and drag things out of sequence, then you put them back. The more mature and capable the learners in your classrooms, the more elements they should try handling.

Summarizing Educational Relevance


Outlining Bibliography





Return to the Word Processing Tutorial Page | v1 1998; version 2.80 1/29/2013 | Page Author Houghton