Using BrainPOP as an Advance Organizer

by Elizabeth Hubbell, Educational Technology Consultant at McREL, and Allisyn Levy, Director of BrainPOP Educators

(*Note: this post is the first of a series of collaborative posts between BrainPOP Educators and McREL’s Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. These articles will be cross-posted on the McREL Blog and on BrainPOP Educators Blog.)

One of the most effective strategies that teachers can employ when first starting a unit is to use advance organizers to help students activate background knowledge and organize potentially confusing new information. Advance organizers can take many forms, including graphic organizers, skimming, narratives, and simply giving an overview of the content (expository advance organizers). They are given to students in advance of the learning activities to help scaffold their learning. This “front-loading” before new material is presented increases opportunities for student success as they’re able to connect to prior knowledge and organize new information more easily.

For example, a middle school teacher is beginning a unit on forces and motion, with an emphasis on types of bridges and forces that act upon a bridge. He knows that his students have studied some of these concepts before and wants to remind them of their background knowledge on the subject as well as get students personally interested. In order to do this, the teacher will utilize several types of advance organizers as his kickoff activity.

He begins by creating a graphic organizer to help students organize the new terms and definitions they will be learning. This also serves the dual purpose of helping them to focus on what’s important while not being distracted by taking lots of notes. In this way, the teacher is modeling teacher-prepared notes. (More about this in an upcoming blog post.)


The students do several activities to help them fill out their graphic organizer. One is to watch the BrainPOP movie on Bridges. Before or after watching the movie, they might explore the intriguing facts and comic in the related FYI on BrainPOP as another means of piquing student interest and activating prior knowledge. He also uses other online and print resources to help students find the information for which they are looking. In effect, the teacher is using these resources as expository advance organizers, but using a variety of media to engage students and to speak to different learning styles.

As a narrative advance organizer, the teachers shows a video clip of “Galloping Gertie,” the Tacoma-Narrows bridge that collapsed in 1940. Students ask questions such as, “What made the bridge ‘gallop’?” and “Was this a mechanical error or did a natural disaster occur?” In this way, the teacher is again using multimedia to tell a narrative and to get students interested in the subject at hand.

By the end of the activity, the students are more familiar with key vocabulary and concepts that they will need as they progress in their studies of force and motion. They are likely far more engaged than they would have been had they simply been asked to read the opening paragraph of their textbooks. Even better, they can go back and visit the resources again or quiz themselves on basic concepts to self-assess their understanding.

For more information about McREL’s two-day workshop on Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, click here or contact Elizabeth Hubbell at ehubbell [at] mcrel [dot] org.

Are you using advance organizers with BrainPOP? Tell us about it! And be sure to check out the graphic organizers we offer!