Abstract A series of graphite oxide (GO) materials were obtained by thermal treatment of oxidized natural graphite powder at different temperatures (from 100 to 200°C). The microstructure evolution (i.e., layer structure and surface functional groups) of the graphite oxide during the heating process is studied by various characterization means, including XRD, N2 adsorption, TG–DTA, in situ DRIFT, XPS, Raman, TEM and Boehm titration. The characterization results show that the structures of GO materials change gradually from multilayer sheets to a transparent ultrathin 2D structure of the carbon sheets. The concentration of surface COH and HOCO groups decrease significantly upon treating temperature increasing. Benzyl alcohol oxidation with air as oxidant source was carried out to detect the catalytic behaviors of different GO materials. The activities of GO materials decrease with the increase of treating temperatures. It shows that the structure properties, including ultrathin sheets and high specific surface area, are not crucial factors affecting the catalytic activity. The type and amount of surface oxygen-containing functional groups of GO materials tightly correlates with the catalytic performance. Carboxylic groups on the surface of GO should act as oxidative sites for benzyl alcohol and the reduced form could be reoxidized by molecular oxygen.