Monday, 11 May 2015

Most students struggle to take effective lecture notes. Here are two ways to help them

Sit in a university lecture and you'll see most students scribbling away taking notes (or tapping away on laptops). Unfortunately, while note-taking ought to be beneficial in principle – by encouraging reflection on, and systematic organisation of, the material – countless studies have found it to have little to no benefit. It's likely this is in part because of the way students take notes. Many simply record verbatim what the lecturer is saying.

Now the US psychologists Dung Bui and Mark McDaniel have tested two ways to help students take better notes. The first is to provide note paper containing a lecture outline, with headings and subheadings of the material. The idea is that this eases the mental demands of taking notes.

The second method is to provide students with illustrative diagrams – these go further than an outline and show the key components of a system, with labels explaining how the different parts interact.

Bui and McDaniel asked 144 undergrads to take notes while they listened to a 12-minute lecture about car brakes and pumps. At the start, some of them were given a skeletal outline of the lecture, others were given an annotated diagram of the parts and steps involved in a car's brakes. There was also a control group who were simply given a blank piece of note paper.

Afterwards, all the note papers and materials were removed and the students were distracted for half an hour with a word learning test. After this, the students were tested on their understanding of the first part of the lecture by free recall (that is, they were asked to type out as much as they could remember). Then they answered a series of questions on the same topic. Finally, they completed a test of their "structure building" ability – essentially how good they are at forming a coherent mental structure out of information. For this, they read four passages of text and then answered questions on them.

Regardless of their own ability level, the students who received a lecture outline performed better at free recall of the lecture than the control participants. They also took more comprehensive notes. When it came to the specific questions on the lecture material, however, the lecture outlines helped high ability students but not those with low structure building ability. By contrast, both high and low-ability students who received annotated diagrams performed better at free recall than the controls and at answering the questions, despite actually taking fewer notes. The researchers said this is probably because diagrams help students see the major components of a system and how they work together.
"These two features in conjunction essentially provide a representation that can be directly appropriated for constructing a more complete mental model" they said. 
Further analysis showed that the students given an annotated diagram, not only took fewer notes than the other students, but their notes contained a higher proportion of references to the cause-and-effect dynamics described in the lecture. This suggests the diagram helped the students to focus on extracting the most important information for understanding the topic at hand.

The researchers said their findings have practical relevance for lecturers who want to use learning aids to "help all students across the entire range of ability". Of course, this study was about the teaching of a scientific topic, so it's not clear how the findings would generalise to other subjects. However, the researchers said that for topics for which illustrative diagrams are not practical, "perhaps other aids that help scaffold construction of a coherent mental model might be developed."


Bui, D., & McDaniel, M. (2015). Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4 (2), 129-135 DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2015.03.002

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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