In this study, 144 college undergraduates with no mechanical experience listened to spoken explanations of how key components of an automobile braking system work together to slow a car. Participants were divided into three groups, with some getting a blank sheet of notepaper, some getting bare-bones text outlines describing key concepts, and others getting more detailed overviews with embedded diagrams showing how brake shoes, drums and other parts fit together to complete the braking system.
Based on research by Morton Ann Gernsbacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Structure-Building Theory suggests deep comprehension requires a two-step process in which learners must first identify and understand key terms and concepts and then grasp how these pieces fit together into a cohesive framework.
Not surprisingly, participants who rated high on structure-building skills needed less support from outlines and diagrams. While high structure builders appeared capable of building mental models on their own, even they performed better on recall and problem-solving tests when provided with outlines or visual diagrams.
Low structure builders, on the other hand, needed every bit of advance support they could get. While simple text outlines provided during note-taking didn't do much to improve their scores, those who received handouts with diagrams did much better on post-presentation problem-solving tests. “For students who have difficulty constructing mental frameworks, making the lecture experience harder may simply result in a lot less learning,” McDaniel said.
Both high and low structure builders took fewer notes when presented with supporting material, but the notes they took were of better quality and focused more on connecting ideas as opposed to verbatim transcription, the study found.
"The key takeaway here is that providing learners with supportive material in advance of the lecture helps them build a comprehensive model of how each part of the system relates to the next," McDaniel said. "The important thing to realize is that there are learners who need more advance support to learn challenging concepts."
Dung C. Bui, Mark A. McDaniel. Enhancing learning during lecture note-taking using outlines and illustrative diagrams. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2015; 4 (2): 129