RAP ON: Take Note of This: Using Outlines and Illustrations During Lecture Note Taking

About the author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University and Professor of Psychological Science. This is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share the latest pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format.

Stories can be enchanting. Good teachers often weave in multiple examples into their class to illustrate concepts, make complex material more understandable, and perhaps show students how the course content can apply to other parts of the course, their major, their education, and even their lives. Unfortunately, students will sometimes sit listening to us with rapt attention, taking in a well-crafted lecture without writing anything down.  In fact, as I look out over hundreds of students when I teach, I have noted a marked decline in the amount of note-taking taking place whether on computer or paper. I now make sure to remind students to take notes and exploring different ways to provide lecture aids (Kiewra, 1991).

Taking quality notes helps students both at the time they take them, and later when reviewing them as well. When we take notes on a book or a lecture, we are stimulating additional processing of the material and relating it what we already know, increasing the likelihood we will remember it better for longer. Unfortunately, if our note taking primarily consist of writing down what is on a slide or trying to capture verbatim what was said, learning will not improve. What are some ways to help our students take better notes? Bui and McDaniel (2015) set out to find out.

What was done? 

The authors compared the utility of different learning aids on learning. Students, 144 undergraduates, listened to a lecture and received either an outline or an illustrative diagram, or did not receive any learning aid at all. The lecture was 12 minutes long and described the working of brakes and pumps (1853 words, 154 words spoken per minute). The outlines presented the lecture’s main ideas with important secondary points listed below the main points. Illustrative diagrams are drawings of different components of the main topic with textual explanations next to the images (see Figure 1 below). Students then took a test where they had to remember material from the lecture and write a short essay. 

What did they find

Providing students with an illustrative diagram helped all students score higher on the test (see Figure 2). The extent to which providing an outline influenced the test scores varied with whether students were high or low on a variable called structure building, the type of cognitive ability involving the ability to build coherent structures from what is heard. High structure builders did better on both recall and essay with outlines. Low structure builders did better on recall (not essays) with an outline.

What does this mean for us?         

Many instructors expect students to take notes. We may even tell students to take notes, and suggest methods such as the Cornell method. This study suggests that providing students with illustrations of difficult concepts can greatly improve their learning of the study material. While the study demonstrates that outlines can be useful for some students, outlines may not be enough to help all students comprehend difficult concepts. It is important to note that this study did not test whether providing students with slides from class are effective or not (see our piece on this issue), but explored the utility of creating a whole separate learning aid to enhance students’ note taking and learning. Providing an aid is significantly more effective that note taking without any aids.

The bigger point is this:

Taking notes can be conceptualized as another form of studying and goes well beyond just recording what the instructor says or has put up on a slide. The process of taking good notes also enhances attention and focus. If a student is involved in the process of taking good notes, they will have less time to do other things such as surf the internet, scroll through TikTok or Instagram reels, or text their friends and family.

Bui and McDaniel (2015) demonstrate that the note taking process and learning from notes can be enhanced by the provision of illustrated diagrams. There is an art and science to taking good notes (Gurung & Dunlosky, 2023), and taking time to share the best ways to do it and the benefits of doing it, is time well spent.


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

Gurung, R. A. R., & Dunlosky, J. (2023). Study like a champion: Psychological sciences guide to being a grade A student. American Psychological Association. Kiewra, K. A. (1991). Aids to lecture learning. Educational Psychologist, 26, 37–53.

Illustrative diagrams of different components of brakes with textual explanations next to the images.

Graph of standardized structure building ability score showing varying proportion correct as a function of the type of aid the student had. Top line shows the effectiveness of diagrams.
Fig. 2 Varying proportion correct as a function of the type of aid the student had. Top line shows the effectiveness of diagrams.
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