Study: Students Learn Better When Lectures Come With Visual Aids

By Ross Brenneman — June 17, 2015 2 min read
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A new study suggests that giving students pertinent visual information, such as a diagram or outline, at the start of a lesson will lead to better understanding of that lesson.

The study, by Mark A. McDaniel, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, and graduate student Dung C. Bui, found that college students who had visual aids given to them before a science lecture were better able to understand and remember the lecture, but illustrative diagrams helped more than outlines.

“Participants given illustrative diagrams likely engaged in deeper levels of processing while listening to the lecture,” the authors conclude.

Previous research has highlighted the benefits of note-taking for students, finding that students better retain information when writing it down. (And there have been subsequent studies about writing vs. typing notes.) But not all note-taking is made equal, leading researchers to question what cognitive processes involved in notetaking lead to better performance.

The McDaniel-Bui study, released online earlier this spring, included 144 undergraduate students. Participants listened to a 12-minute lecture about car brakes and pumps. Except for those in the control group, students got either outlines or illustrative diagrams. They were then tested to see what information they recalled and whether they understood it.

While the students who had any form of visual aid always did better than students in the control group, students with diagrams, on average, outperformed students with only outlines. However, students with better reading comprehension showed no difference in performance based on which visual aid they had. In other words, students with weaker reading comprehension might benefit most from diagrams.

The study looks at college students, but offers suggestive possibilities for K-12 classrooms. The bigger drawback to the study, the authors caution, is its roots in applied science: Car mechanics lend themselves to visualization, but for other subjects—history, for example—the authors say it is “unclear as to whether illustrative diagrams can be developed to promote deep comprehension of other subjects.”

To that end, though, the authors hope that researchers and educators can explore solutions.

“For topics for which illustrative diagrams cannot be rendered, perhaps other aids that help scaffold construction of a coherent mental model might be developed, with the expectation that these too would promote deeper learning when provided to students during their notetaking,” they write.

Image via McDaniel and Bui

More on improving student recall:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.