Relational databases are one of the pillars of information systems and as a consequence conceptual and logical design can be seen as the foundation of almost every application regardless of the platform. Nevertheless, little research has been done so far on the effectiveness of teaching approaches to database basic concepts and design. This paper introduces a multi-level experimental study developed to examine the effectiveness of learning database fundamentals, depending on the notation used for conceptual design. The main experiment was carried out at a higher education institution. We developed different experimental instruments to evaluate the effectiveness of a teaching approach using Barker or Bachman notation for conceptual database design. In contrast to Barker notation, Bachman notation incorporates elements of logical design (i.e. foreign keys) in the conceptual design level. Students’ achievements were examined with regard to influencing factors throughout the learning process. Introducing the Bachman notation and a manual transformation from a conceptual into a logical data model, could increase students’ understanding of conceptual, logical and relational data model concepts. We found that the notation used during the learning process has an impact on students’ achievements. Moreover, students achieved better results when solving tasks presented with a notation that incorporates elements of logical design into the conceptual level. Finally, we required the use of manual transformation from a conceptual into a logical data model and the results confirmed an increase in students’ understanding.