Effective lecture handouts

Striking the balance between offering a complete annotated script of your lecture and making students take reams of notes is essential

June 19, 2008

When preparing lecture handouts, there is a temptation to cram as much text as possible into a few PowerPoint pages. But according to Derek Cox, professional development co-ordinator at the Staff Development Centre at Leicester University, which runs workshops on producing good handouts, says the trouble with PowerPoint handouts is that they all look exactly the same.

A disorganised student who regularly receives identical-looking lecture notes by three or four people will have great trouble sorting them all out by the time it comes to revision, he warns.

Cox’s advice is to turn your presentation into a Word document, which allows more flexibility with presentation. It also enables you to include exercises in the handout, rather than supplying them separately.

James Atherton, principal lecturer in education at De Montfort University, recommends treading a careful path between scruffy handouts that suggest outdated teaching and glossy productions that imply the trainer is functionary rather than professional. Handouts should have plenty of white space and margins, should clearly flag the structure of the topic with headings and sub-headings, and include relevant graphics.

Guidance from the Royal National Institute for the Blind recommends using a type size of between 12 and 14 points and as much contrast between background and text as possible. Avoid highly stylised typefaces, underlined or italicised text, blocks of capital letters and light type weights – all of which are hard to read for the partially sighted.

Ellen Pugh, policy manager at Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, says that the more accessible a handout is for students with disabilities, the more accessible it will be for everyone. Using clear English is particularly important.

Benedict Pringle, education officer at Nottingham University Students Union, says that handouts should give references to important quotes and ideas referred to in the lecture, guidance for further reading and information about where supplementary information can be found, but shouldn’t try to cover things students have never heard of.

“Students are happy to read up on concepts introduced to them in a lecture but to give out completely new material in handout form is unhelpful,” he says.

Cox says that the process of writing down notes helps students to process information, but abandoning handouts is rarely the answer. Most students will be able to note down only between 20 and 40 per cent of the information they need.

Nor will they necessarily be able to structure the information. “A handout isn’t just about material,” he says. “It's about structuring and forming it.”

Chris Rust, head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, says that rather than being pessimistic about students turning up if handouts are too good, academics should concentrate on making their sessions as interesting as possible.

He says handouts should vary according to the type of lecture you give. A detailed handout is useful if you want the freedom to explore a single example or look at the big picture or do something inspirational without feeling you have to cover certain points.

“Knowing they have the handout you can be confident you have set them on the right track and they have something to go away and read,” he says. Alternatively, you could provide a skeleton handout, which gives structure but really makes sense only to those who attend the session and add their own notes.

Cox warns against the temptation to provide detailed handouts to satisfy students’ demands for spoon-feeding in return for their fees. “We aren't giving them information simply so that they get the degree. It has to be them who work for it.”


Skill - the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities

Royal National Institute for the Blind

James Atherton's tips

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