To speak volumes don't deliver them

May 4, 2007

Striking the balance between offering a complete annotated script of your lecture and making students take reams of notes is essential if you are to make handouts work for you, says Harriet Swain

Six PowerPoint slides to a page, scrap the margins, and with a really small font a whole lecture will fit onto a couple of sheets of A4.

Lots of Brownie points for keeping it short and helping to save the rainforest, but when you're preparing a handout shouldn't you be more concerned about saving your students' eyesight - not to mention their chances of getting a degree?

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 is regularly handed 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.

His advice is to turn your presentation into a word document, which allows you more flexibility with presentation. It also enables you to include exercises in the handout, rather than supplying them separately - something that is likely to help students later as well as saving on paper.

James Atherton, principal lecturer in education at De Montfort University, says you need to tread a careful path between scruffy handouts that suggest outdated teaching and glossy productions that imply the trainer is functionary rather than professional. He says 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. You should avoid highly stylised typefaces, underlined or italicised text, blocks of capital letters and light type weights. You should also avoid justified text or text running around images, and glossy paper, all of which make things hard to read for anyone 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 they 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, and this won't be enough when it comes to revision.

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."

According to Atherton, giving out a surprise handout at the end of a class won't help. "This is a vote of no confidence in students' note-taking, and some of them may feel cheated because they took notes unnecessarily," he says. "Next time they won't bother." One solution, Cox says, is to provide handouts that give a main point but leave the details of how you develop it for the lecture, and perhaps provide gaps for exercises during the session.

This helps students to concentrate on what you are saying and to learn by adding their own points, while ensuring they have not missed anything important. It also helps to ensure they turn up.

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 exciting or 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.

Phil Race, assessment, learning and teaching visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University, says you should try to make handouts interactive so that students come out of the lecture with something to which they have added their thoughts and ideas. He suggests having blank boxes for tasks held at various points during the lecture, but without going into detail on the handout about what the tasks will be. This means you can have alternative tasks ready and adjust them depending on the time and kind of class you have. If a student asks an important question this too can sometimes be turned into a task.

Atherton says that using handouts is about class management as much as information-giving. For one thing, distributing handouts to a large class can cause disruption, so you need to think about whether to have piles for people to collect on their way out or pass them around the lecture theatre.

Cox warns against the temptation to provide detailed handouts to satisfy students' demands for spoon-feeding in return for their fees. "We aren't here just to do what students' want," he says. "We aren't giving them information simply so that they get the degree. It has to be them who work for it."

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