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The Internet and Virtual Learning Environment may or may not radically change teaching, but the technology which has probably made most difference in the past fifty years has been cheap, on-site, duplicating copying and printing. Among other things, it has radically changed student expectations — and the more conversant teachers become with computers and printing, the higher the expectations get.

Handouts are an integral part of the teaching and learning system.

That is to say, they make a difference to other elements in the system: they are not neutral add-ons, because their very existence (or non-existence) has an effect on the process of the class.

  • Give out a comprehensive handout at the start of the class: why should anyone stay to hear you say it when they can read it? They may be reading it rather than listening anyway.
  • Give out a skeletal handout at the beginning: it acts not only as a form of "scaffolding", but also as a form of contract or promise—"This is what I am going to cover". It also exposes your digressions!
  • Give out an orientation handout for next week's session at the end of this week's class: it is a statement of expectations of what students will do.
  • Give out a handout at the end of the class without announcing that you were intending to do so: this is a vote of no confidence in student's note-taking, and some of them may feel cheated because they took notes unnecessarily. Next time they won't bother.
  • Do you want students to take notes? Would it help them to understand the material for themselves? Then don't use handouts.
  • Do you want them to concentrate on the session itself? Do you want them to look at OHTs/data presentation, or a video, or proceed via question-and-answer (in either direction). Then use handouts, probably at the end of the class.
  • Handouts shift some of the burden of conveying information from the taught session to themselves. They free you to be non-linear in your presentation and to pursue interesting angles raised by students. (Except when literal-minded students complain that you are not sticking to the order of topics on the handout.)
  • They also let students off the hook of learning to digest complex material presented in real time, and to take notes on it. Although the form varies, this is a "key skill" for many jobs: are you depriving them of the opportunity to pick it up by short-circuiting the process?

So using handouts or not, and their form, is an act of class management, not simply of information-giving.

Trivial tip: if you have a pile of handouts, fan them out by circling, with moderate pressure, with your finger (nail side) on the top one: it makes them easier to pick up separately. Distributing handouts to a large class is not a trivial enterprise, and can cause considerable disruption. In such cases you can either have piles for people to collect on their way in or out, or perhaps distribute smaller sets to students throughout the lecture theatre to pass around on cue.

Design considerations

The design of handouts also sends a message to students about your approach to teaching: out-dated or scruffy handouts and third generation barely-legible photocopies are an insult to students when the technology is available to up-date them and produce pristine copies. At the other end of the scale, glossy and slick productions by some commercial training providers acquire a spurious authority, and often suggest that the trainer is a mere functionary rather than a professional who generates her own material.

  • All handouts should have plenty of white space for students' own notes: use wide margins, and leave substantial gaps between topics (if you print these pages out, you will find I have tried to facilitate that).
  • They should clearly flag the structure of the topic, using headings and sub-headings to show the relative importance of points—the structure is easily lost in a lecture.
  • Relevant graphics are useful, particularly if they are used in the actual presentation and students may have difficulty in copying them down: but be careful about clip-art merely to "brighten up" the presentation.
  • Students can be intimidated by vast wodges of paper: try not to make them too big.
  • There is considerable debate about the most suitable type-face for dyslexic students. The current view is that sans-serif fonts, such as this (I'm not identifying it because different browsers and machines will render it differently) are preferable to serif fonts, such as this (Times New Roman) and some people swear by Comic Sans, which others think is horrible.
    • Dyslexic readers may prefer handouts on certain colours of paper (and they vary in their preferences). Ask them; you may not have to print on coloured paper, though, because they may be able to work with coloured acetate overlays.
    • Having handouts available a day or two before the session on the VLE may allow students to download and customise them—but not if they are Acrobat files, of course.

Some kinds of handout and their peculiarities:

  • Reading lists: Consider annotating them, and particularly indicate functional alternatives where possible.
  • Gapped Handouts: these pre-structure the session. They list the headings, and at their simplest then leave enough space for the kinds of notes the students are expected to make.
    • They may also include any complex graphics or charts or tables of statistics used, perhaps without legends or labels so students have to listen to you to make sense of them, and then write them in. 
    • The gaps may include the appropriate number of bullets or numbers for the points to be made.
    • For less able students, they may outline the main points but leave gaps for key words to be inserted.
    • They can be patronising, and perhaps mechanistic, but they do balance guaranteeing accurate information with student activity.
  • Primary sources: Brief excerpts or quotations from authors to be discussed, pictures or sets of figures. There is no real substitute for each student having their own copy of such material, but beware copyright regulations!
  • Worksheets: handouts are not necessarily substitutes for, or complements to, your own presentation. They can include examples to be completed by the students and then discussed in class. If you are going to use them in this way, think through the whole process before you do so:
    • How are you going to distribute them at the right time? 
    • How are they going to be marked?
    • Will you identify and correct common mistakes?
    • If there are no single correct answers, how are you going to deal with alternatives?

    Effectively, this is using handouts as the equivalent of "activities" or "self-assessment questions" in resource-based learning.

Experiment, and ask for reactions from students. Be specific in your questions, and they will not only realise that you want genuine answers, but also that you take seriously the development of your teaching.

This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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