April 9, 2009

Creating More Effective Course Handouts

By: in Teaching and Learning

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For most of us, handouts are a staple of instructional life, but as Teresa Sakraida and Peter Draus (reference below) point out, their “development is often a trial-and-error process.” (p. 326) Like so many other aspects of instruction, we take the construction of handouts for granted, their creation guided largely by intuition.

The article referenced identifies a range of purposes and functions for handouts, including the ability to:

  • Serve as advance organizers, previewing and preparing students for what’s to come.
  • Introduce activities, describe the task, offer advice on process and identify outcomes.
  • expedite progress through material by providing students with drawings, graphs or other data that take excessive time to replicate by hand.
  • Provide a break during a lecture, allowing students to read instead of listen.
  • Serve as study guides, containing summaries and highlights of key points covered in class or in the text.
  • Convey other messages, such as an instructor’s interest in the material, a humorous anecdote or good advice on successful study strategies.

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The design features of successful handouts are more than just a matter of advice—they have been studied and are recommended based on empirical analyses of features known to expedite the learning process. Among the most important design features is the need to keep the handout simple, especially when it’s being used as a presentation aid. Don’t include a lot of unnecessary detail; keep the focus on a single topic.

It is also important to consider the visual impact of the handout. In part this relates to its functionality. If students are to take notes on the actual handout, make sure that there’s enough space to do so. It’s easy to check this by looking at notes that students have previously written on the handout. Visual impact also involves how information on the handout is configured. Is white space being used to organize and highlight the information? Lists are frequently easier to follow than points buried in a paragraph. Technology makes it easy to manipulate many more design elements. Font size and style can be changed. Color can be incorporated. In fact, technology makes so much easily possible that the visual details can become distracting. Rather than supporting the content, they can become more memorable than the content, or worse yet, they can detract from what’s most important.

Finally, do not underestimate the importance of using handouts that look professional. If the message conveyed to students is that spelling counts, then the teacher’s spelling ought to be exemplary. Handouts should be carefully proofread. If material from other sources is used, it should be properly referenced. If material is secured by copyright, that too should be acknowledged. As information changes, content on the handout should be kept current through regular updates.

None of this advice is new or unknown, but it behooves us all to sit down every once in a while and carefully consider the collection of handouts used in a course. Better yet, have students pull out the ones they have tucked into their notebooks or list the ones they remember using online; then give them the opportunity to provide some constructive feedback. It’s not that most handouts are bad; it’s that most handouts could be made better.

Reference: Sakraida, T. J., & Draus, P. J. (2005). Quality handout development and use. Journal of Nursing Education, 44(7), 326–329.

Creating Effective Handouts, The Teaching Professor, Oct. 2005.

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