May 20th, 2010

Revisiting Handouts


Handouts—for many of us they are an essential part of teaching, but conceptually they are not something to which we devote much mental energy. With summer approaching or during the current break between semesters, maybe a review of what handouts can be used to accomplish might motivate us to reconsider how we use them. Could it be time to explore some other options?

· Advance organizers, previewing and preparing—Handouts can be used to provide students with the structure of the material about to be presented. That way students don’t have to sort out how the ideas are related but can focus on understanding the material. Handouts might preview new terminology about to be used in the presentation, or they might prepare with some highlights of central ideas.

· Describe an activity or task—If students are to do an activity or work together in a group, you can tell them what they need to do, but it helps to have a written description so that once the work get started, it’s possible to compare what’s happening with what should be happening.

· Offer advice on process or identify outcomes—Handouts can provide helpful advice on how a student might want to proceed or what he or she should be looking for at the end of an activity or assignment. They can offer advice on how to study (maybe containing some suggestions from students who have studied successfully) or more generic advice—like how to get good help from an instructor during office hours.

· Supplementary material—Handouts are a great way to provide support material like graphs, tables, or diagrams. These take time for the teacher to construct on the board. If the teacher has them on a PowerPoint, they take time for students to replicate in their notes and research documents that students make mistakes when they copy visual material.

· A break—A teacher can stop talking and ask students to read material on a handout or listen as material is read from a handout. Students might be asked for comments on the material they’ve just read.

· Study guides—Handouts can help students review. They might contain study questions, key terms, or distillations of main ideas. They might focus on material in the text not covered in class. The teacher can prepare study guides, but so can students and they learn much in the process of doing so.

· Misc. messages—Handouts can identify other resources, references or websites that students might be interested in consulting. They handle some material humorously—I saw a great handout that identified 10 study habits guaranteed to get students a C or lower.

I have elaborated on a list of uses for handouts that appears in this excellent article, which also offers advice of designing handouts.

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