To Handout or not to Handout, that is the question

Every year students are asked for their comments on teaching^, the first meeting of each course being held in early October. Last year, one class rep said that the handouts* I provided were confusing and not useful. The only time I was aware that the handouts had been less than spectacular was the first week when the duplex had flipped on the short side, not the long making it difficult to navigate. Generally speaking, this blip was resolved outside of the course committee but it got me thinking at the time about handouts and the purpose they serve. Some research has indicated that provision of a handout isn’t having a significant effect on teaching, and in fact too much information makes students switch off1. Other research has mentioned gender and self efficacy as factors on whether the handout gets used effectively or not2. My handouts are generally sparse and really are just bits of paper to write on and the odd diagram to label or just provide more detail on. Do they serve a purpose or the right purpose?

Questions I reflected on at the time included:

  1. What may happen if I do not provide handouts – some students already bring a device into class but if everyone brings one in are we sure that students will stay in the moment and not go on social media etc. (which I have witnessed them do)
  2. Will providing a link to a pdf of slides be expected for students who do want to have a handout and therefore need to print it out. Is there too much expectation to have students organised and engaged?
  3. What will happen to the students who are disorganised? Will the absence of a handout be reflected in student feedback and how can that be managed so it’s not?
  4. How has learning come to this, where a handout – a luxury, not a requirement under uni regulations – is causing angst rather than helping learning? The specific handout that caused the initial problem I had acknowledged needed changing but pressed further it seemed that handouts since the first week were causing issues. Although, is it more that students have to get used to different lecturer styles rather than the handout being difficult to use (excluding the first week which was)? Is it too much for students to expect that lecturers have a consistent presentation of handouts? Is it too much for students to be expected to produce their own study materials how they like them (with the old adage of you can please some of the people some of the time but none of the people all of the time)
  5. Do I return to a simplified handout like I provided all those years ago and got vilified for? Where I expect students to take some notes around the topics that I present but diagrams etc. I can provide for them to write around rather than spending time drawing in class. It’s a conundrum.

In the end I decided to stop providing handouts in class unless students specifically contacted me and said they would like one printed for them. My classes in the spring term when I withdrew providing handouts were all quite small groups and out of 12 students only 2 emailed me and said they would like to continue with a paper copy of the slides. However, when one of those students was ill and I offered the spare handout to the class I always had someone take it to use. Does that mean that the student wanted the handout all along but just didn’t ask me? In class, students without handouts and often without any other sort of pedagogical device (even paper) would sit there and let my lecture “wash over” them but after a couple of weeks of sustained “no handouts” bits of paper started to appear, pens were used and some interaction happened. I’m still not convinced that it’s the right thing to do however.

I was spurred on to share these musings as I’m writing my CPD record for various things (Personal Development Review, fellowship applications, chartership applications) and found my reflections in my Learning Journal (yes I have one of those and I still use it after finishing my PGC). With COVID-19 now requiring at least *some* of our teaching provision to be online from Oct so we can maintain physical distancing these questions are burning even more brightly for me. At least if a student is disorganised and they turn up for class then I can give them some support (I often have 5 pens in my bag) but behind a computer screen there is a real challenge to connect with those students that are often lost at sea (I was one of them at Uni – will always treasure the day that I made friends with my longterm housemate and best friend who kept me together). Or perhaps to be able to access their learning they will have to have a device and therefore they should be more organised than before – everything is there…they just have to use it.

^course committee where course reps from each year meet with representative lecturers to discuss student concerns. Students must have brought a concern to a lecturer before it is discussed at the meeting.

*a handout is a copy of the slides presented in class for students to write notes on. They may have short exercises on them (at least mine do anyway) or space to work as a group to cement learning.


1 MARSH, E. J.; SINK, H. E. Access to Handouts of Presentation Slides During Lecture: Consequences for Learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, v. 24, n. 5, p. 691-706, Jul 2010. 10.1002/acp.1579

2 ZDANIUK, A.; GRUMAN, J. A.; CASSIDY, S. A. PowerPoint slide provision and student performance: the moderating roles of self-efficacy and gender. Journal of Further and Higher Education, v. 43, n. 4, p. 467-481,  2019. 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1367369

More opportunities available

We have a PhD to offer on greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 and CH4) from a subtropical hydroelectric reservoir (Make our planet great again fellowship) including eddy covariance and stable C isotopes

The project is described here:


Potential candidate could contact and directly also for more information

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Ecologist Opportunity

INIS Environmental Consultants Ltd. is currently seeking highly motivated ecologists to join their team in Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland. They are interested in candidates at both junior and more experienced grades.
If you want to be part of an exciting ecology team, increase your level of development and work on interesting and cutting edge projects, throughout Ireland, please contact us at the following address

PhD opportunities

Two PhD opportunities at UCD have been advertised. Expected start date would be Autumn 2017. If interested in applying please send a CV and cover letter to by 1st September 2017. Both are funded for 4 years.


  1. “The impact of cultivation system and sowing date on the establishment, root development and growth of field beans in a temperate climate”


  1. “Influence of root:soil interactions to enhance plant resilience to abiotic stress in Irish cereal crops”


Contact name:

Dr. Saoirse Tracy

Lecturer in Applied Plant Biology

University College Dublin

Agriculture and Food Science Centre

Room 2.03C

Belfield Campus

(01) 716 7728


Also another from Hull:

Many flood agencies are attempting to reduce flood risk through Natural Flow Management (NFM) approaches, which attempt to alter and/or restore landscape features to reduce flood risk. However, the evidence base over the efficacy, scaling and connectivity of NFM interventions, across the catchment scale, and over longer periods of time remain unknown. Understanding these factors is necessary to validate, enable, and optimise NFM implementation at a national scale. NFM aims to significantly enhance natural catchment processes to manage the propagation of flood waters, ultimately attenuating flood volumes and reducing peak flows. Although the effectiveness of NFM measures on peak water discharges at the local scale is reasonably well established, the longer-term and broader catchment-scale impact of NFM measures yields significant uncertainty in Flood Risk Management (FRM).

This PhD project will use numerical and physical modelling, coupled with field measurements, to enable NFM to be applied effectively at the catchment-scale. Catchments are interconnected systems, with channel capacities and non-stationary flood-risk properties imbedded within catchment connectivity and evolution. Therefore, NFM measures will impact water and sediment discharge connectivity through basins and in turn affect geomorphological processes and sediment dynamics, with longer-term, wider, influences on channel capacities, system conveyance and thus flood risk. De-coupling the influence of hydrologic and geomorphic drivers of system interconnectivity is vital in order to: i) accurately quantify catchment-scale changes in flood hazard, and ii) fully understand the influence of NFM at catchment scales over longer time periods of >50-100 years, which are relevant to catchment management decisions. Establishing an understanding of the cumulative effect of flow-sediment interconnections and the longer-term impact of NFM on water and sediment flux across the catchment scale, over a range of different size basins is the key to enabling optimisation and roll out of NFM measures.

Postdoc and PhDs in Singapore

As a small, island city-state, Singapore is closely interconnected, economically, environmentally and politically, with regional neighbours in Southeast Asia.  The resilience and reliability of these interconnections have facilitated economic growth, regional stability and cordial diplomatic relations.  Development benefits in the region have not come without costs, however; rising living standards are associated with increasing rates of resource extraction, reduced environmental quality and impoverishment of biodiversity that have negative ramifications for exposed population groups.

The newly formed Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC), Singapore, has recently made available substantial levels of funding for research on transboundary environmental commons in Southeast Asia. The project involves research partners in Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia, and seeks to:

1) identify the drivers and impacts associated with two major transboundary environmental challenges impacting land, water and atmosphere in Southeast Asia i.e. biomass burning and haze, and hydropower development and water resources;

2) examine these transboundary challenges in the context of the governance of transboundary environmental commons, or common pool resources, within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as the identification of relevant best practices worldwide;

3) contribute to environmental sustainability within ASEAN, as well as provide an evidence-based foundation for policy-making and implementation at both national and ASEAN levels that enhances Singapore’s reputation as a responsible neighbour and a leader in sustainability sciences.

As part of this investment, opportunities are available for:

1) three full-time Postdoc researchers, one at senior level – for further details see:

Note that the closing date for the Postdoc positions is 1 August 2017

2) two four year-long PhD scholarships – for further details see:
“News and events” towards the bottom of the revamped Dept of Geography, NUS’s homepage:

Note that the closing date for the PhD scholarships is 15 August 2017.

The Postdoc and PhD positions will be based at NUS, SIngapore, although there are opportunities for funded fieldwork in the region and to participate in international workshops and conferences.

The intention is for those appointed to commence work in January 2018.

PhD ecology available

As part of an INTERREG VA project an opportunity exists for a PhD student to join the CERIS applied ecology team at the Institute of Technology, Sligo. This studentship is part of a larger project, with our partners in Northern Ireland and Scotland, in the Collaborative Action for Natura Network project. The student will focus research on Lough Arrow; (1) determining the conservation status of the lake by assessing water quality, habitats and species;  (2) invasive species assessment; 3) GIS mapping; (4) co-operating in partner studies in the Kilrooskey/ Magheraveely Lake complex.


The PhD student will benefit from research and training in a truly inter-disciplinary environment with further opportunities to collaborate with local communities, ecologists, engineers, geographers, sociologists, state agencies, government and regulators, industry stakeholders and local communities. He/she will work in close co-operation with the CANN freshwater post-doctoral fellow based at IT Sligo, will interact with the Invasive Species research team at IT Sligo and its networks, and will also research from time to time with Ulster University postgraduate students.


Institution: CERIS Research Centre, Institute of Technology, Sligo


Supervisors: Dr. Frances Lucy (IT Sligo), Dr. Nicolas Touzet (IT Sligo), Dr. Yvonne McElarney  (AFBI) and Dr. Joerg Arnscheidt (Ulster University)


Application: Submit a CV and Letter of Motivation by July 14th at 5pm to Dr Frances Lucy

Funding: This fully funded 4-year PhD studentship pays IT Sligo fees plus a stipend of Euro 16,000 per annum. Applicants must have a Hons BSc (2/1 or 1stclass) and/or MSc in Environmental Science, Ecology (or similar discipline). The studentship commences in September 2017.


A project supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, Managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB)

A Russell Group response to the TEF*


Continuing my CPD since completing my PGC in Teaching and Learning in HE, I had the pleasure of attending the Learning and Teaching Conference at the University of York last Tuesday. I presented a poster on my findings of running a flipped classroom for the last 2 years and I realised quickly that I had chosen a hot topic for discussion. The other thing that became clear is how fragmented teaching is in a Russell Group institution. Individual departments and faculties appear to value teaching and pedagogy but as a university it is only recently that a framework regarding programme learning outcomes (PLOs) has been developed and tremendous work has been undertaken to assess all the new documents created.

The sessions last week ranged from details on TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessments) to inclusive learning. The former being something completely new to me and the latter something that my own university tries very hard to do very well. Through TESTA, the researchers surveyed 3rd year students about their assessments in a reflective manner, i.e. thinking of the previous years – what did they like or dislike, did they feel prepared for assessments, what could be done to improve the assessment strategy in their programme. A clear outcome from this work was that students felt a staggered hand-in for assignments would allow them to think more deeply about their subject and produce better work as a consequence. In my experience of staggered hand-ins, instead of working on their assignment throughout the semester, the majority of students will only really get started the fortnight before. Reflection by my level 3 students of their recent assignment and how they could improve was largely focused on not having started sooner, despite me trying to coax them into doing a draft earlier in the year. Another observation by a practitioner at York described students requesting permission or rather informing the lecturer that they were going to miss a lecture because they had an assignment due. This is something I see all too often at my own university as assignment season hots up from week 14 onwards. So while I’m sure there are students that will work on their assignments throughout the semester there is a large majority that leave it until the last minute. Unfortunately those students that find it difficult to get started sooner are also unlikely to respond to such a questionnaire.

The final session of the day asked members of the faculties to reconvene and digest the findings of the day. As York has only recently implemented their pedagogy framework the discussion was centred around the challenges and opportunities presented by such an endeavor. I suppose in my own university, pedagogy is so engrained in our psyche that we take it for granted that we have programme leaders who know how to map PLOs, members of staff that have been through numerous validations and a curriculum with pedagogy right at its heart despite the reality of the real need to increase our research output and impact under REF. Staff discussed that as a consequence of the implementation there was real discussion around what they wanted students to be able to do and how best to articulate this to students. This was one of my primary learning points in the day. Some of the departments have condensed their PLO to a single A4 page and used inclusive language that an 18 year old starting out on their programme or even applicants on an open day could engage with. This means instead of having a thick handbook to read, students receive around 6-8 pieces of paper that tell them how they’ll attain the PLOs through the 3 years of their study.

Interestingly, some of the comments from the students after reading the PLOs of their chosen programme at the end of their studies conveyed surprise as to what they actually were able to do. A weakness of a lot of programmes is the absence of space or structure to enable students to reflect on the application of what they have learnt. Surely being unaware of what you have learnt and why, will make it difficult to market yourself once you leave university? Indeed, one of the opening slides by the chair of the University of York’s Learning and Teaching committee showed examples of CVs where little was explained of what the student could actually do and more about the grade they had obtained. The chair shared a recent newspaper article which informed us that some employers are no longer looking at grade achievement but instead what the student is able to do which only goes to show how important it is that all the people involved with Teaching and Learning (staff, students, senior managers) are able to articulate what exactly it is that students can do and how this can be evidenced.

From my individual conversations while presenting my poster, it was clear to me that the delegates who were at the conference have a real hunger for implementing new teaching methods. One concern readied during the faculty discussion was whether when new teaching methods go wrong or not as well as you’d have liked, where is the safety net for career progression? Will low scores because you’re still getting the hang of a new teaching method count against you when you apply for a senior lecturer position? Unsurprisingly, these are issues also discussed in the coffee room at my own university but I think overall, the university would like us to be innovative but try to minimise risk as much as possible.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my day at York – I felt for once, like I was at the top of my game. This only really comes from continuing my professional practice, so Learning and Teaching conference in September anyone?


*This blog post was written before the TEF results this week. In my opinion, working in a university that has managed to get Gold, we’ve got to set the bar even higher as the primary response to the TEF results by a Russell Group is ultimately to improve their teaching and learning – York has already started on this journey (2 years in now), how many others are following?

PhDs available

Graduate Student Research Assistantship – PhD

Catchment Hydrology and Stormwater Management

Vermont EPSCoR Program, University of Vermont

A multi-year Graduate Research Assistantship position is available at the University of Vermont as part of a research study on Resilience to Extreme Events in Social Ecological Systems of the Lake Champlain Basin. We are seeking a student interested in pursuing PhD level research in the areas of catchment hydrology and stormwater management in the context of climate change impacts. Research will involve modeling (including programming) and field work components. Candidates should enjoy being part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers (i.e., faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and stakeholders) working toward identifying strategies that improve water quality resilience within the Basin. Additional information may be found at:

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All about Trenching

Free. All welcome. This meeting should be of interest to all Harper students studying soil and water, in particular drainage.

Monday 20 th February. “Engineering Solutions for Trenching”

Speakers: Christopher Pett, Mastenbroek Ltd

As well as discussing Mastenbroek trenching technology, Mr Pett will also touch on how they interface with precision agriculture.

The meeting will be held in the Douglas Bomford Lecture Theatre, Agricultural Engineering Innovation Centre, Harper Adams University.
Tea and coffee will be available from 7:00pm with the technical meeting starting at 7:30pm.