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:
- 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)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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)
- 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