Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

the art of the handout

This fits with what I hear from students all the time:

A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

I think when slide presentations are used well the story isn’t quite so sad, but they are almost never used well — and, as Edward Tufte never tires of saying, there are few lecturing situations in which a paper handout is not considerably more useful than a set of PowerPoint slides.

I consider The Handout a great pedagogical art form, and devote a lot of time to preparing handouts for classes. The keys are to (a) provide as much information as possible on the page (b) without overcrowding and (c) in a format that gives clear differentiating structure to the different points, ideas, and quotations. One of my minor fantasies is to be asked to give a seminar in handout preparation for my fellow teachers. Alas, it’ll never happen.

9 comments:

  • Andy Crouch said...

    But you could at least upload an example of one of your favorites. Inquiring minds want to know! And not all of us had the SAT scores to get into Wheaton.

  • I hate Power Point handouts. They are useless afterward.

  • I Hate Handouts (a philosophy of life and a great name for a band). What do you do with a handout? Just read along while the prof talks? Scribble messy notes in the margins? Take your own organized notes and cross-reference the handout? Bah.

  • Brad Cathey said...

    "No one isn't one ever claims to be a surgeon or attorney, but everyone is a designer."

    Caution: Snoot alert

    I've been whining about this since PageMaker ("RageMaker") became available to mere mortals and not just us gods of design. Lesson learned: great software does not make you a designer anymore than a great piano makes you a pianist, or Wordpress makes you a writer.

    Bottom line: the reason PowerPoints (insert Keynote plug here) and handouts might be lacking, if not abysmal, is that the person at the controls, who might be a genius in their field, still doesn't know how to communicate visually, which usually involves fundamental design principles like grid and typography. What to do about it?

    Promise me, if you ever get to do that seminar on handout preparation, can I design your PowerPoints (remove tongue from cheek)?

  • Gavin Weaire said...

    PowerPoint is a solid replacement for a slide projector and overhead projector. But if you would not be using both of those items for a class 20 years ago, then you probably shouldn't be using PowerPoint for the same class today.

  • I had a professor last year who handed out a dissertation every class. The biggest ones were about 12 pages long. The material was pretty difficult so they were no substitute for going to class--but when test time came around, it sure was helpful.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Chaka, you just haven't seen MY handouts.

    And Brad, you know, we profs can't hire designers every time we ned a class handout. We have to roll our own, even if that takes money out of your pocket. Deal.

    Andy, I'll look around for ones I'm especially proud of. Maybe the New Atlantis CMS will even let me upload one. . . .

  • Enjoyable and useful post, but unfortunately the link to the Chronicle of Higher Education article isn't functioning.

  • Alan, I must say that the only handout I can actually sort of recall from my Wheaton days was one of yours. It was in your History of Lit. Crit. class. I believe it was a diagram of the progression of themes or styles in English literature...maybe as compiled by Auden...?

    Though, in order to not sound like a complete suck-up, it's possible that I only remember it because you talked about good handout design after you handed it out, so I was paying extra close attention.

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