Do you use lecture handouts, and when?

The aim of the “Journal Club” is to present a summary of a journal article and discuss it in the comments below or on social meeja. The emphasis is not on discussing the paper itself (e.g. methodology etc) but more what the observations or outcomes reported can tell us about our own practice. Get involved! It’s friendly. Be nice. And if you wish to submit your own summary of an article you like, please do. (Paper on author’s website).

4. EJ Marsh and HE Sink, Access to Handouts of Presentation Slides During Lecture: Consequences for Learning, 2010, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 691–706.

As class sizes get bigger, and photocopying notes becomes more time-consuming, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at this study on whether and when to give students handouts to lectures. The authors have devised two scenarios: students are given the handouts at the start of the lecture or students are given the handouts after the lecture is over (this would drive me INSANE if I were a student!).

The authors argue that cognitive load theory has something good to say about both options. Providing material in advance helps students encode the lecture information more readily. Providing the material afterwards means that the students have to work a bit harder during lectures, but that this work can be a benefit to learning (“desirable difficulties”).

They constructed scenarios whereby students watched a lecture, either with or without handouts. They examined students scores in a test soon after and one week after the lecture, to study the difference in short and longer term recall. A separate prior study found that 50% of staff preferred to give handouts before a lecture, 21% saying they never distributed their notes. 74% of students preferred notes before the lecture.


The authors first examined the number of words written by students who had and had not handouts. Unsurprisingly, those without wrote twice as much as those with handouts. When this text was analysed, it was found that the bulk of the extra text written by the no-handout group was text from slides. Interestingly, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of the amount of text written that was not on slides – it was the same for both groups.

Performance in the tests both immediately afterwards and one week after related to the amount of time students reviewed the material, but not to whether students had handouts in the original lecture. A caveat here is that students who did not have handouts spent slightly longer on lecture review. The authors summarise this observation by saying that the end result for both groups was the same, although it took the no-handout group more effort to get there. I think this is an interesting discussion point.

A second experiment which tested free recall soon after the lecture found that students with handouts performed slightly better (significant to 0.05).


This is a small study but throws some interesting light on some common myths that appear on both sides of the argument. Giving handouts in lectures did not significantly enhance any additional note taking by students in the time they had available to amend the notes they were provided. Similarly, requiring students to write out the text did not improve memory of the material. The students who did not have handouts had to do a bit more work to achieve the same grade as those who were given handouts.

1. Do you use handouts? Do you give them out before/after? Why?
2. What’s your opinion on the “extra work” by students result – do you think it is a good thing that students without handouts acheive the same score by virtue of spending more time reviewing the material?

In other words, do I need to go to the photocopier tomorrow?!

2 thoughts on “Do you use lecture handouts, and when?

  1. Hand outs before the class, well at the beginning of the class since I prefer to give smaller handouts more frequently to prevent them being lost. I need them to engage with the material while we are working through it but don’t want them to spend all their time just passively writing as the boys frequently observe that they don’t take the concepts in when they are under pressure to take notes. It is interestingif you go and observe lectures/classes by colleagues and sit at the back looking at lecture behaviour. As an experienced learner, I made significantly more notes than the students I observed. these tended to be things the lecturer said rather than wrote; the students invariably just wrote down what he wrote on the slides (this of course whilst also checking their facebook, twitter and texting their mum!). This is an important issue to address, when are students taught how to make notes? Who teaches this? Is this skill assumed when students begin more advanced courses at age 17+?

    The ‘extra work’ by students. If I’m really honest I can’t see the benefit if assessment outcomes were similar. The extra time spent doing this could be better spent by more able students extending their knowledge or reading further around the subject. I could also see this being a source of conflict between teaching staff and students. I would like to be quite evangelical and say that strength and depth in understanding the concepts is the real benefit and that isn’t always seen in assessment scores but I appear to be leaning towards favouring the students in this case. It would be interesting to see how this would work where lecture series are built upon in subsequent years. Did those who did the ‘extra work’ take that possible deeper understanding forward into other lecture courses and in that resppect the true value is not immediate but cumulative?

    1. Thanks Kristy, interesting comments.

      Point about taking notes and when this is learned is vital. When is this taught? Have a feeling most 3rd level assume it’s done (by anyone else!) but should this be clearer? Problem is at third level, I imagine the range of styles of notes and deliveries differs more greatly than at school (??) I think this links in with the metacognitive work discussed in Journal Club #1.

      I personally go for gapped handouts, which means most of the content is there, but bits I want students to draw or sketch or work on are gapped. Agree with you that it seems a bit of a waste of time if outcomes are the same, when you could use the time much more valuably!

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