Handouts for learners: yes or no?

Image of note takers and handoutsPeople who deliver presentations or lectures for learning tend to favour one of two approaches: those who give handouts and those who don’t.  Those who regularly offer handouts may argue that it is important to ensure learners take away the correct information.  After all, note-taking errors and erroneous interpretations can lead to major problems.  Others point to the importance for learners to take personal responsibility.  Giving handouts, they argue, encourages them to be passive, rather than active participants.

As a doctor, the expectation is that you practice evidence based medicine.  But where is the evidence to indicate whether it is better to give learners handouts or encourage them to make their own notes?  The style chosen is often based on the presenter’s personal approach to learning.  So, who’s right and who’s wrong?

What do learners want?

When we talk to the learners we find an even broader preference.  Some have no interest in handouts and will leave them behind after the session.  Others write endless notes during a lecture or tutorial that they will never, ever read.  Some record short sharp bullet points in their prized notebook.  Others want printed notes to read in tandem with the session.  And some would like all of the notes beforehand so that they can devour them and reflect on them in advance.  So, again, where’s the evidence to support the best approach?

Well, unfortunately, a recent research round-up on the subject of note-taking suggests this is an area where the depth of empirical findings are low in comparison to the breadth of theory proposed.  Yet it still raises some useful points that have kick-started a number of discussion threads.

Back to basics

Let’s consider two very different purposes for note-taking by a learner.  The first is to act as an ‘external storage’ process.  In this case, the challenge is to record as much detail that was seen and heard as possible.  The notes are made so that true learning can happen at a later date.  The second is where the learner is making notes to help convert information to comprehension right here and now.  The former approach is about collecting fact, word for word, step-by-step.  There’s no interpretation at this stage.  The latter is all about interpretation, paraphrasing and recording personal meaning.  Both extremes require mental effort.  As we have a finite limit to our capacity, this effort can either help or hinder genuine learning – dependent on how the presentation is delivered.

How can we use this information?

In a presentation scenario, a good teacher will realise that their group of learners will most likely include both extremes of these note-taking approaches plus all variations in-between.  In addition, there will also be those who have no interest in taking notes who need constant stimulation to maintain concentration.  The good teacher will then use this knowledge to ensure their presentation is prepared and delivered with consideration for this entire broad spectrum of preferences and approaches.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Structuring and signposting makes it easier for everyone.  Clear direction is like the scaffolding of your presentation.  “I’m going to introduce you to the four main causes of problem X.”  “Cause number 1…”  “Cause number 2…”  “Cause number 3…”  “Cause number 4…” How often have you missed a key point simply because the presenter hasn’t made it clear that they have moved from one sub-topic to another?
  • Images and diagrams have a positive impact on both attention and retention, so long as they are well-chosen and relevant, rather than distracting.  They keep the attention of the observer group and boost comprehension for all beyond mere words.
  • Pace and quantity must be considered.  How often has the presenter moved on to the next slide while you were still copying that diagram or scribbling down point four out of five?  The point or detail is often lost.  As a presenter, you must consider the ability of people to be able to record what you are sharing.  This should inform the length of time that you spend on any sub-topic or display a slide.  This can also give you clues to the quantity of information that you are going to share.
  • Note-taking and handouts are both relevant.  Taking everything into account, encouraging and facilitating quality note-taking is a positive action.  At the same time handouts are particularly helpful when there are larger quantities of factual information or complex diagrams, when correct detail is essential or when you want learners’ focus to be on processing new ideas.

The best guidance may be to bear in mind that the point of your session is to enable your audience to learn – rather than for you to present.  Which brings us to another question:

To lecture or not to lecture?

Stephen McGuire – Head of Development