Handouts of slides and the right questions

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I have been in the business of teaching with digital presentations for a few years now. Since my early days as an instructor in the Israeli Air-Force, when computers were emerging and we were trying to understand how to use this tool to enhance our teaching abilities.

And as long as this tool has been around, there was this debate about whether, as a teacher, you need to distribute your slides before the class, so people can use it to jot down notes while you talk, or after the class, so it won’t distract the students and allow them to look up ahead in your notes.

This is a question I have been grappling with for a long time now (I usually give everything away before class, but in a slightly different version). So, I was excited yesterday to read in the BPS digest blog about a new study trying to find an answer to this question in an organized research methodology. This is how the conclusions of the study are explained by the blog:

The findings provide preliminary evidence that lecturers should provide their students with handouts during the lecture. Regarding the more extensive note-taking that took place when handouts were held back until after a lecture, the researchers speculated that this was ‘unlikely to be a deep encoding task’, which would normally be expected to aid memory retention, and may instead have acted merely acted as a distraction.

‘The data reported here represent only a first step and do not resolve this issue,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In no case, however, did having the handouts during a lecture impair performance on the final tests. Even when there were no differences in final test performance, students still benefited in the sense that they reached the same level of learning with less work.

While I totally agree with Bob Sutton’s take on this that: “This is not an earth-shaking problem or issue, but I have been amazed to see how vehemently some faculty feel about this issue, so I am glad to see a little evidence”, it still left me wondering. Are we asking the right question? Isn’t this a simplistic way to see the world? Black or white. Yes or no. With handouts or without? Evidence is necessary, especially in a debate that borders on the emotional without any factual representation, but the question in my mind should be a little different.

The question should not be whether giving out handouts before class is good or not, the question should be why, when and how we should give out handouts. My experience (as a student) is that most handouts are a waste of paper; they usually don’t explain the material very well and are a waste in every sense. In many cases, instead of giving a handout of the slide with six pages, a simple word handout is much more effective. However, I have seen some professors preparing and handing out great slides, because their class is built-in a way that supports the use of the slide as handouts as well. Some of the best uses I have seen are those that use a different set of slides for the class (as a handout) and a different one for the presentation, so they don’t lose the element of surprise and keep the text on every slide to a minimum, but are still able to provide the class with concise and useful slides to take notes on.

I guess research on this issue will continue into the future, but that is a good thing. I also know that this type of quantitative research has to focus on a small question in order to pinpoint a specific issue. But we not all live in academic experience. And in many areas of life, asking the right question is an important skill.  This happens in many fields of life, personal issues, politics, and business. We tend to go into an issue and see it as a yes-no question. Should we or shouldn’t we. However, sometimes, the question is not yes-no but why, how and when.

Elad

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