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Handouts: The Many Roles They Play in Learning

Student Learning

Handouts: The Many Roles They Play in Learning

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Last September, we issued a call for information on handouts—how do you use them, how well do they work, what learning goals are they especially well-suited to accomplish? As with previous calls, you responded with an array of examples, advice, insights, and opinions. What’s clear from those submissions? Handouts play a wide range of different roles, and if anything, the pandemic has made what handouts accomplish in courses even more important. Here’s a rundown of the purposes handouts can accomplish, illustrated with your examples and explanations. The purposes do run together, sometimes overlap, and often a handout fills more than one role.

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Last September, we issued a call for information on handouts—how do you use them, how well do they work, what learning goals are they especially well-suited to accomplish? As with previous calls, you responded with an array of examples, advice, insights, and opinions. What’s clear from those submissions? Handouts play a wide range of different roles, and if anything, the pandemic has made what handouts accomplish in courses even more important. Here’s a rundown of the purposes handouts can accomplish, illustrated with your examples and explanations. The purposes do run together, sometimes overlap, and often a handout fills more than one role.

Handouts provide essential information about the course. Sometimes they contain a repeat of something so important that teachers can’t afford to have students miss it. Other times they put in writing what the teacher hears herself telling student after student. And some handouts are the only source of course essential information. Handouts that provide essential information can communicate it efficiently and with some permanence.

Example: Sarah Katz (Texas A & M, San Antonio) offers her students a handout that provides directions (graphically illustrated) for listening to recorded lectures. Often students need directions like these when the teacher is not available and it’s frustratingly difficult to figure out for themselves. A handout on the course website can offer precisely what’s needed at the moment.

Handouts provide additional information about the content, the course, or learning-related resources. There’s always more to learn about the content, and some course requirements may involve skills or knowledge students don’t have.

Example: Kurt Fenske (Northern Arizona University) writes,

I teach in an online public administration program. In our capstone class we require students to research a public organization or public policy issue for their capstone project. It asks students to incorporate at least eight scholarly sources of information. Even though it’s a capstone course, we have found that many students are not adept at locating scholarly sources in our university library.

Most of our students are working, and many have family obligations. Their schedules necessitate taking online courses, and that means they do not have easy access to libraries and librarians. Using a handout has been a great way to clearly explain how to locate scholarly sources for their research. The handout essentially walks students through the process with the use of visuals and explanation. This particular handout has turned out to be critical to student success in the capstone class.

Handout link: Locating Scholarly Research Sources

Handouts connect with students. Maybe it’s an online course where connections aren’t made physically. Or maybe it’s a very large course where size prevents establishing individual relationships. Or maybe the teacher is more comfortable conveying personal information in writing than aloud in class.

Example: Anyone remember that old Dewar’s scotch ad that profiled some notable or otherwise interesting person? Along with a portrait, the ad announced the person’s profession, offered a quote, identified the latest book read, and, of course, named their favorite Dewar’s scotch. A faculty member I knew used that as a template to create a handout that profiled himself. He attached it to the course syllabus. It was a perfect way to reveal a bit of personal information without compromising his serious, always intellectual teaching persona.

Example: “I send a welcome letter to my students a week before the course begins,” writes Jennifer Reichart (University of North Dakota). “So often, we instructional faculty focus on having a course organized and set for the first day of the semester that we forget to formally welcome our students to class, or at least that’s what I have done.”

Here are some excerpts from her letter:

Hello class! 

Although our online course doesn’t begin until January 13th, I wanted to take a moment to say that I'm looking forward to meeting each and every one of you, and I hope to get you excited about the semester and my course.

Please note that you do not have any required textbooks for the course. That doesn't mean that there won't be reading assignments—I just don't want to burden you with a potentially pricey textbook when I can direct you to all of the resources you need online, via PDF or Word document, or through the library. We will also watch a fair number of videos, but all of them are online, free, and provided with closed captioning. If you feel that you would like a handbook to assist you with your writing, I recommend The Little, Brown Handbook, which is available online, in the bookstore, and through the library.

As is the nature of writing courses, there will be periods when we will have some intensive writing assignments, but there will also be periods when work will be lighter, and we will have more fun being creative and innovative. I hope to balance things out through the duration of the semester.

I look forward to getting to know you during the course of the semester! 😊

Handouts offer advice. Some of the advice may be easier to deliver and receive in print form than face-to-face. Imagine a handout headed, “If you aren’t happy with your grade, here are 10 things you can do about it.” Sometimes the advice relates to a specific assignment or course activity, say advice on studying for an exam, taking notes or reading the text.

Example: Angela Robles (Azusa Pacific University) notes, “When we rapidly moved online this spring, I looked everywhere for a ‘netiquette’ document or statement that I could share with my students that addressed expectations for our online classroom environment.” She couldn’t find one that addressed the issues she considered important, and so she developed one that lays out expectations for scholarly and academic writing, videos, collegiality, and diversity.

Handout link: Netiquette for Students

Example: “Tips for Dealing with Free Riders” (a Teaching Professor resource)

Handouts provide opportunities for practice. Students have been known to complain that what shows up on the test doesn’t look like what was presented in class. A handout can provide opportunities to apply what was learned in class in different contexts. Handouts can also structure the practice in ways that benefit learning.

Example: Lew Ludwig (Denison University) writes,

As a math professor, I have been using handouts for years. In a typical intro calculus class, my daily handouts structure the learning with definitions, examples, images, etc. Instead of having students reconstruct complicated drawings, I provide these on handouts and then project my copy on the document camera, where I can write on it. By not turning my students into Xerox machines, we can focus more on the concepts, and I can ask them more meaningful questions: “What do you notice?” “What do you wonder?” I also make extensive use of the think-pair-share strategy. Students try an example from the handout on their own, then share their result with their neighbor. I assign neighbors on a weekly basis and require students to sit next to their neighbor during class.

Example: Elizabeth Cox (Southern Utah University) writes, “The course that I teach, SUU 1050: College Student Success, is a three-credit support course for first-time, first-semester students. It is designed to support their transition into college.” Her “Complete Notes Challenge Handout” starts to prepare students for an assigned reading on procrastination by calling on their previous knowledge. In several ways it encourages students to be reflective about how they read; finally, it identifies the reading strategy students are to use. The handout provides an opportunity to practice but in a very particular way.

Handout link: Complete Notes Challenge Handout

Handouts help organize course content. Sometimes the material students are learning is challenging in and of itself. Needing to organize it as well adds still more difficulty to the learning task. Handouts that identify main and supporting points or otherwise position the content so that relationships are clear enable the student to focus on comprehending the content. Handouts like these effectively support content review and study efforts.

Example: Jennie Schmidt (Mount Mercy University) writes,

I use a type of handout I refer to as an “anchor.” Anchors are ideally one-page handouts that summarize, highlight or detail key course themes, content, and ideas. I first started using these anchors in my college classrooms when I realized that though I had organized a course around central themes and key ideas from authors read in the first few weeks, students weren’t integrating those authors’ ideas into the rest of the course.

My use of anchors has continued to evolve. Now, some of these anchors students create, some we co-create, and some I create. My 100-level Foundations of Education course is designed around six big questions that we answer in each of the three course modules. I’d used this structure for many years, but once I started having students create anchor sheets, the logic and structure of the course become transparent and more impactful to them.

Anchors are a key part of the work I do in all my courses, and I can’t imagine ever not using them. When the course ends my students have the big ideas of the course memorized—not for the test, but because they have used the information, retrieved it, connected it, and applied it. 

Example: Lew Ludwig puts the day’s learning goals at the top of the skeleton outlines he provides students. Here’s an example on calculating limits from a calculus course:

• what is the slope of the tangent line to a function and why important?
• understand derivative both visually and algebraically
• two ways to compute the derivative of a function and when each is useful
• algebraic computation of limits

Example: From Carla Williams (University of Central Missouri):

Students in my Acquisitions of Language and Literacy course were having trouble keeping track of various course materials. We study Jean Piaget, and it was his theories of language learning that gave birth to the idea of Piaget Kits. The name reminds students that we all have file structures in place to which new information can be added, thereby correcting the file structure and increasing learning. The kit, available in hard copy or electronic format, is a binder with an 18-tab system that serves three purposes: it (1) helps organize course content and assignments, (2) provides essential and additional information, (3) and provides added opportunity to interact with the content over time. I see these purposes accomplished when it is finals week and students have all necessary learning for the final exam packaged and ready to go in one place.

Handouts engage and motivate students. The following two examples illustrate how handouts can engage students in learning almost without them noticing.

Example: Jodie Mader (Thomas More University) gives students in her World Civilizations class the “Black Death Quiz.” It tests students’ knowledge of the Black Death plague with 10 questions for which there are right answers. Students take the quiz, then they swap and grade it. The grading scale spells out their fate—from having survived the plague to needing to look for a burial plot. Grades aren’t recorded. The purpose of the quiz is to generate interest in learning more about the Black Death and to have a bit of fun in the process of doing so.

Example: In Elizabeth Cox’s (Southern Utah University) College Student Success course students complete a “strategic planning worksheet” handout to prepare them to carry out an “Intentional Study Plan Experiment.” It starts with a wish described this way: “Consider your present situation. Identify a learning-related goal that you care about, find challenging, and is achievable within two weeks.” There’s an example that expresses a wish about reading in a philosophy course. Next, students identify the best possible outcome for their wish. They list obstacles, which might be feelings, bad habits, knowledge gaps, or fears; that’s followed by a study plan solution statement. Finally, students develop a daily action plan and then record what happened each day. The layout of this five-page handout makes it easy to use. It’s motivational because what seemed aspirational now looks entirely doable.

Handout link: Intentional Study Plan Experiment

Handouts tend to be one of those taken-for-granted aspects of instruction. We use them, indeed rely on them, but without giving them much thought. Hopefully, identifying the purposes they help us accomplish, illustrated with some great examples, will encourage us to look at the handouts we use with more insight, more appreciation, and maybe some motivation to make them even better.