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.