The common-sense arguments for and against providing students with slide handouts before a lecture are well rehearsed. Having the handouts means students need take fewer notes, therefore allowing them to sit back and actually listen to what’s said. Withholding the handouts, by contrast, entices students to make more notes, perhaps ensuring that they’re more engaged with the lecture material rather than mind-wandering.
Elizabeth Marsh and Holli Sink began their investigation of this issue by surveying university students and lecturers. The student verdict was clear: 74 per cent said they preferred to be given slide handouts prior to the lecture, the most commonly cited reason being that having the handouts helps with note-taking. The lecturers were more equivocal. Fifty per cent said they preferred to provide handouts prior to the lecture, but 21 per cent said they never gave out handouts and 29 per cent preferred to distribute afterwards. The most common lecturer reason for retaining handouts was students wouldn’t pay attention if they had the handouts.
To find out what really works better, Marsh and Sink had several dozen students watch a few 12-minute videos of real-life PowerPoint science lectures. Sometimes they were given the handouts for use during the lecture; other times the handouts were only provided later. Half the students were subsequently tested on the lecture material after a 12-minute delay; the other students were tested a week later. In both cases, a few minutes before testing, the students were allowed to review their own notes and the handouts (for some of the lectures, this was the first time the handouts were provided). The key finding is that having handouts in the lecture versus only receiving them at the review stage made no difference to test performance. Although the students who had the handouts in-lecture made fewer notes, this didn’t harm their test performance at either the 12-minute or 1-week delay.
A follow-up study with 34 students was identical to the first but the testing only took place 12-minutes after the lectures and this time the review session was self-paced for half the students but just two-minutes long for the others. Students provided with handouts during the lectures again took fewer notes but this time they actually out-performed those who only received the handouts after the lectures.
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 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.’
Marsh, E., & Sink, H. (2009). Access to handouts of presentation slides during lecture: Consequences for learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (5), 691-706 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1579