Monday, February 19, 2007

Handout Weirdness

My students have been doing short presentations in class. Some give their classmates handouts with appropriate definitions and such, and some include a citation (yay!).

Here's the handout weirdness: one student gave a handout with the definitions printed out except for underlined blanks for specific words or phrases. She said something about how hard it is to take notes, but that sometimes getting a handout means no one bothers to take notes. Having her peers fill in specific words or phrases was her alternative; she hoped they would be more active in their learning.

It struck me as weird, partly because the missing words and phrases weren't necessarily really important ones.

Imagine, for a moment, getting a handout of the preceding sentences with the underlined parts missing, and being prompted to fill in the blanks with the exact words she's reading aloud. Sometimes, the exact words matter; but sometimes they don't. (Notetaking lets students paraphrase and quote so that they organize the material a bit for themselves AND gain the benefit of using their hand to write which contributes to their learning.)

It reminded me of the class I hated most in high school (and there was serious competition for that honored position), a psych class in which we were expected to read a handout with specific words and phrases underlined, and then were expected to COPY those exact words and phrases onto a handout that was exactly the same except for blank spaces. (That and the horrible seventies sexist version of Freud and such promulgated. Really, "penis envy" or not wanting to be treated like chattels, which explains female attitudes better?)

The other students seemed familiar with this teaching practice, and were very concerned to get the exact words down as she said them, even asking her to repeat what she'd said several times.

Have you folks seen this? Is it being pushed in ed classes or something, or used in high schools?


I can't seem to convince the three students named Joe in my class to put their surnames on their work. Is that really so much to ask?


  1. People do not take good notes anymore. My middle schooler brings home handouts similar to the one your student did so I am guessing that it is an Ed. thing.

  2. This is pretty standard practice in the active learning scholarship. I've seen it mentioned a fair amount. I don't do lecture courses, so I don't do them, but I can see their use, especially if the important words are left out. I've heard people talk about not giving such handouts in class but posting them later on Blackboard for students who missed. Then, they get a sense of what they missed but have to do something to find out what, exactly.

  3. It's called guided note-taking. Can't say I've seen it at the college level, though. It's a good technique to use at the high school level because it teaches students how to recognize key words and main points - if done correctly, of course. The format is a handout with an outline - intentional blanks and specific numbering included, not word-for-word sentences - that follows the lecture the teacher gives. Your student had the right idea but the wrong application.

  4. Anonymous7:49 AM

    It is, I am somewhat sad to say, an Ed thing. And unfortunately often (mis)used in exactly the same way as your example. I've had a very difficult time helping college students understand the importance of words -- they seem to believe all words are equal, especially if they say them. If I say them, they are all equally not important. If this is a student with promise, you might make a note on her handout to the effect that it would be more helpful if she omitted certain important words (highlighting your suggestions) and why that would be important.

  5. Anonymous1:38 PM

    This isn't about the kind of handouts you are really talking about, but it's useful...I've just been reading a research paper about cognitive styles and note-taking. The bottom line seems to be that having the lecturer prepare an outline, and it doesn't have to be incredibly detailed, that students can fill in during the lecture, is best for learning (independent of cognitive style).

    Making students take their own notes entirely disadvantages the "field-dependent" cognitive style learners because they are less able to discern the underlying structure of the material.


    Oh Bardiac, I thought of you...our university recently put on Titus Andronicus!

  6. There's one day when I use something like this -- it's the first lecture that I give on arguable claims. But my blanks are for key terms, not weird word-for-word sentences.

    It's not a style that I'm overly fond of, but on that day, at the beginning of the quarter, I've found that a handout with blanks gets students to write stuff down -- and without it, they tended not to take notes at all.

    As for your three guys named Joe...well, I'll trade you for my three students who still don't understand how to save a document with a specific filename, after instructions, walkthroughs, and even individual meetings: "you mean I'm supposed to type what I want to call it?" they ask? "I can do that?"

    I don't know whether to laugh or scream.

  7. Theodora, I'm jealous! Was the production good?

    Jane Dark, You win. Most of my students are pretty computer savvy, and many are WAY more computer savvy than I am.

    Thanks all. It weirds me out to see that the high school thing is back, and it disappoints me terribly that we aren't trying to teach students more to take good notes while reading or listening.

  8. Bardiac, it's only a couple of my students; yours are equally stultifying, I think...

    I have some success with getting students to take notes by asking them, just before they leave the classroom, to write down three things they learned that day.

    Most figure out that if they're writing things down, it will be easier to come up with those three things.

    But this requires me to remember that I'm going to do this -- and sometimes, there just isn't time!

    Still, it seems idiotic that in the middle of all the orientation party stuff that the colleges and universities can't fit in a seminar on notetaking.

  9. Anonymous8:22 AM

    Jane, if your U is like My U, they do try really hard to provide information on academic success. Students...get it or not, as they choose, to a certain extent.

    Bardiac, (sheepishly) I didn't go to Titus. The students promoted the play with a banner showing severed hands...couldn't quite, mm, do it, especially since the last couple of plays I've gone to at Our U have not been so great.

  10. (To butt in here...) What I find particularly frightening about the handout activity described above is that it doesn't promote critical thinking or meaning making to any extent. It reinforces the idea that the lecturer's words are more important than the students' thoughts about those words. That kind of activity might be useful to promote listening comprehension in foreign language classes or in elementary school, but I can't possibly see how it's appropriate for high school or college literature students who are supposed to be synthesizing new ideas rather than just memorizing words & definitions.

    As for the Joes...I assumed you've already tried explaining to them why you need them to put their last names on their papers & they still don't get it. Do you have the expectation that your other students will put their full names on their papers? If so, I suppose you could resort to taking points off for failure to include a last name on the assignment.

  11. Bardiac,

    I had two kids we'll call Joe Smith last semester. As it happens, Joe B. Smith was an A student, and Joe A. Smith, not so much. After weeks of asking nicely, I told both men that I would average the Joe Smith grades, and give that average to both Joe Smiths if I didn't start seeing some middle initials in a hurry. Joe B. always put his middle initials on his papers from that day forward.

    Perhaps there's something mean like that that you can work out for the 3?

  12. Anonymous5:01 PM

    I'd go a step further than heocwaeth with the 3 Joes. I'd state that I'd give the lowest Joe grade to all the Joes without last name since it's incredibly stupid that they won't write their last names. Maybe I'd even take a letter grade off the lowest. Too mean? Bet you'd only have to do it once before they get it. How do they sign their checks? Register for classes? Apply for jobs? These are college students?