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It's clear that students benefit from activities that focus their study time and help them draw connections between textual information and lecture content. PowerPoint handouts are well suited for study guides of this sort.
Many instructors, however, are reluctant to distribute handouts of PowerPoint presentations prior to class for fear that students will see them as substitutes for lecture and fail to attend the actual session. Others balk at the idea of distributing handouts as students enter the lecture hall, worrying that students won't pay attention during class or that they will fail to develop good note taking skills. Providing verbatim copies of lecture presentations, the standard practice, may well encourage students to fall into these traps, suggesting that everything one needs to know is included in the handout.
It doesn't have to be this way, however. When used appropriately, PowerPoint handouts can improve student learning by structuring study time, encouraging critical thinking, preparing students for lecture, and providing opportunities for active learning during the course of the session. What follows are excerpts from two PowerPoint presentations.
The first slide of each pair is part of a handout which was given to students prior to the day's lecture. Students were asked to work through the handout as they read the textbook in preparation for the lecture, answering all questions and bringing their completed handouts to class.
The second slide of each pair was used during the lecture itself.
By comparing the two presentations, you'll notice that the handout differs in significant ways from what is displayed on screen during the lecture itself. These differences represent interventions that instructors can make to help students engage the material actively and efficiently before and during class. By using the handout as a vehicle to ask questions or assign exercises, instructors promote active participation.
The student handout includes an introductory statement that helps students structure their study time. This information isn't represented in the presentation itself, but it would typically be communicated orally by the instructor at the beginning of the session as a way of gaining student attention and providing a structure of content for the day's material.
Rather than distributing handouts that mirror on screen information, consider leaving blanks in the handout which students are required to fill in as they move through their reading. There are many strategies you can use. Below we illustrate two possibilities.
In the first example, students record the causes of deforestation for each of the ecosystems in their handouts prior to class. Besides providing an opportunity for students to reflect on and process the material during study, it also can be used in a variety of ways by instructors during the lecture session. Instructors can poll students for their answers or have students rank the causes from most to least significant, providing an opportunity for discussion and active learning during the class hour.
This exercise, like the one above, asks students to fill in specific factual information. It goes a step farther, though, in asking students to work with that information by applying it to a real case and identifying causal relationships.
In both examples above, you'll notice that the slide titles in the student handouts and the on screen presentations are the same. This is important, as it helps students connect their preparation work with the content of the lecture. You may also consider numbering the handout slides if you intend to refer to them during class.
Your handouts can include one or several slides which are left intentionally blank. These can be used during the period as spaces for students to record their responses to questions you pose in class. As with other active learning strategies such as think-pair-share or note check, you present the question to students on a PowerPoint slide and give them a minute or two to answer it.
PowerPoint handouts can cue students to stop and process information while they're studying by posing questions based on the day's reading. Think of these as opportunities for students to check their understanding before moving on to new information. There are many ways to construct such understanding checks, but typical examples are short answer and essay questions.
The first example shows a typical use of the strategy. When the concept of wetland drainage is presented in class, as we see in the second (lower) slide, students are better able to process the information deeply because they've had an opportunity to reflect on it during their reading. Understanding checks force students to construct information actively, rather than absorbing it passively during the lecture.
Our second example shows variation on the theme of understanding checks.
It is important to note here that there is no "best" way to use PowerPoint handouts. Practice should be driven by your course objectives and your student body. In some cases, instructors may wish to distribute a handout before class, using the strategies we've noted above, and another verbatim copy of the lecture presentation during class.
One chief advantage of providing verbatim copies of lecture presentations is that students have accurate information to which they can refer later when studying for tests or exams. Accuracy is particularly important in disciplines such as mathematics and foreign languages where the representation of symbols is critical.
Secondly, students shouldn't be mere stenographers. By providing an outline of your lecture content via handout, you can encourage students to take notes on what's important–application, synthesis, evaluation–not on simply writing down what appears on the slide. The handout, then, is a structure which actually encourages good note taking practice.
Thirdly, by structuring the lecture with opportunities to pause and poll students, you'll insure that you stop at critical points to change the pace and format of the presentation.