Suppose you teach a course in which you display slides. Two approaches exists:

  • distribute the slides (or any document that summarizes the content of the slides);
  • rely on students to take notes.

[EDIT: When I say "distribute the slides", it does not imply that taking additional notes is forbidden. It simply means that the documents are available for students if they need them. The question is whether this policy encourage student to rely more on the slides than they should (reasoning "I can read the course whenever I want, so I don't need to listen carefully in class").]

Is there any evidence of which is better. I am searching for evidence that could solve the following situations (list not exhaustive) without relying on personnal taste/preferences:

  • you don't have a lot of experience in teaching and you want to build an opinion on the subject
  • you share a class with an other professor, and one of you think slides should be distributed, the other not

Suppose that there is no problem of copyright, etc.. Class level may be a parameter (e.g. undergrad vs grad).

The question here is related, but no answer seem to provide evidence other than experience or testimony, which are not strong evidences. A study from education sciences, pedagogy or something similar would be much better. I suppose such study exist, yet I can't find such a study on google scholar or similar sites.

  • Suppose you teach a course in which you display slides. Two approaches exist. Actually, there's a third: distribute the slides and rely on students to take notes, which I consider to be better, but I don't have evidence from the literature. – user2768 Jan 15 at 12:47
  • Regarding, you share a class with an other professor, and one of you think slides should be distributed, the other not, each professor can teach the class the way they prefer. – user2768 Jan 15 at 12:48
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    @user2768 The third approach you propose is, if I understand correctly what you mean, included in the "distribute slides" approach, in the sens that a prof can not forbid a student to take notes and ignore the distributed documents. The question is more whether the (supposed) downside of distributing documents (e.g. encourage "laziness" of students, etc) are compensed by the benefits (e.g. more material available outside classroom, etc.). – Bromind Jan 15 at 13:26
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    @Bromind I now understand your intent. That's not what I understood upon reading, but my reading is based on prior experience. In particular, I have experienced professors who forbid note taking. Having understood, I suspect distributing documents doesn't encourage laziness amongst good students, since they'll use their notes, printed slides, and recommended textbooks, whereas not-so-good students won't use all of those resources, but that's just my opinion (which is out of scope). – user2768 Jan 15 at 13:34
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    I'm going to guess that there is no strategy that is "best" for every student. I'm also going to guess that the answers will include some variation on "It didn't work for me!" – puppetsock Jan 15 at 14:30

There is contradictory evidence I think on whether for the general student, providing materials is beneficial or not.

For example, a study finding a benefit in providing notes:
Raver, S. A., & Maydosz, A. S. (2010). Impact of the provision and timing of instructor-provided notes on university students’ learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(3), 189–200. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787410379682

A study finding that providing notes is detrimental:
Weatherly, J. N., Grabe, M., & Arthur, E. I. L. (2003). Providing Introductory Psychology Students Access to Lecture Slides via Blackboard 5: A Negative Impact on Performance. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 31(4), 463–474. https://doi.org/10.2190/KRW7-QHFY-AY3M-FFJC

Lots more on google scholar.

However, i think it is better established that providing notes is beneficial to those with various specific learning difficulties (SpLD) like dyslexia and dyspraxia (although I don't have the evidence to hand) and we are required to provide materials to this group of students. Given the large number of such students in a modern classroom, and the effort it would require to distribute materials to only this group, it is easy just to give it to everyone.

I tend to provide my slides, before the lecture, but - my slides contain little to no text, meaning some notes must be taken. I also draw a lot of diagrams during the lecture, that are represented as blank slides in the pre-lecture notes.

After the lecture I provide the slides with the blanks filled in, and my speaker notes.

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Anecdotal evidence, but based on learning theory.

There is no reason it can't be both. Actually it should be both. If you distribute your notes ahead of time, either electronically or on paper, the students can actually use those notes, when printed, as the basis for their own notes. I other words, the students can mark up your notes with their own annotations.

But if you just give them notes and don't, in some way, require that they take notes themselves, then too many of them will be too passive in the classroom, thinking they can rely on memory alone or that the distributed notes will always be available to them. In fact, long term memory and making knowledge useful requires more.

On the other hand, if you could, but don't, distribute notes then some students will spend most of their effort just copying what you show or write without any thinking about it, again lessening the effectiveness that you could achieve.

One technique that I used often was to make sure that students carry a few index cards. They are asked at the end of a class for what they consider the most important (or three most important) ideas from the lecture. The note cards are to jot down ideas as they occur, knowing that the question will come at the end. The cards are also useful for short summaries of key ideas. The cards can then be carried for review as the course proceeds. But the overall strategy of the instructor is to keep the students active during lecture and otherwise so that short term memory moves to long term memory and what is "remembered" is also available for application.

See the post on the Hipster PDA for more on the use of index cards.

I'll note that many students don't really know, yet, how to learn and may have to be taught these techniques. Some haven't yet hit anything that was hard for them. I was "lucky" enough to hit my natural limits early and so had to learn how to learn.

So, don't assume that they will "do the right thing" if you give them the right tools without comment.

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  • I've tried to take notes, but whenever I am writing, I am not listening or thinking. I did very, very much better academically after invention of the digital camera than before. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 15 at 13:01
  • @PatriciaShanahan, but I'll bet that you reviewed those images and took notes on them, even if not in real time. Or even quick notes as the lecture proceeded rather than just sit and snap. Note cards are good because they are small so you aren't as likely to get bogged down writing. There is an old "joke" that the purpose of lecture is to get the instructor notes into the student notes without going through the mind of either. (And I actually had a course designed with that in mind. Weird) – Buffy Jan 15 at 13:05
  • Most importantly, I was continually thinking during the lectures. For example, if the lecturer was writing a proof on the board, I would be trying to see where it was heading, and what the next line was going to be. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 15 at 13:37
  • Your suggestion of the hipster PDA seem a good way to merge both. Actually, I (personnaly) tend to distribute the document and encourage taking notes, but I recently debated with an other teacher who prefer not to distribute documents, and none of us could argue with something else than personnal preference, hence the question (which I tried to ask in a neutral way for both possibilities). – Bromind Jan 15 at 13:47

Everything I have read about such issues indicates that maximal learning occurs when multiple information channels are engaged. This is what the "see hear do" thing is all about. Multiple channels through the brain give maximum chance of retention.


So any means by which you can get students to have information flowing through multiple channels will help them. If you can get them looking and listening and at the same time writing it out, that's three channels. Hopefully that helps get the information into their heads. For some kinds of lessons it may be valuable to get them at a white-board and writing out the material for themselves, at least some of the time.

Some people can learn by just reading a book. They don't need to have it explained aloud. And they don't need to do the homework problems. They can just understand the material right away. I have met exactly three such people in my life. One of them was the first ever Rhodes scholar in math, and he managed to really screw up the grade curve in my undergrad. Another now gets mentioned in various popular science publications with "the great" in front of his name. And he also screwed up the grade curve in my undergrad.

Most people need to have the information in multiple channels. They need physical action as well as to see it and hear it. Or read it and see the graphs and diagrams and so on. And then to do the homework, hopefully with some struggle involved. If the homework is too easy it does not stick. If it's too hard they can't even do it.

This is part of why most science classes have practical labs. If you learn the abstract stuff but never do any physical "hands on" stuff, you probably are missing something. Oh how I miss the ripple tanks and air tracks from my high school physics labs.

Maybe hand out the notes at the end of the lecture. Maybe with hints that they might not get the notes if they don't pay attention. Or hints that the notes will have strategic items deliberately left out and the first student to find the missing part gets a reward.

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For students with disabilities having the notes ahead of time can be critical. Many deaf students literally cannot "listen" and take notes at the same time since they have to look at the talker to lip read or look at the interpreter. Interpreters can really benefit from having something to follow and at least a few minutes to brush up on terminology. For students with learning disabilities, there are lots of strategies that involve using notes ahead of time.

We were required by our student disabilities office to distribute notes 48 hours before class. This was helpful to me in that it made me prep early. Amazingly, the number of changes I would make to my slides, even new preps, after the fact, was pretty small.

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