I am preparing a lecture course for this semester and I am planning to teach from slides. I will consider these slides my notes for the course. However, the following points may also apply to handwritten notes that a lecturer might use as a reference.

I can see several advantages and disadvantages associated with providing the students with the notes for a given lecture prior to that lecture:


  • Students have to write less (because the core of the material is already present), so more material can be covered;


  • Students may lose focus more easily when they have digital notes because they do not have to copy everything down (this was my experience as an undergrad);
  • Students may choose not to attend class because notes are available elsewhere (of course, they may choose to do so anyways...).

One alternative I have considered is to distribute all of the notes relevant to an exam some suitable time period prior to that exam. However, this may reduce the effectiveness of the advantage, although it will mitigate to a certain extent the disadvantages. So, my question is as in the title: Is it common for professors to distribute digital notes to the class? If so, what methods are common?

  • 12
    One compromise that I liked to use in the past: you can provide slides that have a few "blanks" that require students to fill in important details from an in-class example problem that you work out for them.
    – Mad Jack
    Aug 19, 2014 at 17:30
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    "Students may choose not to attend class because notes are available elsewhere" this is not, strictly speaking, a disadvantage. If a student is able to study the material without a teacher why would you want to waste his time following lectures? It's only bad if the student isn't able to do this. This may happen if 1) the student isn't able to judge his own skill (which means he'll fail in some other way, probably) or 2) the course is advanced, or there are some parts that require special care. In this case you ought to clearly state that attendance is important for this reason.
    – Bakuriu
    Aug 19, 2014 at 18:23
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    @Bakuriu You make a good point. However, in my experience, most, if not all, undergraduates overestimate their ability to self-learn the material. I know that I certainly did this as an undergrad, and now I'm on the other side looking back! Moreover, I believe that students who would do well by self-learning would find other ways to obtain the material if they decided to skip the lecture. It is mostly my purpose to try and catch the people who might "fail in some other way, probably" :-)
    – darthbith
    Aug 19, 2014 at 18:34
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    Students have to write less ... so more material can be covered — I don't think that's an advantage.
    – JeffE
    Aug 20, 2014 at 3:07
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    Learning is already hard, don't make it harder by deliberately holding off critical materials. In university and college your students are adults who should take charge of their own learning. If some missed the class and hurt their learning, that's their loss. Don't make learning more difficult for the more enthusiastic students just to entice the less enthusiastic ones.
    – Lie Ryan
    Aug 20, 2014 at 12:39

16 Answers 16


I used to distribute slides before class, and found that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. I now distribute them shortly after each class. I tell students to jot down important points during the class, but not to worry about things like lists because they'll have the slides available. I also suggest that they merge their classroom notes onto the slides. The ones who listen to me tend to do very well.

I base my decision on the premise that learning should be effortful. I think, hope, and expect that providing slides after class is a compromise between no slides and slides before class.

As an aside, I also record my lectures and make the podcasts available. I do that because I have students for whom English is a second language, and non-traditional students who are sometimes called away for work. I'm a little torn about the recordings because some students do try to use those as a substitute for coming to class. I console myself with the thought that they were destined to fail the course anyway and would do even without the recordings.

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    One can undoubtedly learn from recordings. Sadly, the students who use them as an excuse to miss class then do not make use of the recordings, either. That's why I describe them as "destined to fail anyway." The best students do make use of the recordings as a supplement to the classroom experience. That's why I continue to make them available. Also this: bbrown.spsu.edu/papers/podcasting/podcasting_protects_ip.html
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 19, 2014 at 16:01
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    When notes are given afterwards, you notice half of what you wrote down was useless, and some things you couldn't write down fast enough, was lost. It's better to give the notes beforehand, so students see what's already on paper (and don't need to duplicate), and can add the tidbits they think are important, interesting or just missing from your notes. Duplicating is just not optimal use of their time & attention.
    – Konerak
    Aug 20, 2014 at 12:38
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    -1 for "learning should be effortful". Good learning requires effort, but creating artificial effort doesn't translate to better learning.
    – Lie Ryan
    Aug 20, 2014 at 12:41
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    Providing copies of the material afterward is not "creating artificial effort;" it is cutting off an opportunity for intellectual laziness. If I gave 35 students a stack of lecture notes, reading assignments, and recorded lectures at the beginning of a term and told them to come back in 16 weeks for the final exam, two or three would earn grades of A and the rest would fail. Spreading the material out improves the pass rate; delivering the lectures in person on a schedule improves it more. My pass rate went up when I began providing slides after class instead of before.
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 20, 2014 at 13:02
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    @BobBrown As a student myself, I have gotten very good grades in the past without going to class at all the whole semester, and relying on recordings and exercises alone, sometimes just using lecture slides when the pace of the recording is too slow. I just want to make a point that different students have different ways of learning, and providing an option is good for everyone.
    – simonzack
    Aug 21, 2014 at 14:33

Different students have different needs. If you make notes available, students who benefit from not having notes have the option of not using them. If you do not make notes available, students who need them have no option.

I write fairly slowly, and do not seem to be able to listen and think at the same time as writing. For me, needing to write notes during a lecture drastically reduces the benefit of being there - the only product is what I manage to write down of whatever was written on the board, with no gain in understanding until I study the notes and text book afterwards.

You may have a student in your class who is not hearing what you are saying whenever they are writing.

  • 5
    I also have this problem. Don't try to force students into one learning style because you will end up harming those who can't use the one style you arbitrarily have chosen.
    – dss539
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:26
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    I believe this can be improved by the lecturer giving adequate time for jotting notes, as well as pointing out what to write. Facts (Beethoven wrote many piano sonatas), definitions ("Net income" is ...), formulas (Magnetic flux = ...) can be looked up easily. Reasoning is usually what to learn (The defendant seems right, but his logic is flawed because ...). Students should listen the reasoning process in its entirety. Then, give a brief summary, and a 30s pause.
    – kevin
    Oct 5, 2014 at 14:15
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    @kayson "Adequate time" varies from person to person, depending on writing speed, and on the nature of the material. My degrees are in mathematics and computer science. Lectures often included mathematical definitions and proofs that did not have a surplus character in them. I would generally need at least as long as the time it took the professor to write the material on the board. Oct 5, 2014 at 17:54
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    @PatriciaShanahan I agree writing speed differs from person to person. My major is also computer science. I particularly liked a lecturer who did all the steps on the board, together with the class. The only time he gave printed slides beforehand is when the computation is very tedious. After the talking he usually tells a little joke or just chat some random stuff. I can't say how long, it feels like a minute or two; but I believe that was adequate, without slowing down the whole class.
    – kevin
    Oct 6, 2014 at 15:00
  • @kevin A minute or two would not be adequate for me, unless he were pausing every minute or two. Sep 2, 2017 at 14:04

To answer the main question, yes it is common.

I guess it's a matter of your personal idea of your role as a teacher. My approach is to do everything I can to make the material easily accessible to the students. Some students don't want/can't attend classes, they have their own priorities.

Of course teachers are by no mean obliged to take these cases into consideration, and I'm perfectly fine with courses taught without anything else than the blackboard.

But if I create slides anyway, I see no sane reason to restrict access to these before, during or after the courses are taught. I will also mention textbooks, articles and other sources I used to create the content.


I don't know how common it is, but I can tell you that in the classes I teach (general chemistry), I use a combination of lecture slides and writing on the board. Here's a rough breakdown of my approach:

  • Approximately one slide per major concept, with very limited text (mostly definitions) and images/graphs to explain the concept. I make these available online (they can print before class if they want to)
  • I write quick outline notes of major topics on the board before starting the section or chapter, then back-fill the details during the lecture, and give a review summary at the end.
  • For problem-solving, I use one or more slides with an example and outlines of the steps, then demonstrate on the board using the same example. I follow that up with a different example, and finally have the students work through a problem on their own in class.

Using slides in this way works well for me because it allows me to spend less time writing and drawing on the board, and more time engaging students with discussion and question/answers. I think it helps the students as well - they are free to pay attention to what I'm saying, rather than just trying to copy down everything I write. Once they realize that they only need to write down the extra details, the lectures become more fun and I think they get more out of them. Since the slides are always available online, they can print them out whenever they like, or just look at them on their computers/tablets/phones.

Writing the summary notes and outlines on the board helps me organize the lectures, keep things on track, and prepare the students to pay attention. It also gives those with less-well-developed note-taking skills a template to use.

By combining the two, I think this approach addresses both of the disadvantages you brought up:

Students may lose focus more easily when they have digital notes because they do not have to copy everything down (this was my experience as an undergrad)

Since the outline summary notes are on the board, students have something to write down, and I can use their tendency to automatically copy whatever I write as way of getting their attention if they seem to be "zoning out"

Students may choose not to attend class because notes are available elsewhere (of course, they may choose to do so anyways...)

Since the slides are mostly graphical illustrations with limited text, there is still an advantage to coming to class. I do want to point out that I believe it's part of my job as a teacher to make coming to class valuable for reasons besides just getting a copy of the notes, but, I recognize that for some students who are good at self-study, that might not be the case. I try to follow the textbook pretty closely, so students who can't make it to class for some reason are still able to catch up pretty easily between the book, my slides, and notes copied from classmates.

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    "it's part of my job as a teacher to make coming to class valuable for reasons besides just getting a copy of the notes" sums it up perfectly.
    – dss539
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:28
  • I wish many of my lecturers had the same attitude as you - make the class interesting to come instead of taking attendance!
    – kevin
    Oct 6, 2014 at 15:08

Some background: In Finnish universities the mentality usually is* that student should have the responsibility for their studies and learning (from what and how many courses to take each year to how to study course material). For example, it is very uncommon that attendance at lectures is mandatory, and even mandatory weekly exercises are not very common. In that sense, providing lecture notes has several advantages:

  • Students have to write less (because the core of the material is already present), so more material can be covered
  • Students may focus [sic!] more easily when they have digital notes because they do not have to copy everything down (this was my experience as an undergrad)
  • Students may choose not to attend class because notes are available elsewhere (of course, they may choose to do so anyways...)

*or at least it has been in the recent past; some things seem to be changing

Some lecturers provide the notes only after the lectures, because students are very good at pointing out typos and other mistakes in the material during the lectures. Some lecturers provide a preliminary version before the lectures, and a corrected version after the lectures. Some lecturers have completed the material on previous years and give everything at the start of the course. Some lecturers have completed the material on previous years and give material related to each lecture shortly before or after that lecture.

Nowadays, at least in Aalto University, the material is almost always provided as PDF files (or other relevant format) using a web service provided by the university. In the past there was a very complicated system where the lecturer provided the material to a certain company from which a student then ordered the printed material which was then distributed to a folder which was maintained by an association of the students in the degree programme of the student; but for some reason that system was abolished a few years ago.

The contents of the material given by the lecturer varies from a complete set of notes that is almost like a book, to bullet points listing what parts of the course book were covered during that lecture. Nevertheless, I think I've never taken a course where you wouldn't be able to study the material without attending the lectures.

One alternative I have considered is to distribute all of the notes relevant to an exam just prior to that exam. However, this may reduce the effectiveness of the advantage, although it will mitigate to a certain extent the disadvantages.

I've never seen this happening. Some students have asked lecturers who don't provide extensive material during the course to do that before the exam, but most responses I have heard have the following points: Providing the lecture notes just before exam would encourage bulimic learning - that is, putting a lot of stuff in your head for a few days before the exam and quickly throwing it up during the exam without actually learning anything. Most students who don't want to attend lectures might still not attend if they know they will get the material anyway; by providing the notes so late you'd only harm their learning.

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    "bulimic learning" - Great phrase! Very evocative. Thank you for your thoughtful response! :-)
    – darthbith
    Aug 20, 2014 at 12:06
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    "bulimic learning" aka the "sponge/faucet method" in which the sponge is filled during the semester, wrung out on the final exam, and thereafter empty. Aug 20, 2014 at 15:01

Yes, it is common, at least at the freshman and sophomore level. In my experience, few professors provide digital notes (or digital copies of lecture slides) in the upper levels of undergrad teaching.

I always appreciated those who did so, because I was usually able to take better notes due to not having to write as much. However, recall was usually not quite as good, for the same reason. (FWIW, I almost never skipped lecture, whether or not there were digital notes available).

As for what methods are common, I've seen three main methods, mostly differing as to when the notes are made available to the students.

  1. Post all slides at the beginning of the course. This has obvious shortcomings if you change your lecture slides in any way--and good teachers almost always do!

  2. Post shortly before the class session in which the material is presented. Either immediately before (< 4 hours) or several sessions in advance. This seems to work best, because students have time to print them out to take notes on, if that's what they prefer. You can also tweak your slides as needed without confusing your students.

  3. Post lecture slides immediately after class. This seems to me the least optimal, in that students cannot read the slides ahead of the lecture or use them to take notes on, but could potentially still use this as an excuse to not come to lecture.

  • 4
    One advantage of having something before the lecture (be it slides, notes or textbook) that responsible students who know they have problems can prepare in order to take the most out of the lecture.
    – Raphael
    Aug 19, 2014 at 15:45
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    I agree, and assign reading before each lecture.
    – Bob Brown
    Aug 19, 2014 at 15:58
  • "This has obvious shortcomings if you change your lecture slides in any way--and good teachers almost always do!" This makes it sound like you're living in 1992. Post your slides online and update them whenever they change. There are many tools that can keep your online version automatically in sync (or you can use something like Google docs so they can see your edits immediately without any effort on your part).
    – dss539
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:32
  • @dss539, The platforms I was most familiar with support only pdf files, (so yeah, circa 1992!) which means manual updating of slides after every change. Few do this, so students are left with slides that don't match what is being presented in class. Google docs is certainly a better solution than the default option in this case. :) Aug 21, 2014 at 13:49
  • Sorry you're stuck with PDFs. You can still upload the PDF to Dropbox or Google Drive (which they can do on your behalf automatically if you set up auto-sync).
    – dss539
    Aug 21, 2014 at 13:56

I've seen lecturers print out copies of the slides, which the students would pick up as they entered the room, so they could make notes on them.

It requires the students to attend, but you could also say that you can collect copies in your office if people can't make it.

People sometimes picked up copies for friends, but it generally meant that people attended the lectures. It's really useful to have the slides to make notes on directly.

Kills a lot of trees though.

  • @Jigg What's the point of offering a class if the students don't need to come to class?
    – yuritsuki
    Aug 19, 2014 at 20:40
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    @sleekvisage The point is that the students who benefit from attending a class have the possibility to do so.
    – JiK
    Aug 19, 2014 at 21:09
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    @Jigg It depends on the level of your students. I teach some subjects where the students are extremely unprepared for university life, they overestimate their abilities, and by allowing them to skip class, I enable their destructive behavior. I certainly don't think one-size-fits-all works when teaching. That said, I don't mind if the strong students miss class (but they are the ones most likely to attend anyway).
    – earthling
    Aug 20, 2014 at 1:16
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    by allowing them to skip class, I enable their destructive behavior — Nonsense. College students are adults. They are responsible for their own behavior. If skipping class hurts their performance, let it. How else are they going to learn why not to skip class? (I skipped a lot of classes as an undergrad, and it hurt me. I do not enforce attendance in the classes I teach.)
    – JeffE
    Aug 20, 2014 at 3:12
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    I skipped a fair number of classes as an undergrad, and it did not hurt me because I carefully chose which classes to attend based on how familiar I was with the material and how easy it would be to learn it on my own. This gave me a little more time to devote to harder classes. Requiring class attendance could actually penalise students pursuing the more challenging majors.
    – mhwombat
    Aug 22, 2014 at 18:05

In my own undergraduate degree, I noticed a distinct positive correlation between professors who didn't make their slides available deliberately ("so that you don't just skip the lectures and read the slides at home") and professors whose teaching I would rate lower-than-average. One of these professors taught so badly that I skipped his lectures anyway and just read standard textbooks on the subject; I ended up with a top grade.

I would speculate that teaching with the attidude that "most students are here to learn with goodwill and I'm here to help them" produces better teaching than the attitude that students are principally lazy and I'm here to force them to learn. I'm a researcher with occasional teaching duties myself now and I'm very strongly in favour of teaching materials always being available to download.

Here are two arguments in favour of making slides available. First, what if a student misses one of your lectures due to illness, injury or because their train broke down on the way? (This is not a lame excuse - we had a cluster of genuine cases one summer when the trains couldn't cope with a heatwave.) Would you rather they were able to revise the lecture themselves with the slides, or not?

Secondly, my experience during revision for exams is that even with notes of my own, slide printouts are incredibly helpful. Partly this is because a printout of a slide is a visual aid to jog your memory and remember how the thing on the slide worked; partly it's because you have two sets of "notes" (your own and the slides) which is better than one, partly it's because making notes on a slide with arrows pointing to the relevant parts is so much more effective when diagrams or pictures are involved than having to copy down the relevant points as text alone. If you have a complex diagram on a slide that you're explaining, do you want your students to be spending your lecture trying to copy it down, or do you want them to be paying attention to your explanation, safe in the knowledge that they can print out the diagram (or have already done so, and can annotate it without having to draw it first)? A rhetorical question, I know, but I think this point is important. Finally, everyone sometimes makes mistakes in their notes and being able to cross-check against the slides is very reassuring.

I'd summarise by saying that for a motivated and good student, having the slides available allows them to use their revision time more effectively, and will lead to better results.

There's one caveat here though. As discused in [1] and just about every "how to give an effective presentation" book and talk, the worst kind of slide is simply a list of bullet points with text to copy down; a really effective slide to support your teaching will have very little text and so be of limited use on its own for someone who has not attended your lecture. Some of my best professors had slides like this and provided us with extra "lecture notes" handouts; it's a standard I aim for in my own teaching when time allows. I leave you with the thought that if your slides are this good, and support your own teaching rather than holding a lecture in parallel to yours, you won't need to worry too much about students opting to stay at home and just read your slides in the first place.

[1] Good slide design for teaching?

  • Thank you for your perspective and especially that link, I hadn't seen it yet!
    – darthbith
    Aug 22, 2014 at 10:41

When I last taught big lecture classes, I would distribute pre-class and post-class versions of my slides.

The pre-class versions would go online the night before. They would have fewer steps worked out (I teach math), some solutions left blank for students to ponder in advance, and jokes subtracted. They would be laid out three slideframes to a letter-sized page, with ample space for annotation. So they could print them out and take them to class.

The post-class versions would be the complete slideshow from class, with worked-out solutions, jokes, and errata included. They would go up at the end of the day of class (depending on how much I had to fix). They were not laid out to be printed; it was just one slide per page of PDF.


As a student, I am most comfortable and effective learning lecture notes that are provided in traditional book format (even if it isn't available on paper, but as a PDF).

I have a very strong bad feeling towards slides that double as lecture notes. I believe the requirements for these two are so different, that when people merge the concepts, the result is equally bad as a slideset as lecture notes. When the whole material is crammed into slide format, aiming to provide all information the student has to learn, it has several possible disadvantages (all first hand experience):

  • Teacher reads the slides verbatim, rendering his/her presence meaningless.
  • Teacher doesn't feel obligated to prepare for the lecture, because everything is on the slides (in extreme cases the slides are made by someone else and the teacher never prepares for the whole course).
  • Teacher doesn't feel obligated to put proper effort into making the slides, because "I'm just making supplementary material", resulting in quickly hacked together slides (examples include copy-pasted stuff alternating between first language and English, three complete courses with equations without defining any notations used, two complete courses with equations and no explanatory text at all).
  • The slides are inherently not detailed enough to be a complete resource for the course, so students go to Google for additional resources, and sometimes what they find is completely wrong.
  • The teacher's line of thinking may be so different from the students, that his/her idea of what should be on a slide results in slidesets that are incomprehensible and of absolutely no information to the students.
  • Students are disengaged from the lecture because the slides are available online. Even committed students find it hard to pay attention.
  • PowerPoint and similar software makes it easy to place randomly formatted random stuff at random places on the slide. A teacher with no visual/typographical sensitivity and/or proper knowledge of the software may easily create slides that are painful to even look at because of the messy and amateur layout and formatting. (Examples include a complete course in all caps, physics plots handdrawn in PowerPoint/MSPaint style, equations in plain text instead of the equation editor, source code listings in bullet points, etc.)

My suggestion is, take the time needed to type proper lecture notes (maybe next summer) in proper sentences, with all the details etc., and let the slides contain only those pieces of information that you simply cannot present verbally or on the blackboard. An alternative to writing lecture notes is providing pointers to existing (text)books in which the material is already covered (maybe the very books you yourself use to prepare for the course).

  • 2
    "provided in traditional book format" - isn't this what a textbook is for? I have no intention (nor time!) to write a textbook for my course... "go to Google for additional resources" - I suspect they will do so anyways... "slidesets that are incomprehensible" - This can be the result just as easily if the course is taught with chalk and blackboard... The first three disadvantages I certainly agree with, and I intend to avoid those at all costs :-)
    – darthbith
    Aug 20, 2014 at 12:14
  • @darthbith You're right. What I've seen are lecture notes that were created over the years for the specific course at hand, contained less material than an all-encompassing textbook about the subject (150-200 pages instead of 500), and contained only the material actually covered in the lectures. Some students helped scribe these, under the teacher's supervision and editing. I think creating well-thought-out slides for a course is not much less of an effort.
    – marczellm
    Aug 20, 2014 at 14:39

As a student, I was more focused when the professor had the slides behind him because the slides were just a summary and he had the details. I was more concentrated because I haven't had to write down every single word so the lesson was more fluent.


I provide my slides. I give them to the bookstore to print as a "course pack" sold for a nominal amount (none of which goes to me) and if I change them during the year, I put them online for download right before (or in some cases, immediately after) class. I typically have a separate small deck with comments and diagrams and such that arise from marking an assignment or test. I don't upload these ever. In the first class I explain all of this to the students along with the following important announcement:

I can and will test you on material that was only covered verbally in class and is not written on these slides. You can and will lose marks for not knowing something that was only talked about during a lecture.

If I find myself putting the screen up to draw something on the blackboard, I take a note to add that diagram to the deck for next year. I find that drawing diagrams out is a great way to learn, but that most students will not do so - having a predrawn diagram helps them less than having one they drew, but more than having nothing, so I do it. Since I am teaching them how to make design decisions and record those decisions in the form of a diagram, the more examples they have the better.

In over a decade, no student has ever objected to what I'm doing, though there have been some who (wrongly) thought it meant they could pass without coming to class. I also had a few in the early days who objected to my file formats, giving me the extra work of exporting each deck to PDF or HTML or whatever they could handle; that seems to have stopped although I still ask each year if anyone needs a different format.


Students may lose focus more easily when they have digital notes because they do not have to copy everything down (this was my experience as an undergrad)

I can either be writing down what you just said or I can be thinking about what you just said. Your choice.

If you try to force students to scribble down everything while you're talking they're going to be thinking "damn, where's my spare pen, this one is going dry" not "Hm. I wonder how that principle applies to...." when you say something.

You're dealing with adults, if they fail because they're overconfident, have bad judgement and think they don't need to attend class then they made that choice with their eyes open.

By all means, warn them and recommend against doing so but refusing to make slides, handouts or pdfs available is just devaluing your class for the students who do attend.

  • Thank you for your response! Perhaps that is a poor phrasing on my part - It was my experience that my mind would wander when I had a Professor's notes in front of me or knew I could get them online later. Of course, everyone learns differently, so certainly punishing the students for whom providing the slides would be an advantage is not my intent. Nonetheless, although we call the students adults, I think they are still learning how they learn and do not necessarily make their decisions with eyes wide open, which complicates this decision (hence the large number of responses to my post). :-)
    – darthbith
    Aug 21, 2014 at 18:35

For large lecture classes I usually present the material on an overhead projector. I make the slides available to the students before the lecture, reduced to quarter size for convenience. Most of my colleagues do something similar.

It's true that this may result in some students cutting lectures. I am usually quite up-front about this, and tell students in the first lecture that while it is up to them, trying to learn the subject from the lecture notes alone is the best way I know for the average student to fail the course: for most students it will be necessary to attend lectures, consider extra comments, explanations and examples which I may give, and most importantly of all, ask questions and engage with the subject.

You can "force" students to attend lectures by withholding the notes, or by leaving gaps in them. I don't do this because I find it to be unacceptable behaviour: in effect, it treats students as children who must be manipulated "for their own good". I make it clear that I expect students to take a responsible, adult attitude towards their studies; the result is that most of them do.

IMO this is so important that I'm going to paraphrase it in bold type: the vital thing to realise about students is that most of them are extremely cooperative. They want to learn: if you make it clear what you expect of them, you will usually get it without pulling any tricks like issuing incomplete notes.

Finally we should ask (or perhaps we should have asked initially): what is the purpose of lectures and other classes? It is for the students to learn the subject (of course!). It is not an ego trip for the lecturer. If my students learn the subject then the course has been successful, even if the lectures have been half empty. (But if the lecturer demonstrates a concern for students and a dedication to teaching, then the lectures never will be half empty.)

BTW, I may soon have to find an alternative for the overhead projector. Apparently my institution believes that such things are too old-fashioned to be tolerated in a modern, forward-thinking institution which never stands still, and is gradually withdrawing support for these ancient devices :-(

  • I have found that the document camera that is coming to replace overhead projectors gives much the same feel to both the instructor and students. YMMV :-)
    – darthbith
    Aug 22, 2014 at 10:43

The first course I taught, about 15 years ago, was an advanced undergraduate introduction to General Relativity. The way I taught that (and currently teach it again) worked for me and apparently for the students. There are a variety of overlaps with points made in the other answers.

The way it goes is:

  1. I've assembled detailed formal lecture notes, which have turned into a what I realise amounts to a short book! (feel free to have a look if you're at all interested). I distribute these in blocks before the relevant lectures. I request/advise the students to read ahead in these notes.
  2. The lecture I give is somewhat more informal than the written notes. It goes over the material in the same order, but skips some details, and says ‘it's a bit like...’ more often than the notes would. That is, the lecture itself is significantly distinct from the notes.
  3. I don't use powerpoint (or prepared acetate slides, before you ask), but I do use a document projector to display scribbled diagrams and mathematical derivations.
  4. I record the lectures, and make this available to the students as well.

So they've got lots of resources.

The points that are relevant to the question here are:

  1. This is well-known as a challenging course, but the students generally find the topic interesting and are motivated to work hard at it. That is, they are cooperating and trying to learn, and as others have pointed out, this is more important than anything else for the success of a course.
  2. This is a notationally intricate course, and I know from being on the opposite side of the lecturn that it's basically impossible to take accurate notes and actually pay attention to what's being said. I still tell them to take notes.
  3. I tell them that the topic only makes sense after the second time they do a course in it, but that the printed notes and the oral lecture count as two courses simultaneously! (to an educationalist I'd say something about ‘multi-modal learning ...blah... different learning styles ...wibble’). That, plus the recorded audio, cues them to take charge of how they approach the material, and to take a critical attitude to the available resources.

As far as I'm aware (I don't check) they do all turn up to the lectures. That's nice, as it suggests I do myself have a pedagogical function being in the room. If they don't turn up then either they're going to fail the course, or else they're able enough that they can master it with their own resources – both are fine by me.

The other course where I've used this approach was a pre-honours course, also regarded as somewhat challenging, but also with motivated students; also with a masters-level course which was a bit less interesting, but which could presume motivated students. It might not work so well with a service course, or a more bread-and-butter course.

The last point being said, I do have general sympathy with the insistence that undergraduates are adults, who can damn well be given responsibility for their own learning. But that fine attitude might run into difficulties in a different institutional or course, or a different student body, or a different (pecuniary) relationship with the students. There are important factors lurking there.


In the university that I attend, almost all of our professors provide digital notes. I believe this is a good practice because many students can't keep notes and comprehend what the professor says at the same time. As a countermeasure for the second disadvantage you mention, professors often give some extra techniques and explanations that are not included in the digital notes.

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