Oh no, not another handout

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Bullet points and bold text may be counter-productive, writes Henry Hepburn.The handout, a tool for learning so ubiquitous that it seems barely to warrant comment, may be "detrimental" to students.

This was a surprising finding for a study designed to look into whether podcasts were effective in colleges and schools.

But Higher English students at Perth College who answered questions on Macbeth after reading a "formatted" handout - one with features like bullets and bold highlighting important points - performed so badly that their performance quickly became the main focus for researchers Emma Clayes and Kyle Smith.

A follow-up study with 17 Higher psychology students led to results the researchers described as "particularly impressive". Their clear conclusion was that "formatted text may have a negative impact on learning."

Rather than fiddle with text in a way designed to make the crucial bits of information memorable, it seems teachers and lecturers would be better off trusting students to decide for themselves what is important.

The researchers are far from recalcitrant traditionalists : both are young and keen to see modern developments in schools and colleges where they are proven to work.

"We're not saying we should go back to using 1930s textbooks and all our problems will be solved," said Dr Smith. "But we're excited and surprised by what's happened with our research."

Dr Clayes said: "You can almost see (students') brains working when using proper, unformatted text. I had one student come up to me and say: 'I actually really enjoyed that - it really makes me work.'"

Dr Clayes and Dr Smith, lecturers at Perth College, have not found anyone at home or abroad who has carried out similar practical research.

The findings do, however, contradict some research on "cognitive load theory", which suggests that learning is impaired unless all irrelevant information is excluded.

But other theoretical research in the field backs up the Perth College researchers' findings by suggesting that material designed to enhance learning may actually be harmful, since students are not required to perform the cognitive process they would otherwise have to.

Dr Clayes and Dr Smith stress that the small scale of their work means more must be done before firm conclusions are drawn.

They are curious about whether the same results would be produced by a test group of school pupils. They also want to look at different class sizes and subjects, to increase sample sizes, and to compare academic and vocational courses.

This work could have "considerable implications for teaching and theories of learning", according to the researchers.

Their initial focus, on podcasts, came about after Dr Smith identified them as a learning tool that would be "a bit less intimidating" for students - but the findings appear to show that they offer "no panacea".

"I can't throw away all my old materials and give out podcasts," he said. "I do think they help - some students use them very well. But they're not going to solve all our problems."

The researchers presented their findings in a seminar at the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association, in Perth last week.

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