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The trouble with handouts by David Moran

Last week I had to teach a lesson for a friend who was sick. She was so sick she didn’t have time to tell me more than the name of the book and the page number. I asked around the staffroom for any suggestions on teaching this particular unit as I hadn’t taught it before. One teacher said that he had a great activity sheet that he had designed and had used it with that unit many times before. He goes to his laptop and prints it off for me together with the answer key. He was a saint. When I took a look at the handout though I was shocked. The content was fantastic; the activity was engaging, informative and would be lots of fun for the students. The layout of the sheet was just appalling; it was just a straightforward times new roman sheet. The students would take one look at it and without reading it, think it was boring, and they did. It took some work for me to get them into the activity and they eventually did and the lesson was a success.

I am sure this or something like this has happened to all of us. I know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and that the content of a lesson is more important than how it looks but what surprised me most about the story above was that the teacher had been using the activity for some time and had not bothered to put some thought into the handout’s design. Now I can hear some readers saying who has time for that and you are right, teachers are busy, but with handouts you are using over and over again why not put some thought into how they can be improved in terms of design not just content.

Design is not decoration

When I talk about design I am not talking about just putting pretty pictures of clipart onto a sheet to fill up space. I am talking about how we can arrange our handouts so that they are not only more appealing to students but also make it clear as to what a part of a handout is meant to do or what a part of the handout is telling the students to do. My basic ongoing goal is to improve the usability of my handouts. It’s not easy. I am no designer, in fact, I am colourblind and can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. So what to do?


One of my favourite books in the area of design is The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (no, not the comedian). In her book Robin talks about C.R.A.P. or:

C- Contrast

R- Repetition

A- Alignment

P- Proximity.

She also adds colour but C.R.A.P.C. doesn’t have the same punch as just C.R.A.P.

You really should read this book and if your school’s teachers’ resource centre/ shelf doesn’t have it, try and get it, but if you can’t here is the shortest run down I can give and not get in trouble for copyright.

C- Contrast

Elements of a page that should be different should look different. For me this means a different font or shading for instructions or a box around examples. Make different elements of your page stand out by contrasting them with other elements.

R- Repetition

Conversely, if elements on a page have a similar purpose, use the same font, size or shading. Your headings should match; your position on a page should match as well. Again my instructions use the same font in each part of a handout (repetition) but stand out from the examples or other text (contrast).

A- Alignment

Place objects (including text) on a page with a purpose. I often use the rule of thirds when placing important text boxes or pictures on a page. The rule of thirds is borrowed from photography which probably borrowed it from painting. Divide your page with a naughts and crosses board, like so

The human eye naturally travels to the intersections of those lines. Place important information there. I usually put exam tips or homework in those areas.

P- Proximity

If you have elements of a page that are related, place them closer to each other. If they are not related space them apart. In relation to this, don’t be afraid of white space. I know as teachers we are always trying to reduce paper use (and I agree) but squashing everything together may just make things more difficult for students. I guess it’s a balance.

C- Colour

I was serious when I said I am colourblind. I can’t help you much here. I had a brown shirt for eight months before someone told me it was green. Luckily, most schools don’t have colour photocopiers and we are limited to giving our students black and white handouts. Take note of any greyscale printing function your computer might have. Converting colour images to greyscale rather than black & white can often produce far better results.

This is all just something to think about with your tried and tested handouts. Get a hold of Robin’s book if you can, I would love her to do an update with school handouts in mind but beggars can’t be choosers. Happy handout designing.

Author’s Bio:
David Moran is an English Lecturer at Qatar University. He also works as a freelance presentation designer and consultant. You can contact him at d.moran@mac.com

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