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Designing Handouts

Handouts are as old as lectures themselves. But do you know how to use them effectively? This article explores aspects you might never have considered before.

An Introduction to Handouts

Handouts are a paper resource used to support teaching and learning. They may take a variety of different forms, but all aim to transfer information in an efficient manner. Before creating a handout your first task is to clarify what you wish to achieve; the desired outcome will affect the type of information, the quantity, its presentation style, as well as when you distribute it.

Types of Handout

A handout can provide background information, provide definitions for complex subjects, cover a topic in greater detail, provide resources not easily available elsewhere, outline the session in an organised and logical manner, contain summaries and highlights of key points, provide step-by-step instructions for a task, pose conceptual questions, put forward different points of view, illustrate a problem with a case study, contain complex diagrams that are difficult to copy or contain questions and activities to build upon skills learnt in the lesson. As you can see, there are a lot of different uses for handouts! Broadly speaking there are six main types:

Skeletal Notes

These form a scaffold for the content and let students know what is going to be covered in the lesson.

Uncompleted or Gapped Handout

This might be missing words, or it could simply be provision of headings. They should include any complex graphics or statistics. Remember to leave an appropriate amount of space for the missing information.


This can supplement the presentation and might include examples to be completed during or after the class.

Assessment Criteria

These specify and provide information on the assessed learning outcomes from the delivered lesson.

Information Sheets

These are detailed notes that cover the topic in depth. They may also include information not delivered in the lesson.

Reading Lists

These list important resources to consult and improve understanding on a given topic. Try to limit this to useful resources and try to be specific.

Benefits of Handouts

Benefits for the Audience

It allows learners to digest the information in real time as it is delivered, rather than hurriedly making notes. Learners are able to supplement the handout if they wish. If inspired by the topic, they have more information on it and can use it as a reminder to refresh from. Handouts also provide an alternative medium through which to learn.

Benefits for the Teacher

Handouts allow teachers to focus on the core concepts during the lesson thereby reducing the amount of material needing to be covered in person. They can help teachers stop worrying about forgetting to cover a particular point and allow them to pursue interesting angles raised by students. If provided before the session, they can be used to prepare students for the session to come and outline the topics to be covered.

When to Distribute?

There are three times you can distribute your handout; before, during or after. The timing you use has a significant impact on the behaviour of your students and the manner in which they will use the handout.


Use to prepare students in advance. Hand out several days before or in the previous week. Students can bring questions prompted by reading the material in advance.


Use to supplement the content of the session. Timing is key. Ensure handouts do not distract students as you make important points; students may read the handout rather than listen.


Delivers information for after reading. How will you know it gets read? Consider posing some questions the following week based on this material.

Ensure they read the handout by posing questions or using small group activities related to the handout.

Visual Design Principles

Keep the handout simple, try to avoid any unnecessary detail and focus on a single topic. Your handout should look professional and be able to work as a standalone item. Take a moment to consider the functionality of your handout and how it will be used. It is of vital importance to ensure there is enough space for students to make notes. A successful visual design enhances handouts by engaging users and directing attention.

Principles of Visual Design

Helps users perceive the overall design as opposed to individual elements. When elements are arranged properly, the overall design Gestalt will be very clear.
All elements on a page visually/conceptually appear to belong together. Strike a balance between unity and variety to avoid a dull or overwhelming design.
Defined when something is placed in it. Use space to reduce noise, increase readability, and/or create illusion. White space is an important part of layout.
Shows the difference in significance between items. Designers often create hierarchies through different font sizes, colours, and placement on the page.
Make items stand out by emphasizing differences in size, colour, direction, and other characteristics.
Creates an interest and depth by demonstrating how each item relates to each other based on size.
One element is the focal point and others are subordinate. This is done through scaling and contrasting based on size, colour, position, etc.
Create continuity throughout a design without direct duplication. Used to make pieces work together and help users learn interfaces quicker.
Perception of equal distribution. Balance does not always imply symmetry.

Visual Design in Practice

Insert Images
These represent a thousand words. They should enhance and support the text. Use labelled diagrams and images to elicit learning.
Embrace the Space
Use empty space to organise and make items stand out. Reduce margins to half an inch or make wider margins to enable annotation.
Add Headings
Clarify, provide structure and make it easier to scan information.
Show Contrast
Highly contrasting colours and sizes make items stand out.
Be Consistent
Use the same font, colour, shape, size or alignment for a given situation. Never centre paragraphs of text.
Keep It Simple
Less is more. Use a limited amount of text, a small colour palette, well-selected images and no more than two fonts.
Colour Palette Choices and Combinations
Used to differentiate items, create depth, add emphasis, and/or help organize information. Colour theory examines how various choices psychologically impact users.
Use Lines and Shapes
Separate sections with lines, use colour-filled shapes behind text or try hollow/transparent boxes around key blocks of text. Try faded pastel colours or different textures.
Fonts, their size, alignment, colour and spacing.

Catering for Colour

Ensure your images will be visible to colour blind students or for students who print their notes in monochrome. Try using highly contrasting colours or pattern fills when placed next to each other. Upload a copy to one of the following sites to see how your handout looks: