It lectured a stochastics course for pre-service teachers last semester and had a teXed manuscript for myself which grew as the course was running. After some debate with the students, I made a version accessible online. In university courses, my students are free to attend the lessons or not. I think some thought then they would not have to come at all, some stopped copying from the blackboard, some struggled with my typos. That's the bad side of the coin. On the other side, students could check the lecture when they had not been there (some of them had another course overlapping), they now could think when I wrote and copying from the blackboard may generate new typos.

Question: Is there any founded discussion (mabye research) on the effects of handing-out lecture notes?

I know some lecturers do hand-out notes, some not, some hand-out notes with gaps to be filled in the lecturer. However, their reasons mainly lie in personal experience but not scientific debate.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I find that taking notes in class helps me recall them later, while listening and reading I find harder. With that, forcing students into certain study habits should be considered. $\endgroup$
    – Chris C
    Mar 31, 2014 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ The assumption here seems to be that the mode of instruction has to be straight lecturing. That's a bad assumption. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Apr 1, 2014 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ I liked being given notes, with questions at the end that the lecturer went over at the start of the next lecture. I did not take any notes myself and would get copies of other student’s notes if needed as my writing is too slow to take notes. $\endgroup$
    – Ian
    Apr 1, 2014 at 13:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The best professors I've had made an outline of the lecture available for students. During class they would expand on the notes for the days class. Generally these notes were bullet points for the professor and I used both those and notes I took in class. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 16:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I haven't been a student in a long time, but when I was, with some classes I'd be so rushed trying to get down everything on the board that I didn't have a chance to actually process any of it. In that kind of situation, I don't think writing it down helped me to learn it. In those classes where there's a lot to get down, I think having the notes in front of me during lecture, and adding my own notations to them, would have been a lot more conducive to learning something. $\endgroup$ May 13, 2014 at 3:39

5 Answers 5


Writing is an essential part for most of us when learning mathematics. I think it is essential to get the students to learn how to take notes and, in an ideal world, after each class to write out in every detail the content of that lecture. We should do everything to encourage students to take notes and write more.

Some even think that handwriting is essential and we should encourage it in contrast to taking notes.

Because of this, if possible, I try not to distribute my notes or my slides. This may also be a serious problem for those who cannot attend the lecture. I feel bad about this. I try, however, to make a balance between taking notes and discussing, developing the material together.

If I worked out some parts of the material and I feel it is better than the textbook, I usually put that part when we finished the lecture on my homepage.

ADDED: I just came across this article which also discusses the advantages of handwritten note-taking (though in a different context).


I hand out notes in most of my courses. These notes parallel my lectures, sometimes precisely, sometimes just roughly. Some of them are typed, some of them are pdf-scans of my handwritten work. I usually post a day-by-day lecture schedule detailing where I'll be in the notes as best as I can forecast. I suppose, in principle, there is a possibility that students think:

  • I can skip class because: he posted notes and I already have the inside scoop beyond the text..
  • I can just write nothing in class because: I already have these notes and printing them out makes the material stick in my mind just as much as actively writing them...

I suppose both of these are possible, but, I actively discourage both practices at the outset by:

  • including more than is required in my lecture notes: if they come to class they get a better sense of which parts of the notes are beyond the required core of material.
  • adding examples not in my posted notes: this works best in the lower level classes where it is safe to make up examples, obviously this requires additional work in higher courses. In any event, taking notes in my course adds to my posted notes.

Both items above go to the point that I don't just read my notes. Rather, my notes are an indication of the totality of my thoughts on a topic, sometimes, there is just too much for lecture. My notes go into second or third order caveats whereas the lecture is more towards emphasizing the first order material. As a somewhat extreme example, I prove the n-th order variational parameters formulae via some tensor arithmetic. That is something I would not want to lecture in differential equations as it has little to do with my expectations for them in the course. On the other hand, if I can peak the interest of just one of them to the joys of tensor calculus then it's a win in my book.

Warning: they will complain. Some students are simply annoyed if you do anything but teach them how to do the calculations you will put on the test. I frankly don't care. I refuse to cater to this student as they endanger the whole concept of university. On the other hand, the students who are genuine in their curiosity typically appreciate the effort of the notes. It is for those students I post them. On the whole I still have students attend and take notes so in my opinion the hypothetical that it shuts down both activities is not observable in my situation.


@AndrasBatkai's answer surprised me a little, and I don't disagree with it. But/and contemplating the plausible factoids of his remarks makes me a little unhappy, perhaps only "unhappy with reality":

Yes, certainly, after he pointed this out, I can agree that making PDFs (or whatever format) available ahead of time, or promised, does lead a significant fraction of the student population to disengage. Not to take advantage of the further possibilities, such as making notes on printed-out notes, or doing the tablet version of this, but, ... just disengaging, or not going to class at all, and not really looking the notes, either.

But this reminds me of a different wording for the question... in effect, to what extent are we (educators, mentors) responsible for preventing self-sabotage by students?

The real problem arises when a practice that hugely benefits 75% of the population has a bad resonance with the other 25%. Then what?

That is, making my notes available is mostly beneficial, but seems to fatally confuse a small but non-trivial fraction of the population. Dang. But is this the real "final exam" for them? Or is it just a misunderstanding? At this point, I still don't really know, although I do know that predisposition to fall into this trap is not a survival trait.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ it is beneficial to the students who matter most. That is my opinion on this matter. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it think. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 1:38
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "To what extent are we (educators, mentors) responsible for preventing self-sabotage by students?" - Very good point! I once noticed that poor students just check if the content of the black board is the same as in the lecture note (from the year before), word by word. Is was more a big disctraction for those students. I partly agree with @JamesS.Cook that you should most about those who matter most. But if at the end most students fail your course, that's even worse then. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 6:28
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @MarkusKlein: Students also have to learn how to learn. Many of them want to learn but do not now how to do it. Teaching them somehow that they have to write is an essential part of it. How we motivate them is a different and important point. Writing down the lecture is one possible point, but there may be alternative options. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 6:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @AndrásBátkai But a large part of those students that take meticulous notes do so at the expense of actually paying attention to what is being said. Unless you are trained in taking notes, then you will probably benefit more from just paying attention in class and reading the lecturers notes that trying to copy the entire lecture down on paper. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft: yes, that is of course a problem. I tried to explain this in my answer: taking notes in my eyes is one small portion of the whole work. We as instructors can also engage the students AND let them taking notes.If we give a boring lecture and the only thing students can do is taking notes, then we can also give them the notes and let them stay at home. $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2014 at 9:24

There is a middle ground here, I think. I was often in courses which provided "abridged" notes, and it worked pretty well. The idea is to leave off details and make it clear to the students that not everything that is required to know for the test is in the notes.

Most of the professors I have had, stated theorems and definitions in the handout notes, but didn't prove them or show examples. Since we were required to prove some of theorems on the final exam, it meant we either took notes or proved them ourselves. And since we didn't know in advance which ones we would be expected to prove, we effectively had to learn them all.

A slight modification, if your lecture is not proof heavy, might be to give a summary version of the notes, with questions in place of certain facts which they should know. (as an example: Why doesn't the Central Limit Theorem apply here?)

I think the key though is to make it clear to the students that they will be tested on the content of the lecture(anything and everything you say), which will cover things that aren't addressed in the notes. You can drive this point home by scheduling quizzes or giving homework assignments that ask about things not on the notes.


I liked one class in which we were asked to read a chapter of the text, and do a set of exercises as preparation for class. Classes were questions about what had been read. I learned a lot more than if I had copied some stuff from a blackboard. Now, that is certainly much harder on the teacher (they have to field all and any questions), and I certainly worked much more for that class than for "regular" ones. But most dropped out very soon.

And even though I make notes available, most students come to class to copy stuff, or just don't show up. They seem to believe that "cram from the notes two days before the exam" is enough. It isn't.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.