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Photocopier: Oh no, not you again!

After potentially a summer off, if I were the photocopier, I’d dread the day school begins: all those instructors, all those handouts, all that toner.  Why do we feel this automatic reaction to photocopy so much material? I think it often boils down to anxiety.  A feeling of preparation accompanies walking into a classroom with a large stack of handouts. We’ve done our homework.  We’re ready for whatever comes up.  We have this automaticity for many reasons, which might be determined better if you find the “underlying cause that needs a solution”, like Gordon Scruton attempts. Though some suggest trying to go completely paperless, that seems unrealistically extreme.  Why do that? To save the environment? To eliminate the possibility of misusing handouts? What an overreaction.  In fact, read over Adam Simpson’s post which describes “many things that you’ll regret if you make your classroom or your office a totally paperless one“–a good call, I’d say.  It’s the opposite extreme of photocopying everything.  Like almost every choice we make, there exists a balance to achieve.

Consider whether every student really needs a handout – Students can often share one copy or divide up the information on handouts into groups, like a jigsaw.  Give one group half a sheet with information and other groups the other half.  Have them work together to interpret and then relay information to each other.  This way, each page (cut into halves) is used by at least two students.

Activities or texts used by the whole class can often be projected onto a screen by OHP or laptop projector.  If it’s done as a large group, a projection can ensure students are all focusing on the same amount of text, giving teachers control over how much of the text or handout students see at any given time..  And note-taking skills?  Check.

You can have students come to the laptop to type in their answers to projected questions.  You can have students come to the board to write in their answers. In the end, that document can be saved online for student access or like many students I know, they can take a photo of the board.  Especially in the university context, students often rewrite their notes at home after studying anyways.  This can also give them the opportunity to do so electronically instead of using up two papers.

Think about the empty space on your handouts– I often see teachers copying pages and

Is everything on this page necessary?

pages and pages out of coursebooks and then stapling them together in lieu of having class sets or individually purchased texts.  Let’s face it, each student buying a coursebook just doesn’t happen everywhere. Individualised content with authentic materials is in. It’s much more reasonable to pull various pages from various places together for your class (aside–coming from a publisher or distributor’s p-o-v, an entirely different discussion can take place about this).  Just keep in mind that coursebooks usually leave a lot of space empty or with massive photos for its visual appeal–a great waste if copied.  Is it really necessary for half a page to be devoted to a photo?  Does an activity designed for a column in a text have to take up the whole page on your copy?  Do instructions really need to be included on the handouts? With a little effort, I think we can maximise the use of one page.

The more pages, the more you should use it – If a one-page  handout can be underutilised by instructors anxious to keep students interested, think about handouts that are several pages long.  How much of a waste is it to use only once?  There are excellent ideas on how to administer shorter readings without giving physical copies to students, but “for various intensive reading activities the students need to have a physical copy, to underline or highlight and to read at their own pace without the pressure of having the majority of a class dictate when to move onto the next page.” If students are likely to reuse those handouts again on their own time or in class more than once, then maybe they should have their own.  I do, however, believe some relief on photocopying for even larger readings like this by can be done by selecting sections that will be read in class and leaving the remainder as an accessible digital copy (I’m thinking of documents that are more than 5 pages long, for example).  Though in the end, students will likely print them out at home anyways–and is that a better alternative to photocopying? Depends on the perspective.

So should classes be completely paperless?  No, I don’t think that’s reasonable.  Should we look for ways to minimise our copying to what’s essential? Yes, it’s doable.  Besides, wouldn’t it be nice not to deal with so many jams, paper outages and copier breakdowns?  Absolutely.


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Excellent, Tyson. Some good points that I hadn’t mentioned in my post. I always make a point of doubling up; reducing two sheets down to one by using the A3 to A4 button on the photocopier. The results are still readable and the less organized students end up with less of a bundle of papers stuffed inside the front cover of their course book. Every little helps!

Vicky Loras

Hi Tyson!

I absolutely loved this post, as it got me thinking how I was in my earlier days of teaching. I used to think that the more handouts I had, the more prepared I was (and looked), the better the lesson and the more pleased the students were.

I love all of your ideas on how to save on copies or how not to make so many, for that matter. What I also do (and it sounds a bit weird, I know, but it helps save on extra copies and benefits students) is that I always strictly count how many I need. Are they only 6? Good. If I find that I made a mistake and made more copies than I needed to, I sit down and think which of my students could utilise that copy for extra practice on a langauage aspect that he or she has an issue on. If I cannot find one, then I put it into a binder where I have everything organised into subjects. For example, Passive Voice, Relative Clauses and so on. Then, whenever I need it again, I can definitely find something in my extra copies binder. That is also why some teacher friends call me “tree hugger” – ha ha! But I see it as saving paper and stopping silly and needless copying.

Super post, Tyson!

Naomi Epstein

OH, good points and right where I am this very minute!
The adapted version I just finished preparing (for my pupils)for the task about the poem “An introduction to poetry” (Billy Collins) is FIVE pages long with fairly small spaces, and that’s a lot to photopcopy…

I also have binders for all the extras by topic as a lot of stuff can be reused. However, I DO photocopy a couple more than needed. I don’t know how it is with university students but I always have someone who has an accident with his /her page (such as: sudden gust of wind when door opened, paper sailed to the floor and the teacher stepped on it!)

Naomi Epstein

Any worksheet that doesn’t require much reading I print one or two, paste on cards and “sort of” laminate ( I staple the edges of a plastic paper cover or whatever that’s called in English).
if there is a lot to read my pupils have to be able to write on it as they write translations /glosses of the vocab items above the text. they get lost without it because there as so many words they don’t know.

Gordon Scruton

Tyson, excellent post and thanks for the credit. I think your question about whether students print off the handout or teachers provide the photocopy is simply a matter of choice. Not all students will want or need a paper copy and this is not simply out of a lack of interest or laziness. Those who want it, will get it and those don’t, won’t.

Maybe some sort of litmus test for whether to photocopy might be this: “It will mean as much to my students as it does to me. Do I need the photocopy to get through my class?” English language students experience a deluge of information, articles, texts, handouts, etc. I think it is important to remember that what we are photocopying for them will soon be lost in the ‘noise’ of their bulging files of handouts. Reducing the photocopies also reduces this ‘noise’ both for us and them.

I also couldn’t agree more on the need to reduce handouts to improve note taking skills. Of course, in that case this needs to be explained very clearly to the students or they might believe that a lack of handout indicates a particular point you are covering is not that important.

Further to this you could try making up some handouts and then not giving them. Say that you want to work on note taking skills in this lesson and that they will have the opportunity to compare what they taken in notes with what you would have given out as a photocopy. This comparison could highlight an area of their learning they need to improve but also could generate a great discussion stemming from “Which do you prefer, the handout or taking your own notes? Why?” Including the students in this debate isn’t a bad idea.

Gordon Scruton

Ah, would this be pre-sessional courses to prepare students for Masters? I’ve taught those a courses of times and I know exactly what you mean. You know I actually found myself feeling quite envious of my students on the EAP course because they were getting a ton of advice, help and preparation that I had to figure out while I was at university.

That said, unfortunately I think that with the exception of IELTS prep classes, the EAP classes have been some of the most photocopy intensive classes I’ve given. With so much information to be given out in such a short period of time (8-12 weeks) the photocopier seemed like the natural tool for the job.

With regards to the university-level classes you are teaching, what specific areas are you trying to condense or all-out remove photocopy handouts?

Gordon Scruton

Hey, can you get me a job there? That sounds like a pretty sweet deal – teaching English and academic skills at university-level and sitting in on history classes. I’m a History & Archaeology graduate actually, I’d be in hog’s heaven! 🙂

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I agree with everything Ty. I try to squeeze 3 pages into 1 and copy on both sides of a sheet, so it’s doable,as you say! thx for writing about this!

@seburnt If you want to post summaries about those 10 events, I can promise one avid reader. 🙂

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