The Handwriting v. Typing Note Taking Debate

Handwriting and idea generation go hand in hand. Researchers suggest that students may learn better when they take notes by hand, that the act of “putting it down” on paper forces the writer to focus on what is really important. According to a recent article from Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, The Pen is Mightier Than The Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking, students learn more effectively when handwriting notes versus typing.

Many legal educators have criticized the distracting nature of computers and the negative effects of computing/multi-tasking on the decline in students’ note-taking skills. But, what if the answer is much simpler – that it is the lack of handwriting itself, not necessarily any distraction inherent in laptop usage, causing the decline.

Let’s be honest. Not every handwriter is a good note taker (just by virtue of being a handwriter).  Every student should be instructed in effective note taking – whether on paper or on screen. Every student should be instructed to listen for structure and cues, to reframe concepts, to review notes, and to restructure notes for maximum effectiveness and understanding.

Additionally, laptops aren’t only used for note taking in the classroom. For example, in my legal writing classroom, students don’t have much lecture to capture with their keyboards. Class time is spent actively, with students working on writing exercises, student samples, and where laptops are more commonly used for individual and group in-class research.

Let’s not be too hasty to blame laptops on our students’ note taking and learning short comings. Perhaps we should also examine our own teaching methods first.


Academic Success-For-All Model: Improve Success for Disadvantaged Students to Improve Success For All Students

Hurdles for struggling students are usually hurdles for all students, maybe not to the same extent. A recent article entitled Help Struggling Students and You’ll Help their Classmates, too in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Mark Schneider discusses Grinnell College’s “Success for All Model” to improve success rates for disadvantaged target groups and to improve success rates for all students.

In disability accommodation, this is called the principle of universal design. For example, an automatic door is essential for someone in a wheelchair but also benefits an able-bodied person carrying a heavy load. In our success-for-all model, we used the experiences of the least successful to identify what are barriers for them but often impediments for others, too.

This “Success for All Model” would also be effective in legal education. Many law schools identify a diverse student body in their mission. Many law schools offer alternate admissions programs for students who would not otherwise qualify for entry to law school.

Making this measure the foremost indicator of an institution’s success would suddenly clarify much about its mission. It would unambiguously place learning at the forefront. It would integrate diversity issues into the college’s mission. Success of minority students … would no longer be an auxiliary goal with a charitable or even condescending flavor but rather the key indicator of success. The message of universality would communicate a clear recognition of interdependence among racial and ethnic groups, regions, religions, and socioeconomic classes.


Does reading on digital devices lead to deep reading?

Does the technology we use to read actually change the way we read and comprehend written material? Is reading on a screen a different mental process than reading on paper? Reading is such a critical component for legal education and many legal scholars have found that effective reading comprehension skills are a key differentiator between successful and struggling law students.

Researchers are trying to understand differences in comprehension between reading on digital devices versus on paper to develop the best strategies to transfer tried and true print reading strategies into digital reading environments.  To be most effective, researchers suggest readers will need a “bi-lateral brain,” a brain that is adept with technology, but also employs deep reading skills no matter the technology.

An article in Education Week, Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students, summarizes the issue:

When reading on screens, for example, people seem to reflexively skim the surface of texts in search of specific information, rather than dive in deeply in order to draw inferences, construct complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences. Research has also found that students, when reading digitally, tend to discard familiar print-based strategies for boosting comprehension.

A similar article in Scientific American from last year, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, summarized recent research on this issue, suggesting that while “E-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as such technologies improve, but research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages.”

When reading on screens, people seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation—strategies such as setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.




Fail Your Way to Amazing Things (Even the Bar Exam)

Legal educators and law students can borrow some ideas about failure from the corporate world. In a recent article on, Ekaterina Walter examines the nature of “failure.” Failure is a delay, not a definition. In many ways, each failure is a unique opportunity to learn – what didn’t work?

In academic success, I coached many a student grappling with “failing” – failing a test, an important paper, an entire course, failing out of law school, or failing the bar exam. I worked on validating the feelings of frustration, sadness, and grieving in order to transition to the “what can you learn from this” opportunity. Some students couldn’t, or didn’t want to, hear me.

But many students, brave students, recognized the counter-intuitive value in failure, that failing is not defeat, but merely a detour, that sometimes students need to take the long way around to truly learn from trying, not succeeding, and trying again.

For the students who have recently learned that they have not been successful YET on the bar exam, don’t despair. Mourn your loss, but don’t accept defeat.

You haven’t failed. You’ve been given an amazing opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Don’t blow it. Sometimes you have to fail your way to amazing things.


Tougher grade curves + military-style resilience training for law students?

Do law students need toughening up? A fellow at Duke Law School thinks so. In a story in the ABA Journal, Daniel Bowling recommends a two-prong approach: 1. Toughen up & standardize grading curves across faculties and across schools for a more “level playing field.” 2. Offer military-style resilience training to law students to develop strength awareness and alignment.

Resilience training, maybe not military-style, aka “Battlemind Training,” could be beneficial to assist law students in coping with the new stresses and pressures faced in law school. Or, boot camp for law students might take on a whole new meaning.