Note Taking Advice to My Evidence Students

I recently sent out an e-mail to students in my Evidence class, sharing my views on classroom laptop bans and note taking.  In the past, I’ve banned laptops, but I’ve gone back to allowing them. As with most things in the law, the question is not the rule but who gets to decide the rule. Here, with a group of adult learners, I prefer a deferential approach. I’m also cognizant that there may be generational issues at play and that what would work for me as a student might not work for the current generation of law students. So, I’ve taken to offering advice on note taking, a skill that must be honed like any other.

Dear Class:

As you begin your study of the law of Evidence, I wanted to offer my perspective on note taking.  Specifically, I’d like to weigh in on the debate about whether students should take notes by hand or using a laptop.

As you will soon find out, Evidence is a heavy, 4-credit course. Our class time—4 hours per week—will be spent working through difficult rules, cases, and problems.  Classes will build on your out-of-class preparation and will not be a mere review of what you’ve read in advance.  Thus, it is important that the way you take notes helps, not hurts, your learning.

The research overwhelmingly shows that students retain information better when they take notes by hand rather than computer. This article has a nice summary of the literature:  The reason why handwriting is better is pretty simple: when you handwrite, you are forced to process and synthesize the material, since it’s impossible to take down every word said in class. In contrast, when you type, you tend to function more like a court reporter, trying to take down every word that is said. Additionally, laptops present a host of distractions: e-mail, chat, the web, and games are all there to tempt you away from the task at hand, which is to stay engaged with the discussion. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve called on a student engrossed in his or her laptop, only to get “Can you repeat the question?” as the response.

Of course, it’s possible to be distracted without a computer, too.  Crossword puzzles, the buzzing of a cell phone, daydreaming, or the off-topic computer usage of the person in front of you can all present distractions. And it’s more difficult to integrate handwritten notes with your outline and other materials.

If I were you, I would handwrite my notes.  But I’m not you.  You are adults and presumably know best how you study and retain information.  For this reason, I don’t ban laptops.  But if you choose to use a laptop or similar device to take notes, I have some additional suggestions.  Look into distraction avoidance software, such as FocusMe, Cold Turkey, or Freedom.  These programs block out distracting apps like web browsers and text messaging.  Turn off your wireless connection.  Turn down the display of your screen so that your on-screen activity is not distracting to those behind you.  Of course, turn off the sound.  Learn to type quietly so you’re not annoying your neighbors with the clickety-clack of your keys.

Finally, and most importantly, think strategically about what you’re typing.  You don’t need a written record of everything said in class.  Indeed, one of the reasons I record all of my classes and make the recordings available to registered students is so you don’t have to worry about missing something.  You can always go back and rewatch a portion of class that wasn’t clear to you. It’s not necessary to type background material, such as the facts of a case or the basic rule.  Most of this should be in your notes that you took when reading the materials for class (you are taking notes as you read, right?).  Instead of having a new set of notes for class, think about integrating them with what you’ve already written as you prepared for class.  That is, synthesize and integrate what is said in class about the cases and problems with what you’ve written out about them in advance.  Try your best to take fewer notes, not more.  Focus on listening and thinking along with the class discussion.  Sometimes less is more.

Above all else, do what works best for you.  If you’ve done well on law school exams while taking verbose notes, by all means continue doing so.  But, if you’ve found yourself not doing as well as you’d like, now is the time to try a new means of studying and note-taking.  You may be pleasantly surprised by experimenting with handwritten notes or, if you do use a laptop, adapting your note-taking style as suggested above.

Of course, please let me know if you’d like further advice.  I’m here to help you learn.


Prof. Cunningham

Do exams measure speed or performance?

A new study out of BYU attempts to answer the question.  It’s summarized at TaxProf and the full article is here. From the abstract on SSRN:

What, if any, is the relationship between speed and grades on first year law school examinations? Are time-pressured law school examinations typing speed tests? Employing both simple linear regression and mixed effects linear regression, we present an empirical hypothesis test on the relationship between first year law school grades and speed, with speed represented by two variables: word count and student typing speed. Our empirical findings of a strong statistically significant positive correlation between total words written on first year law school examinations and grades suggest that speed matters. On average, the more a student types, the better her grade. In the end, however, typing speed was not a statistically significant variable explaining first year law students’ grades. At the same time, factors other than speed are relevant to student performance.

In addition to our empirical analysis, we discuss the importance of speed in law school examinations as a theoretical question and indicator of future performance as a lawyer, contextualizing the question in relation to the debate in the relevant psychometric literature regarding speed and ability or intelligence. Given that empirically, speed matters, we encourage law professors to consider more explicitly whether their exams over-reward length, and thus speed, or whether length and assumptions about speed are actually a useful proxy for future professional performance and success as lawyers.

The study raises important questions of how we structure exams. I know of colleagues who impose word count limits (enforceable thanks to exam software), and I think I may be joining the ranks. More broadly, are our high-stakes final exams truly measuring what we want them to?