2.4 – Taking Notes


Taking Notes

Law School and Laptops

Let's talk a little bit about how to take notes in class. This is a controversial topic, I think, because it raises a question that a lot of people have very strong feelings about, which is laptops in the classroom. There was a period of time in law school, a couple decades ago, where every law school thought, "Computers are the future. We're going to make sure every law student has a laptop and everyone is going to bring laptops to class and it's going to be great." What it turned out was a lot of people started to recognize that maybe the laptops were not this great educational innovation that we all thought they were because people were in class and some of them were taking really good notes, but also a lot of people were using laptops to watch TV, get distracted, do online shopping. Then a lot of research came out and the research suggested that people that use computers in class actually often have worse learning outcomes than the people that take notes the traditional way using pen and paper. For that reason, a number of professors have adopted no-laptop policies. Not every professor has done that by any means. There's many law school classes where you are allowed to use laptops.

Encourages note taking using pen and paper

For that reason, you might have to face the choice in some classes, do I want to bring a laptop to school, or do I want to take notes in a different format, maybe just using pen and paper or something like an e-reader? Your mileage may vary. I do want to strongly encourage you to think about taking notes using pen and paper, the old-school method. I recognize there are some real trade-offs to doing that.

Benefits of Computer

Faster note-taking process

Let's talk about the benefits of a computer. The benefits of taking a laptop to class are you can take notes much faster. You can come close to transcribing everything the professor is saying.

What the professor is saying in class is important. You do want to write down some of those things the professor is saying because the professor is going to spend more time talking about things the professor thinks is important. We've talked about how our approach here really has to be focused on how to improve your performance on an exam at the end of the semester. What the professor is saying about particular legal doctrines, there's a good chance the professor thinks those things are important and those things are correct. The students who are able to remember those things, remember those points about the law when exam time comes, are more likely to do well.

That does suggest that there are some real advantages to being able to take notes.

Computer as a Distraction

Acts as a distraction in class

On the other hand, computers can be very distracting. It'd be very, very easy to check your email, to text, to get lost, and that's a real problem. I did both things when I was a law student. In my first year in law school, I never used my laptop and I only took notes on paper, and that went pretty well for me. My second year, I mixed it up a little bit. I took my laptop to some classes and I did end up with notes in those classes that were easier to deal with because they weren't written down on paper.

They were just Word documents I could cut and paste into my outline, but there also ended up being a lot of gaps in my notes, places where I was clearly not paying attention because I got distracted by something on my computer. That's a real concern.

Thinking While Note Taking Is Important

Pen and paper note taking facilitates thinking and retaining important aspects.

The other thing to think about is that there is a certain amount of value in having to do thinking in real-time, that a pen and paper requires, of is this something that is important enough to go in my notes? The transcribers just write down everything the professor says, and if you've ever looked at a friend's notes, who's like a real diligent transcriber, it'll contain every little thing the professor says even if they're just saying some random thing about their kids that has nothing to do with the material.

Whereas if you're using a pen and paper or some method like that, you're having to really sit there and think a little bit. Is this something that actually belongs in my notes? What is the key point that's coming out of what the professor is saying? I think that is actually an important part of learning. And there's an important part of memory retention there. Doing that is going to make you a little bit more likely to remember the things that are important.

Likewise, if you use a pen and paper, you're probably going to have to do something later, which is going to be processing your notes and maybe transcribing them, typing them into an outline, something like that. That takes time. That is definitely time-consuming. That said, that process can be very useful. It can help you remember things. It's another step where you really have to think about, "Here's what I wrote down. What was that about? Why was that important? Should I put that in my outline?"

Handwritten notes offer a better educational experience.

So, think about that choice, make the choice that works best for you, but I would at least encourage you to take a look at the academic research out there about the costs and benefits of computers versus handwritten notes because it certainly seems, to me, that the benefits of handwriting are actually quite significant and there's a greater chance you're going to learn more and have a better educational experience that way, even if it seems like more of a pain.

How to Take Notes for Different Periods of Class

The other thing you need to think about is how to take notes for different periods of class. The way I teach, I typically do some lecture at the beginning of class where I recap key points and then I go into Socratic questioning for most of the rest of the class. It's going to be a lot easier to figure out how to take notes when I'm just lecturing than when I'm doing Socratic. How do you take notes during a Socratic questioning, say, of another student? That can be a little tricky because you're not necessarily going to write down everything the professor says and every answer the student is giving. There, you're going to have to want to be a little bit more selective, but I think it's important to write stuff down. Listen really carefully to the questions and try to figure out, "What is the professor really focused on? Why is the professor zeroing in on this part of the opinion?"

The professor has asked six questions about part three of the opinion and they're all about this one thing. Maybe think about that and put something in your notes. Questions focused on this. Do some processing in real-time. Again, don't just be an automaton that's just typing, typing, typing. Do some thinking about what's happening in class and that is going to make you understand what's going on in class a lot better.

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