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Although the cartoon above is set in an office, the differences in the familiarity and use of technology between Dilbert and his younger co-worker much resemble the differences between law professors and their current students. The “millennial generation” students of today use computers, smart phones, iPads and the like for just about EVERYTHING, sometimes to the chagrin of their more traditional professors.

Computers are great; they can help in the study process in many ways. And now they can even be more convenient that lugging around a different notebook for each class (isn’t it unreal that a computer could be less onerous to carry around that NOTEBOOKS?? I’ve talked about my 7-lb laptop before – even I, a borderline “millennial” myself, find it hard to believe how small and light laptops are now!).

BUT….computers in the classroom can also be dangerous. There are 2 significant ways a laptop in the classroom can derail your study efforts, and these things should be considered when deciding whether or not you choose to take notes this way.

#1 – Laptops can encourage going off-task. What do I mean by off-task? I mean checking Facebook. Or shopping. Or even checking your email. For however brief a time you do these things.  Anything that is not directly related to what is being discussed in class at that moment is off-task. And off-task means you are not paying attention, which means you may be missing a very important discussion that might make its way onto your final exam. It’s hard to stay focused in class all of the time. But it’s even harder when your laptop – and consequently all of your friends, every store you love, and basically just the rest of the world – is sitting right in front of you, just a mouse-click away.   Your ability to stay disciplined and focused is something you need to objectively evaluate when deciding if a laptop is good for you.  Some of my bar prep students this past summer had their Internet disconnected from the laptops, in order to eliminate the temptation of going online when they should have been taking notes.  I think that’s a great idea for someone who is concerned about the distraction, but really wants to take computer notes (just don’t get yourself addicted to Minesweeper or Solitaire instead!)

#2 – Laptops encourage “dictation” notes.  Taking notes is important in law school, but it’s more important to be selective about what to write down.  There will be lots of banter back and forth between professors and students during class – that is the nature of discussing the law, particularly when a professor is using the Socratic method.  But not everything that is said in class is important.  Just like the dicta in a court decision, there are some things you will just talk about for background or context, but that aren’t “testable” topics.  You need to filter out what is just “discussion” and what is important to the professor (obviously any rules and holdings from the cases, but also any hypotheticals that the professor poses – and NOT the ones from the student in the front row who seems to have a different “what if” scenario every five minutes….).  When taking notes by hand, you naturally filter what you write, because it’s just physically impossible to write everything down.  But because of the speed that many of us can type, laptops encourage some students to “zone out” – not actively listen to the class, but just hear it and type what they hear.  This will result in pages and pages of notes that you don’t really need, and a whole class worth of conversation you “sort of” paid attention to, but mostly missed.

It’s also important to understand what type of learner you are and how you best take notes – do you learn by writing things down in orderly sentences?  Or are you the type of person who likes to draw arrows and make boxes and charts?  Sure, you can do those things on the computer, but by the time you do, the class will have moved on!

I’ll be posting more about learning styles in the days to come, but for now, take this quiz to find out how you learn best: