Monday, November 19, 2018

Digital Preferences Decrease Comprehension

Law school is expensive.  Tuition continues to rise across the country.  I constantly hear anecdotal stories of students walking out of law school with $150,000-$200,000 in debt.  The debt load can be crippling when trying to buy a house or even consider starting a firm.  Many administrators will suggest to students to plan ahead and try to save money.  Saving money is a great idea unless the saving leads to decreased learning.

Students can now save money with digital textbooks.  Many publishers are offering digital options, and the digital books tend to be a little cheaper.  Students trying to save money are following our basic advice and making the logical move to buy digital books.  However, digital books may be harming their long term learning.

Business insider published a story a few weeks ago about reading digital materials.  The story is here.  The article initially considered previous research on comprehension.  Previous studies concluded students reading material longer than a page on digital devices had lower comprehension than if they read the material in print.  However, the story wanted to explore digital preferences, reading speed, and comprehension, so they conducted 3 new studies.

The conclusions were not surprising.  The overwhelming majority of participants preferred to read digitally.  Participants read material on screens significantly faster, and they believed their comprehension was much better.  However, their belief was wrong when testing for details.  Participants’ comprehension of details was much worse reading digitally, which has an extreme impact on law school and the practice of law.

Print material is much better for identifying the details and placing material in context.  One major complaint from law professors is students lack recall of details when reading cases and don’t respond to specific exam prompts.  Digital reading exacerbates that problem.  1 word can make a difference in each rule.  I recall my Criminal Law exam where the professor had 4 self-defense answers where the word “reasonably” was in a different place in the sentence.  Moving the word around changed the meaning of the sentence.  Not knowing the specific detail made answering the question impossible.  Many rules operate the same way, and the practice of law is similar.  1 word can be the difference between a good contract and malpractice. 

Sometimes what we prefer isn’t good for us.  That will be true this week when I eat an entire pumpkin pie in less than 24 hours.  It is also true for digital reading.  Our preference for online material will be less effective when preparing for finals, studying for the bar, and practicing law.  Take every advantage possible by using print materials.

(Steven Foster)

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