Research: Students learn better from print resources than online resources

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Books before blogs

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Law students have rallied around their precious law textbooks this week, as research reveals reading printed text is better for learning than online text is.

New US research suggests that when asked specific questions about what they’d just read, students’ comprehension of printed texts is “significantly better” than their comprehension of online texts.

Interestingly, and in the authors’ words “paradoxically”, the research did note students overwhelmingly preferred to use digitised resources over print editions, despite the differences in comprehension.

We’d be unsurprised if law students preferred online resources over print, too. Law textbooks are notoriously expensive, library wait times can be arduous, and let’s not even mention the aches and pains caused by lugging 1,000-pages of contract notes back to halls.

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It’s arguably more efficient too, as one law graduate and future trainee told us:

“In the time it would take a student to look up the case of Re Vandervell Trustees Ltd (No 2) in the Court of Appeal reports, another one using Westlaw has already found the case, highlighted the crucial dicta and found ten recent cases where the principles have been followed.”

But, on balance, it seems law students are more pro-print than they are devoted to digital.

One law student told Legal Cheek that while a move to online resources is more efficient, being able to easily highlight and make notes on printed text sways it for them. This is so despite the extra costs on printing and folders, said another fellow law student.

A third aspiring lawyer, who recently completed a postgraduate, was given all study material in online and hard copy format during her Legal Practice Course (LPC). She said:

“I chose and still choose the hard print over online reading every single time. Not only for health reasons (my eyes already requiring glasses), but because it’s much easier to highlight/circle/annotate a hardcover textbook. All of this made me realise I do indeed capture and retain the information much more quickly if I have the physical textbook in my hands. Plus, the classic ‘book smell’ in every library. For me, it sharpens and focuses the mind.”

But maybe it’s not a case of either or.

“I find that both resources work perfectly together,” one law student said. “For mooting, online databases were invaluable. For my coursework, nothing could replace printed documents and a simple highlighter.”

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Print is far from dead. Remember when we were told Kindles would end books?



Print – easier to read and absorb

But you are a mug if you search cases in print form. Westlaw the case then ctrl f the relevant words.



I generally run searches through online versions of books (e.g. Chitty on Contracts), make a note of the relevant chapters/pages and then actually read them in a physical copy.


Long live pen and paper.

Digital is great for finding things. Heaven forbid only having hard copies of cases to look through, especially if you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for.

For actually absorbing information though, print is far superior. Even now in practice I will print off contracts and documents (or the relevant sections) and mark up by hand.



LC take note



I do not have a photographic memory but I do get used to the font and the formatting and it helps me connect concepts and ideas with visuals. During my law degree I used to read my textbooks (the not-so-big ones) two to three times and highlight them with up to three different colours in the process. By the time the exam came I was usually so familiar with the look of every page that often I’d be able to recall exactly where on the page (e.g. bottom left) a particular topic was discussed. This level of engagement does not happen when I use an electronic resource as most of the time I just scroll and can’t be bothered to use the highlighting tools of the PDF reader. Though the finding that we remember less from an electronic resource might also be due to habit – most online content I read is light and/or I just read it rather superficially, whereas a book usually means serious business.



Three colours?! You sir, are a bloody madman!



Surely this is obvious anyways! Anything is easier to digest if you can read a physical copy, especially lengthy cases. You don’t have to resort to using case reports though, just print copies of Lexis/WestLaw.


Mr. Charles

In other news, rain found to be wet



…and let’s not even mention the aches and pains caused by lugging 1,000-pages of contract notes back to halls.

In my day we had to haul a shopping trolly full of books round to every lecture, and then drag them all the way back to our hovel by the canal, under the railway bridge, and prepare for the day before by the flashing lights of the tains passing overhead. If we were lucky.



I generally use digital forms, and keep my notes in digital form – because they are generally easier to search and archive. The main problem with digital documents is that most people generating them don’t have a clue about how to fomat the text, and the readers don’t have a clue about correcting that.

In general the text is of the wrong font, and too big. A good test of this is to put your text book next to your screen at a normal reading distance. If the screen text is bigger than that of the text book then it will probably be too large to read efficiently.

Reduce the size of the text on screen to match that of a text book. It seems antithetical to reduce the size of text in order to read better, but that’s because you are confusing legibility with readability.

Smaller text in hard copy books is a factor of two things: economy and readability. It’s more economic to have smaller text because you can fit more on a page. But, it is also easier to read smaller text because you can scan it more easily and thus process it better.

This is fundamental to the reading experience.

As to the ease of marking-up, Acrobat has had tools for doing this for about 25 years. You can put extended notes, highlights, links, etc in a PDF, without damaging the original docment. And you can export or search those annotations.



The comments sections are completely dead. RIP LC.


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