As a legal English professor, my primary focus is law and language. However, I’ve also come to realize the importance of teaching and incorporating the basic skills of being what I call a “professional law student.”
I became aware early on that many of my students did not touch type, perhaps because they are accustomed to doing all of their written communications on smartphones with their thumbs. This becomes a significant obstacle when students are required to submit numerous assignments in Word documents. I point out to the students that touch typing ability can be the difference between spending 6 hours researching and 1 hour typing versus 1 hour researching and 6 hours typing.
To address this, I’ve previously required students to register on typing.com where they must practice regularly and join a class I’ve set up to monitor their progress. I then give them periodic 1- minute typing tests in class using typingtest.com and track their progress. This has led to modest gains.
Additionally, I’ve seen the various ways that punctuation can be confusing for students in formal, academic writing. This confusion carries over into not just when to use which punctuation marks, but also formatting and spacing with regard to commas, periods, parentheses, quotation marks, etc. An interesting example: Professor Piper and I have both noticed that students often believe that the purpose of quotation marks is for emphasis as opposed to indicating the words of others. (Though based on our current President’s tweets, it’s clear they are not alone in this misperception.)
Further on the topic of formatting, I recently realized that two of my students were not recognizing the difference between text in italics and plain text. Italics is not just for aesthetics. It communicates something to a reader. It can indicate emphasis, or the word is a term of art, or a title of a publication, or a Latin word.
As a result, I’ve designed a new approach to helping students improve their typing that also is helping with punctuation and proofreading. I call it the Typing Challenge. I give the students several printed pages of a legal text. It could be a textbook, a case book, a legal memorandum, a law review article, a statute, etc. Each week the students must type at least 100 words. For every additional 100 words they receive bonus points. However, the catch is that if there are more than 3 errors, they receive no credit for their work.
My teaching assistant, a 2nd year JD student, checks each one and provides feedback and comments using track changes (another important tool for students to become familiar with if they are not already). Errors can be for formatting, spacing, wrong font, different sized fonts, not noticing italics, capitalization, paragraph alignment, etc. in addition to spelling. This has forced students to pay close attention to all of these issues and becomes a noticing exercise for them. It also helps us flush out any misconceptions by the students. For example, some students will indent a paragraphs by hitting the space bar several times not realizing they should use the Tab button. One student included a hyphen in the middle of a word becausehe saw it used in a word that carried over to the next line.
This process also of course gets students in the habit of proofreading and familiar with the expectation of proofreading, all while giving them a chance to work on and improve their typing.
The result has been better awareness of spelling, punctuation, and formatting issues in their other submitted assignments. And the real beauty of it is that I spend very little actual class time on this!