« The Benefits (and Costs?) of Inactivity | Main | Planning and Promoting Your Scholarly Career »

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Results of laptop ban survey

After banning laptops from the classroom last semester, I surveyed my students about the ban. I got about 65 responses out of approximately 200 students (not a great yield, but still). The questions and results, as well as my thoughts, after the jump:

My apologies for the formatting; I could not get them to line up.

1) What effect has the laptop ban had on your concentration in class?

Strongly positive: 33 Slightly positive: 17 Neutral: 13 Slightly Negative: 1 Strongly Negative: 0

2. What effect has the laptop ban had on whether you have found the course material interesting?

Strongly positive: 17 Slightly positive: 11 Neutral: 29 Slightly Negative: 3 Strongly Negative: 0

3. What effect has the laptop ban had on your ability to learn the material?

Strongly positive: 24 Slightly positive: 11 Neutral: 18 Slightly Negative: 6 Strongly Negative: 2

4. What effect has the laptop ban had on the usefulness of your notes for studying?

Strongly positive: 14 Slightly positive: 8 Neutral: 9 Slightly Negative: 22 Strongly Negative: 7

5. What effect has the laptop ban had on your overall enjoyment of the course?

Strongly positive: 21 Slightly positive: 13 Neutral: 16 Slightly Negative: 8 Strongly Negative: 1

So what do I make of these results? A few thoughts:

1) There were more neutral answers than I expected or, frankly, would have liked.

2) Students overwhelmingly recognize that they concentrate better and pay more attention when they are not allowed to use laptops. In other words, students recognize that the ban achieves one of its primary goals of increasing student attention and involvement. The limitation is that this does not tell us whether the reason for the increased concentration and attention is because the distraction of the internet/IM/e-mail has been removed or because, distractions aside, they are more involved when forced to listen and process the discussion rather than trying to transcribe it.

3) Students seem mostly positive or non-committal as to whether absence of laptops affected their enjoyment of the material or their ability to learn it. Which, of course, seems inconsistent with the overwhelming belief that they concentrated better. Better concentration does not equal great enjoyment or absorption? That seems counter-intuitive--if you pay more attention, don't you learn more (even if you find out you don't particularly like the material or the course)?

4) Students are split almost evenly positive/negative on the effect of the ban on note taking and the usefulness of class notes. My inference is that the negative on this is that students are accustomed to converting their typed class notes into an outline by cutting-and-pasting and reorganizing their class notes, rather than retyping those notes (one student specifically objected to having to retype). But I continue to believe that it is in the act of retyping, while putting all the divergent materials together in one whole, that real learning occurs and everything comes together.

I also asked some open-ended questions, including what students believe would be the best laptop policy. As with student evaluations generally, answers were all over the place. Only a few comments expressed a strong view that I was flat wrong to impose the ban; those who thought they should be allowed at least expressed an ability to see where I (and other banners) was coming from. Interestingly, several students suggested that laptops should be banned simply because enforcing a no-surfing/class-use only rule (which they supported) is impossible and the over-inclusive ban becomes the only way to halt inappropriate use of the internet. At least a couple of students commented that they were initially bothered by the ban, but came to appreciate the benefits of notetaking by hand.

On that last point, though, consider the following: About midway through the semester, I asked students in both of my 65-person Civ Pro classes how many were using laptops in their other classes in which use was permitted; all but 3-5 students in each class indicated they opened the computers back up when they were allowed. Which tells me that if I was expecting this to be an educational revelation--students would realize that laptop-free was the way to go and they would carry the lesson to the rest of law school--that was not happening. On the other hand, that finding is inconsistent with the anecdotal experiences of some prawfs who have banned laptops for the first month of class and given students the option after that and found that a substantial majority, having become accustomed to hand-notes, kept the computers closed.

So where am I on this? I definitely saw and felt the benefits in my classes and so did many of the students. The ban was neither wildly popular nor wildly unpopular; which means I am neither doing them a great favor nor flying in the face of overwhelming opinion. For now, students see this as just another "thing" you deal with in different prawf's classes--like lecture style, evaluation style, etc.

I will continue to exclude laptops this year (while still recording classes for them--just like at trial or deposition). And whether they take classes with him and the evaluations I receive in those classes, for now, seem unaffected by the ban.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 30, 2009 at 07:19 AM in Howard Wasserman, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Results of laptop ban survey:


A coherent lesson to draw here -- and one that makes some sense, too -- is that students perceive that a laptop ban helps them in their day to day involvement in the class but is neutral or may hurt them in the ultimate endgoal of studying for the exam. Recall that students see these two issues as pretty different: One is the class, the other is the grade, and they may have different views of which is more important.

Posted by: Law Prof | Jul 30, 2009 8:43:00 AM

This is a great point and relates to something I alluded to in my fourth point, above. We need to do a better job of teaching students how to outline and the importance of the outlining *process*--of retyping (not just cutting and pasting) and organizing as the point to bring everything together. That could bridge the gap between class and the exam/grade.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 30, 2009 10:11:51 AM

"But I continue to believe that it is in the act of retyping, while putting all the divergent materials together in one whole, that real learning occurs and everything comes together."

Doesn't this assume that everyone learns the same way? (This is, of course, a long-discarded notion in education, that there is a single best practice for students to learn skills, material, or whatever it is they're supposed to be learning.)

Posted by: Jason W. | Jul 30, 2009 11:10:43 AM

I think the lesson is to ban laptops but distribute a transcription of the class afterwards as a study aid.

Posted by: Jimbino | Jul 30, 2009 2:17:24 PM

I'm a *horrible* note taker by hand--I can barely read my own writing, and I guarantee no one else could, which is primarily why I rail against laptop bans. That said, providing a transcript/recording is a perfect solution to that... if everyone who banned laptops in their class was willing to do that, I'd be pretty positive about it.

Posted by: Dave! | Jul 30, 2009 2:30:56 PM

I still believe that learning to take notes by hand is another "skill" that lawyers should have. That actually has been part of my pitch (as I have discussed in prior posts on the subject and as I explain to my students)--you are not going to be able to stare into a computer and type while meeting with a client or questioning a witness or conducting a deposition or taking part in a settlement conference or so many of the things lawyers do. Short, quick notes (even if only legible or understandable to you) to hold the moment are essential, to be supplemented by a later transcript/recording in most situations.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 30, 2009 2:45:29 PM


Thank you for this post. It is very helpful. Having studied learning styles theory extensively, I agree both with your conclusion that outlines must be retyped AND with the view of another poster saying that not everyone learns the same way. Having worked for years specifically with struggling law students, I believe that these two positions are not mutually exclusive and that some form of outlining is crucial to success.

Although I am a huge proponent of telling students that peoples' learning styles vary and they should thus choose the method that best provides absortion for them, I've come to believe that only perhaps 10% of students should NOT outline. These are generally non-read/write learners, and mostly strong visual learners. Even for them, though, I strongly recommend some other quasi-outlining process like master flow-charting. This provides the means by which to review the course and see the big picture but in a visual-learner-friendly manner. Every student with whom I've worked who has not outlined in some way has done poorly.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Jul 30, 2009 3:32:22 PM

There is at least a possibility of big-time selection bias - perhaps the type of student who tends to fill out such a form would be the type of student who would say "oh yes professor, thank you for banning laptops, it was so great"

Posted by: keith t | Jul 30, 2009 4:45:02 PM

Perhaps, which is why I was a bit disappointed in the yield. But two things cut against that conclusion as to this survey. First, wouldn't students who hated the ban take advantage of an opportunity to anonymously bitch about it? I would expect the selection bias to lure anyone who felt strongly about the issue. Second, the large number of students who said they were neutral about the ban suggests it was not only those who felt strongly positive about things.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 30, 2009 4:54:06 PM

Those are fair points. But I think generally speaking, the slacking, lap-top loving crowd are not the optional-survey-taking type. Maybe it doesn't really matter what the students think if you believe it's the best thing for your class. Laptop banning is a bit of a "you'll thank me later" kind of thing, it's not instantly gratifying in the way your questions suggest you might hope it is.

My personal belief is that allowing laptops but having no wireless signal is the fairest solution. A Prof should be able to be more interesting than solitaire or minesweeper.

Signed, spent most of law school screwing around on internet.

Posted by: keith t | Jul 30, 2009 6:46:34 PM

NewLawProf (and Howard):

Allow me to be a contrary data point. I did not outline, at all, in law school.[1] I graduated with highest honors from a T14 school. How do you know your better students' study habits? I doubt most of my professors had any idea whether I outlined or not. (For what it's worth, I also didn't bring a laptop to class most of the time, nor did I ever retype my handwritten notes.[2] I just re-read them when studying. But I graduated a few years ago.)

I don't quite understand why professors feel the need to enforce concentration. If students aren't motivated to concentrate without a laptop ban, isn't that indicative of some other problem (either with the teaching or with the students' maturity)? And certainly attorneys usually do not have their work habits dictated to them once they go into practice. It's one thing to worry about things like this in high school, or perhaps even college--but law school is professional school. If students don't attend class, let them bear the consequences.

[1] I did make a short list of cases when studying for one or two of my 1L classes. But I'm talking about a page, handwritten, created in an hour or so, and I soon gave up the practice as unnecessary.

[2] For this reason, I would have answered "neutral" to all the questions. Sorry, Howard.

Posted by: Unlearned Hand | Jul 30, 2009 7:55:18 PM

Howard: It strikes me as a bit strange that the "skill" of quick handwritten note taking, which you use in part as a selling point for your laptop ban, is not in any way connected to the evaluation you use in the course. If it's an important enough skill to force upon students, then shouldn't it be reflected in your course goals and, correspondingly, part of the assessment you use in class? (Frankly, I think that justification is completely bogus. Taking handwritten notes of a class lecture is not an authentic representation of the "skill" you describe in the examples you give.)

On a different note, what has always struck me as problematic about laptop bans is that I would have been detrimentally affected by one as a student (my understanding/performance/grades in law school increased dramatically when I began taking notes on my laptop in class*), but I have always been tempted to impose one as a professor. I don't do it for that very reason. It's too often about a professor's need for a particular kind of attention in class and not really about the high-flown pedagogical pseudo-justifications that are typically provided.

*I don't necessarily disagree with the idea that information (of the type that is tested on law school exams) is best learned through reprocessing, but don't follow you why that reprocessing has to be handwriting to typing. I, for instance, did it the opposite direction. Others could do it as NewLawProf has suggested: through making flowcharts. Why the fetish on starting with the handwritten (and, thus, less clear and complete) notes?

Posted by: anon | Jul 31, 2009 12:33:23 AM

One thought that wasn't mentioned in this post (although it may have been in previous posts), a laptop ban poses challenges for students with certain types of disabilities. First of all, it's possible that a student may have a disability but not have it documented at the school (perhaps if the main way she coped with it was to use a laptop in class and other things outside of class). Secondly, even if it is documented with the school, the student now has to decide whether to stand out in the class and admit their disability or try to cope without the laptop.

Posted by: Heather | Jul 31, 2009 3:18:25 AM

Unlearned Hand,

"How do you know your better students' study habits?" Our school has surveyed our students in class each year re: study methods. The response rates are about 95%, so we likely captured the top of the class. I will admit that there could be students at the top of the class who can get by (or even do well) without outlining. I have never seen such a student, though, and I can say that when we meet with students in the bottom third of the class as 2L's, a common motif is the lack of outlining (or woefully inadequate outlining).

"If students don't attend class, let them bear the consequences."

Other than the ABA rule that compels us to enforce attendance, I might tend to agree with you. But, surfing the internet in class is different. If you're absent, you're not distracting anyone in the classroom. If you're trawling the internet, the person behind you is distracted. (Not to mention distracting the prof. If a student is visibly laughing as I discuss homicide in Crim, s/he is either IMing or is at serious risk for being the next Ted Bundy). I initially was against laptop bans thinking that if a student wants to waste their tuition money, why should I stop them? But, when I had many students complain about the distraction of others' internet use, for me, that was the kicker.


There are work-arounds for your concerns. A professor can tape the course, allowing the student with the learning disability to use the laptop to take notes at a later time. This both accommodates the learning disability and avoids standing out in class.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Jul 31, 2009 8:24:54 AM

I stand with Heather on this one, NewLawProf. Yes-a professor can tape the course, allowing students with disabilities to take notes at a later time, but is this really the best work-around? This requires students with disabilities to sit through each class twice-that is one heck of a time sink that takes away from studying, writing papers, law journal, etc.

Also, please note that laptops are useful for more than learning disabilities. I have a physical fine motor deficit in my hands-I do just fine with typing and my hands don't do well with sustained handwriting. I have all the required documentation to be given accomodations regardless of a professor's policy for the rest of the class. That said, it was nice that I didn't need to use it any class because all of my professors allowed laptops.

I would have used a laptop anyway, even though it would have meant the entire class knowing that I had some sort of disability. I wouldn't have been thrilled at that prospect, but hey, I need to use a laptop. Not everyone is willing to self-identify.

Posted by: anonlawyer | Jul 31, 2009 11:35:25 AM

One work around that I really liked was a professor who had banned laptops also had two people take notes each class and then upload them to a course website to be shared by all. Each student had to take notes this way for I think two class periods. We could switch with one another if we could not make class that day or had other issues. It was up to the students taking notes for the class whether they used laptop or not, but most did bring their laptop for that day. Of course it was best for you to take your own notes everyday by hand, but then everyone had the chance to see someone else's often more detailed notes for each class - which helped with making outlines and with making sure you did not miss important things. There was no evaluation tied to the note-taking, so there was only the peer-pressure effect to make sure the notes were good. But really people did a nice job, it was helpful if you missed class, and the class got all the benefits of a laptop ban. As a handwriter myself in law school classes, I really appreciated the compromise and heard few complaints from die-hard laptop users.

Posted by: Anon Recent Grad | Jul 31, 2009 12:38:47 PM

A few comments, from the perspective of one who used a laptop in law school, and still uses one in practice--

1. I was in law school when laptops were starting to become required, but before most of us had wireless cards. I think setting up a classroom so wireless can be blocked somehow is the ideal solution, to eliminate the scope of available distraction -- IM in particular. Without wireless, we did have a "solitaire rating" (the percentage of students playing solitaire during a lecture as a measure of interest level). But without a laptop, we would have been doing something else, potentially more disruptive to amuse ourselves -- e.g., (hypothetically) pools/bets on who could work memorable quotes from The Big Lewbowski into class discussion first -- and solitaire is probably more innocuous as that goes.

2. A frequent objection students had to being required to type exams, etc., was that they didn't know how to type fast enough. But most law firms these days have such a low assistant-to-attorney ratio that the attorneys had better learn how to type before they start at the firm. Moreover, laptops are increasingly used by attorneys in practice -- I actually do type notes on my laptop in court, in meetings, and phone interviews. (I have learned how to type very quietly, and am sensitive to the setting, so I don't do it if it would seem rude.) So, it is a skill that is useful (at least) in practice.

3. I do not type in certain situations (depositions) that require both concentration and frequent interaction, but I also don't take much in the way of handwritten notes in those settings -- I find handwriting no less distracting than typing. On the other hand, I find typed notes to be more useful and comprehensible, and not just because my handwriting is bad. When I hand-wrote class notes, I was limited to just transcribing the lecture. When I could type notes in a word processor, I could outline as I went, which forced me to think about the content of the lecture and reformulate what the professor was saying in terms of where it was in the outline. (My end-of-semester outlining process was to rework and condense the outline.) So typing notes does not automatically translate to an inferior learning process.

I agree with all who say learning styles are different, and it's not one-size-fits-all. I do not retain anything well (reading or oral) unless I can write it down -- and the process of typing it in coherent fashion helps my retention, probably more so these days than handwriting. So, having note-taking banned in class and substituting making a recording/transcript available later would be double work for the more disciplined students, and the lazier students would skip class and just take the transcript.

Attorneys in practice now spend most of the day sitting in front of a computer (or a PDA). They need to learn how to do so without using it as a tool of distraction. Imposing discipline by banning laptops rather than requiring the students to learn the discipline themselves may not teach the students the skills they need....Perhaps the solution is not banning laptops, but conducting surprise checks of the screen and embarrassing the students who are surfing the web or chatting with friends...which is comparable, by the way, to having a partner walk in one's office while checking Facebook...

Posted by: SMS | Aug 11, 2009 4:33:45 PM

Post a comment