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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Laptops and law-school learning

Any thoughts about David Cole's piece, "Laptops v. Learning," in today's Washington Post?  Prof. Cole opens with this:

"Could you repeat the question?"

In recent years, that has become the most common response to questions I pose to my law students at Georgetown University. It is usually asked while the student glances up from the laptop screen that otherwise occupies his or her field of vision. After I repeat the question, the student's gaze as often as not returns to the computer screen, as if the answer might magically appear there. Who knows, with instant messaging, maybe it will. . . .

In the essay, Prof. Cole explains his decision to exclude lap-tops from his large first-year class, and discusses some of the results of his experiment.  He concludes:

How does banning laptops work in practice? My own sense has been that my class is much more engaged than recent past classes. I'm biased, I know. So I conducted an anonymous survey of my students after about six weeks -- by computer, of course.

The results were striking. About 80 percent reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free. Seventy percent said that, on balance, they liked the no-laptop policy. And perhaps most surprising, 95 percent admitted that they use their laptops in class for "purposes other than taking notes, such as surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging and the like." Ninety-eight percent reported seeing fellow students do the same.

I suspect that most law profs share some of Cole's concerns; but, few of us, I gather, have done what Cole has done.  Why not?

Posted by Rick Garnett on April 8, 2007 at 11:20 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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"The bottom line is that I'm a better law student with a laptop in front of me."

Yes, of course. So you can sit in class with your friends and read that "Philalawyer" or "Anonymous Lawyer" tripe. And we wonder why the profession's going to seed.

Posted by: James | Apr 19, 2007 11:13:01 AM

I'm just finishing up my first year, and I've tried it both ways. Since I'm particularly prone to classroom distractions, particularly in the midst of an enthralling law school class, I refused to bring my laptop into class for my entire first semester. This made me the only member of my first year section to take notes by hand. And though in general I seemed to have an easier time avoiding distractions in class, I by no means was immune from losing concentration. I didn't feel like the absence of a laptop made me feel more engaged. Maybe that's because the rest of my class was glued to their computer screens, but honestly I doubt it.

After finishing my first round of exams in December, I concluded that the benefits avoiding a computer's distrations had been outweighed by the handicap I felt by not being able to efficiently take accurate, organized notes in class, and quickly translate those into my study materials for finals. I decided to switch to laptop-notetaking for the second semester.

Even for the best professors, there are long periods when the discussion of the class simply isn't helpful to many of the classmembers. We're not all confused by exactly the same things, and if you DO understand a concept, it's generally a bad idea to listen to your fellow students struggle with the concept, lest you get confused by their different approach. These are the times when people get distracted, whether they've got a computer in front of them or not. However, the transition to a discussion or issue that IS helpful to a student can happen at a moment's notice. The significant material coming from your professor often gets spouted out (way too) quickly, and the average student is madly trying to get that concept down while also trying to pay attention.

When I took notes by hand, there was no way I could get down the concept accurately while keeping up with the class. I just can't write as quickly as I can type, and I know that's true of most people. I lost too much essential information between what my mind was able to capture from my professor's lecture and what I was able to get down on paper before it slipped out of my head. Now, since I've begun using my laptop for taking notes in my second semester, it doesn't matter if I've spent the last 20 minutes checking email...once my professor starts into the material that actually helps me, I can quickly record that information while still being engaged in the class.

I'll acknowledge that a big part of the problem is that most of my professors don't seem to recognize the elements of the material that pose the biggest problems for the most people. This seems obvious, but when the room goes from deathly quiet to the furious sound of a clutter of keystrokes, that means that what you're saying is important to your students. Slow down. Repeat yourself. Stay with that material. We're confused.

The bottom line is that I'm a better law student with a laptop in front of me.

Posted by: Bored 1L | Apr 17, 2007 11:39:24 AM

I, too, echo Baude's criticism that "helping" the majority of 'slackers' at cost to the responsible minority
seems a questionable move, particularly at a professional school, and particularly where the majority can choose to leave a computer shut but the minority can not choose to open one up in a laptop-banned classroom.

Moroever, and to dash a bit of sass into the conversation: On the one hand, when lectures are good, and where classes are on a curve, I frankly don't care for a professors' help in getting everyone up to speed and helping them pull themselves up by their bootstraps (as it's their personal choice to screw-off). Any momentary tick of annoyance I experience in someone's computer flashing before me is brushed off by the fact that I'm listening to test material and they're not. On the other hand, of course, if the lecture is empty, then I suppose I'm the one loosing out.

Posted by: Coleson Bruce | Apr 13, 2007 1:08:30 PM

I'm genuinely surprised to learn that Professor Olson thinks that 1L class time is there to teach students critical thinking skills. The entire method of engaging with the doctrinal material in, e.g., Contracts -- at least to the extent that students are looking forward to the exam, which except at maybe Yale they necessarily must -- seems to me to discourage critical thought. We don't do close reading; we talk about issues and holdings and often reasoning, but in the end what's important is that we extract rules of law from cases, and then apply that law at the end of a semester to a fact pattern/issue spotter. Occasionally class discussion will veer to policy or the difficulties in reconciling various cases... but my undergraduate English degree required much more "critical thinking" (there, "lit crit") than anything in the standard 1L curriculum (esp. any 1L class period--you could argue for exams, certainly, although at least in my experience those just ask for us to apply the law, which (moreso in tort than conlaw) tends to be fairly straightforward).

I would echo William Baude's criticism. For those of us who use our computers to take good notes, perhaps even there the "no computers" approach might create better in-class participation, but it would certainly create more work in exam preparation (and more work is not what 1Ls need--in fact, less might actually make critical engagement more possible). Better learning? Again, maybe on average, sure--but why can't students be asked to take responsibility for their own learning, rather than seeing them benefit at the cost of others who are already doing that?

Posted by: a 1L | Apr 12, 2007 12:58:03 AM

A professor is not a client. The purpose of class is to learn the material. If a student is not paying attention to something crucial, then exam should reflect whatever loss that class time represents. If that is not the case, then I question the importance of the lecture.

Posted by: anon | Apr 10, 2007 10:32:38 PM

In response to Rick's quite insightful comment above, I think I should add what I think is the slightly more nuanced version of the paternalism complaint.

Suppose it is the case, which I am almost certain it is, that for some students, having a laptop (with or without the internet) is in their best interests. For others, it is not. Banning laptops may then help a majority of students, but hurt a minority.

We might think that's fine, that professors should do what would be good for a majority of their students. But the groups are not necessarily symmetric-- it might be that laptops are helpful for some students who have self-control, self-awareness about how to take useful non-transcription notes, etc., while laptops are bad for students who are easily distracted, lack self-control, or lack much real interest in the subject matter. It's not obvious to me that professors should favor the latter group over the former, and it does seem to me that one might criticize a policy as "paternalist" if it helps students who are less mature, while hurting students that are more mature.

That is, even if it is true that professors sometimes do know what is in the best interests of their students, they might be hesitant about assuming that it is in the best interests of *all* their students, and they also might think that at least some policies that help a majority might still be bad because they hurt a minority with a different learning style.

Posted by: William Baude | Apr 10, 2007 6:09:40 PM

I am extremely thankful that I just finished my last class and will be gone before this asinine "laptop banning" idea gains any steam.

Posted by: a | Apr 10, 2007 3:27:10 PM

One idea that's missing here is that the entire *idea* of law school is somewhat paternalistic. Why not just let people study on their own, or in informal discussion groups? Why force everyone to read the same pages of the same textbook? Why have exams? Formalizing things forces people to actually buckle down and learn (and teach!) certain material at certain times. Banning laptops doesn't seem so far beyond that pale.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Apr 10, 2007 1:56:37 PM

Especially in the first year, law school is mental OJT. It's an exercise to develop critical THINKING not transcription or other note taking skills.

When I teach Contracts, I require them to purchase a commercial outline and forbid note taking. After a week or so, they become engaged in the flow of ideas and both participation and performance leaps forward. Sure it can lead to "bad" evaluations, but that's what tenure is for.

Posted by: 33yearProf | Apr 10, 2007 12:37:21 PM

If a prof banned laptops from an upper year class, I simply wouldn't take the course. I have bad handwriting and I have no interest in typing 50 hrs of handwritten notes.

Posted by: a | Apr 10, 2007 11:38:29 AM

At our school, we have one notorious first year property professor who doesn't allow laptops for class or exams. The general consensus is that students who had his class have at least as strong, if not better, grasp on property as students in other sections.

Of course, this prof is kind of crazy, and I think he only bans computers because he hates students, and not because of some kind of comittment to enhancing student learning.

Posted by: TJR | Apr 10, 2007 10:59:24 AM

If profs are so concerned about students using the internet or playing games during class, then why can't they petition the administration to disable the wireless internet for wherever the classrooms are? Obviously all schools are not built the same, but in my school the majority of the classrooms are on floors separate from the public areas (lounge, library, etc) and those floors do not have any wireless routers, so most rooms do not get internet. I would guess that many schools are constructed similarly, and simply disabling wireless in classroom areas/floors could be a better option than banning computers, which could have more of a destructive impact for many students than a constructive one.

Posted by: NYC 2L | Apr 10, 2007 10:30:53 AM

I am struck by the extent to which people's reactions to Cole's op-ed, and to the whole "should profs ban laptops" thing, reflect the view that a prof's reasons for such a ban would involve either (a) jealousy (i.e., "I'm boring and the Internet is interesting so, I'll ban the competition") or (b) paternalism (i.e., "these students think that taking lots of notes helps them learn, but they are mistaken; *I* know how they can learn best).

I'm sure that, in many cases, these are, or would be, the reasons. And, it seems to me that (a) is a lousy reason; students are right to resent (a)-based bans.

With respect to (b), I'm not sure: I mean, maybe it is *true* that a good professor, with experience, has some valuable insights into what makes for better law-learning strategies?

I guess it still seems to me (and, to be clear, I have never banned laptops, though I ask students to stay off the Internet) that a non-jealous, non-insecure, non-megalomaniacal professor, who was genuinely committed to student learning and success (and not merely to his or her own pet theories, etc.) *could* conclude in good faith that lap-top use / Internet use / transcription-style notetaking are not in the students' best interest. Of course, even if she did, it would not necessarily follow that laptops should be banned or their use limited. . . .

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 10, 2007 10:20:13 AM

Also, to further illustrate the issue of punishing students who are utilizing a laptop for legitimate purposes as a result of those who are not, the recent policy changes that LSAC has made serve as an interesting parallel. Digital timers and digital wristwatches are banned starting in June, and rumor has it that it is because of some students who didn't silence their timers. Judging by the comments I have heard from others both on and offline it seems that
future LSAT takers are already agitated and distracted about the policy change. This is the same group of students from which future law students will be drawn.

Posted by: EF | Apr 10, 2007 3:55:25 AM

This also seems like it could be a form of punishment for students who are using their laptops for legitimate note taking purposes. Those students’s could possibly become frustrated and stressed about the inability to use a laptop. Thus, they will then end up with a distraction that inhibits their attention. This seems especially likely considering that there tend to be more nervous types, and type A personalities among law students.
Furthermore, something important that no one has brought up yet is that this could present significant obstacles for students with disabilities. Now, if the law school has an effective disabilities services office the student could probably get an accommodation that specifically states that they must be permitted the use of a laptop in class. However, this potentially involves paperwork and time which could put said students behind in a class. Plus, these students would also have to deal with potential animosity from the professor with the policy, as well as their fellow students. Some might say that these types of students probably have obvious disabilities and they have become accustomed to dealing with these sorts of issues, such as for example a student with disfigured hands. However, individuals with dysgraphia and other types of motor skills deficits do not have visible disabilities, and are more at risk for suffering animosity. Sure, it would seem pretty silly to demand that someone who obviously can't hold a pencil should handwrite their notes, but such is not the case for someone who has a disability that is not as obvious.

Posted by: EF | Apr 10, 2007 3:46:51 AM

Seems what law professors hate most is that wireless Internet makes it obvious that they can neither interest their students intellectually nor construct their classes so that paying close attention in class is rewarded with better grades. Law students are adults paying tens of thousands of dollars to be in class, and yet professors can't make it worth their while to give lectures their exclusive attention. No wonder the professors want to ban laptops--they expose law school pedagogy for the disgrace it so often is. Here's a radical notion: if you want the students to pay attention in class, don't confiscate their laptops. Try some actual teaching instead. It is, after all, your job.

Posted by: ex-L | Apr 9, 2007 11:06:45 PM

One issue which no one has mentioned: learning != class participation. If a professor is telling me what he thinks is important, I want to type it into my notes, which will help with outlining and exam prep. Obviously if I can't write nearly as much without a computer, I'll be more immediately engaged, but I think it's a mistake to assume this means increased "learning." Certainly it means increased ego-stroking for the professor, but that's hardly important.

And seconded (thirded, fourthed, whatever) on the reaction that if we're playing Solitaire in class, it's not because of the laptop -- we all went to school in the pre-laptop era, and we've all doodled in our notebooks in that scenario. I've drawn more than a few sailboats in a boring history class (or, say, if I'm just too tired to really pay attention).

Posted by: a 1L | Apr 8, 2007 10:33:19 PM

My laptop broke on the first day of this, my last semester of law school, and I've been without it since. I have to say that this has been my most engaged semester yet. I get fewer migraines and I'm more interested in even the more esoteric of my classes (i.e. bankruptcy). My professors have also noticed my laptop-free state and have responded well. If my less-enlightened classmates wish to waste their time on myspace, let them. I'm getting my student loan dollars worth out of my lectures. (But I'm still planning on using my laptop for exams and for the bar! Now there's an excellent use of technology.)

Posted by: enlightened_3L | Apr 8, 2007 10:01:55 PM

What about professors who "live-blog" conferences? Can a distinction be made, other than that students indirectly pay for the professors attendance at these conferences, while students in law schools foot their own bill? And don't tell me that all live-blogging professors only take notes...they must check email and news just as we law students do periodically during class.

Posted by: 3L | Apr 8, 2007 9:18:06 PM

I ban the use of internet and games but allow for computers. The students are very grateful so far as I can tell; I haven't yet banned computers but I wonder about doing that for my seminar or small classes. I might try that this fall and see how the experiment goes.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 8, 2007 9:05:37 PM

Our professor bans laptops in class. I absolutely think that it forces us to pay attention more. Though, I also find that my peers complain a lot more.

Posted by: 1L | Apr 8, 2007 9:03:04 PM

I graduated from law school a year ago and found it very frustrating to be in classes with people on laptops -- surfing the web, instant messaging, playing games and, yes, even watching porn. Putting aside the obvious point that such behavior is a detriment to the person engaging in it, it's distracting to other students and disrespectful of the professor and the class. I concur that it's so frustrating to be one of the students who actually prepared and, as a result, to have to answer questions asked of other students who can't answer because they're on the Internet.

A suggestion: Law school is a professional school. So why not apply standards of professional behavior? Here's a simple rule: If it's not something you can do in a client meeting, then don't do it in the classroom. That means paying attention, being attentive, being ready to respond to the client's (professor's) question at any moment and being respectful of the other people in attendance. The kind of inattentive behavior that is deemed acceptable or is tolerated in the law school classroom will never fly in a professional environment. Students need to learn those lessons as well or they're in for a rude awakening. I think professors should be -- and shouldn't have to apologize for -- raising the bar, not lowering it or simply capitulating to the prevailing behavior among law students. Tell the students to grow up. If you don't, their future employers will -- and they won't be accused of paternalism. A person can learn to live without a laptop for 90 minutes and might actually learn something ... about the law and respect for others.

Posted by: Attorney | Apr 8, 2007 8:34:08 PM

Jason, I'm not sure I understand the "paternalism" charge, as directed against, say, Prof. Cole. Is it "paternalist" to presume that Prof. Cole has a good idea -- being an accomplished law teacher -- what is conducive to effective learning by law students? (Your point about students who need laptops is one that should be considered carefully, I agree.)

Grumpy 3L's point is an important one: Certainly, professors who are not effective teachers should not use students' laptop use as an excuse for their failure, or lack of effort. But, I'm sure that many professors who are quite effective and engaging, and entirely committed to student learning, share Prof. Cole's frustration with the field-of-laptops problem.

I agree with skooby about attendance policies, for what it's worth. But, the ABA has its rules . . .

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Apr 8, 2007 7:14:07 PM

If "it strikes people as paternalist" to ban laptops in class, then those people should re-think their first impressions. As a current law student in my final semester, nothing is more annoying for me than to have other students fooling around on the internet around me. Using the internet in class isn't just disrespectful of the professor and a distraction to the student using the internet, it's a serious distraction to other students who may be trying to pay attention to the lecture. You can claim that there's nothing forcing me or other students to pay attention to your screen, but it's difficult when you've got shuffling cards or instant messenger windows popping up on the screen every ten seconds. It's not that professors who ban laptops are just telling people what the "best way to learn" is; I think they're also taking account of the other students in class who are actually there to learn.

I would argue, though, that professors who have a "no-laptop" policy should also have liberal attendance policies to allow those people who don't think they're getting anything out of the lecture to skip class entirely and not have to hang around falling asleep because they can't play spider solitaire or shop for their new spring dress at Nordstrom's online.

Posted by: skooby | Apr 8, 2007 4:32:17 PM

Dear Laptop Hating Professors - The reason students aren't paying attention to you isn't because they have laptops. It's because they're not interested in your lecture. Get over it. I'm as upset as you are that students paying way to much money for such a great education are wasting it playing solitaire. But that's their problem and not yours.

Posted by: grumpy 3L | Apr 8, 2007 4:18:53 PM

Lack of tenure. On the chance that students do not respond as well as they did to Cole and take it out in course/teacher evaluations and complaints about the (admitted) paternalism and authoritarianism, an untenured professor is vulnerable. I would love to do what Cole (and one of my senior colleagues here) has done. Perhaps I will in a couple of years.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 8, 2007 12:37:01 PM

Why don't profs do this more? Because it strikes people as paternalist, for one thing. And I think they're right. Are profs really going to tell people, "This is the best way to learn, and that's how you're going to do it, personal choices, preferences, and learning styles be damned"? Remember, 80%, while a substantial majority, still leaves 20% of the class *unable* to learn the way that they've found best. Without such a policy, the 80% who learn best without laptops are still free to not bring them to class. (I, for instance, have not encountered any profs who have banned laptops in my classes, but I don't bring one anyway - it *is* distracting to me.)

A minor point, but not completely insignificant, is that it also creates a situation where someone who *needs* a laptop (b/c of a learning or physical disability) is now visibly an outsider in the class.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 8, 2007 11:39:58 AM

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