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Monday, February 04, 2008

Take Note(s): Students, Laptops, and Power Point

While I was out, the topic of laptops in the classroom rose again, beginning with yet another account of how a laptop ban improved the apparent quality of class discussion. More, with excellent comments, here. The usual arguments came out about paternalism, our responsibility to make class interesting in order to keep students from surfing, the uniquely distracting nature of laptops and the internet, and why the net is different from The Times crossword puzzle or the doodling that law students did in the prehistoric pre-internet days (which for me was 1994). Dan then weighed in with a slightly different issue--his use (now non-use) of Power Point in class, which he called the "teacher's 'laptop'," suggesting that profs might give up Power Point if they are going to make students give up laptops.

I want to link laptops and Power Point around a problem to which both contribute: Students' inability, unwillingness, or both, to master the art of in-class notetaking--of writing down, in a few words and phrases, the essential idea and gist of the discussion; of marking and annotating key language in texts that are being discussed; and of listening to and grasping the discussion (while also participating in it) while taking brief notes that capture the main points and ideas, all of which then will be integrated with their reading and other notes. Laptops breed stenography--typing down verbatim (and most students can type this fast) what is being said without really thinking about it or grasping it. Power point--as it is all-too-often used simply to present the outline and notes of exactly what the professor is saying--further obviates the need to think about what one is writing down during the discussion; just copy down what is on the slides, without necessarily having to think about what it means or how it all fits together. And many students want us to go further by giving them the slides to download or cut/paste into a Word doc. Kristin Hickman made similar arguments about notetaking as a dying art, in part because of Power Point, three years ago in this very forum.

My printed lecture notes are more-or-less incomprehensible to anyone but me, so making them available to students would not be very helpful. In class, I write key phrases, concepts, quotations (usually taken from a case or rule), section numbers, ideas, flow charts, and problems on the board, which we then work through and incorporate into the conversation as the class goes along. I (for lack of a better word) interact with the stuff on the board throughout the class. These are not "lecture notes" in any sense of the word; they are the highlights or key concepts that students should write down and around which they can arrange their notes. I have had many students tell me they appreciate this approach; others keep demanding that I put all this on Power Point and on a web site. But since I never know exactly when we will hit a particular concept or phrase in the course of a class or in what order some issues will come up, putting it on slides would not work, unless I want to spend time jumping forward and back to find the right spot during class.

One complaint (which I have received on evaluations) would be that I am being insensitive to other types of learners, namely visual learners. But my understanding of visual learning is that one needs to see, to visualize, the concept being discussed, to see the concept in action. I think I try to meet those needs because the point or problem or framework we are discussing is on the board to be viewed and I keep pointing to it there as we go; key points are highlighted by putting them in writing. They just are not in downloadable form. Respecting visual learning does not (or, at least, should not) mean that everything I say, or even an outline of what I say, must be in permanent visual form, displayed on a screen.

And, as lawyers, they are not going to have that option during trial, or while watching a deposition, or conducting a negotiation, or discussing matters with a client. Being able to take quick handwritten notes on the fly, based on what you hear, is, I believe, an essential lawyering skill.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 4, 2008 at 09:22 AM | Permalink


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While I'm not a law professor, all of the above rings true in my own case in the classroom: no laptops, no Power Point, no "bells and whistles." I warn my students on the first day of class that I'm not too fond of what's fashionable in pedagogical techniques (if not philosophy) and that they'll be required to read, take notes, write a 7-10 pg. paper as well as take essay exams (no multiple choice, Scantrons, etc.), and listen carefully, in the first instance (of course there's class discussion, etc.). A more low-tech classroom you can hardly imagine. Attentive listening, careful reading, and disciplined writing are increasingly lost arts.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 4, 2008 9:48:29 AM

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