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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Classroom Laptop Use and Final Exams

I've long been convinced that my students would do better in law school if they left their laptops at home and came to class with a pencil and notebook.  I took notes the old-fashioned way in law school and have no regrets about the results.

But when it came time for final exams, I dragged out the laptop.  I liked the clean, typed version of the answer and the ease of editing by cutting and pasting.   And of course I could type much more quickly than I could handwrite, even if the laptop seemed rather uncomfortable and unfamiliar.  As a professor, I'm equally a fan of typed exams, finding them much easier to read than the handwritten ones.  

So a question for those professors who have advocated banning laptops in class: Do you also support banning laptops for the writing of final exams?  Is there a principled distinction between classroom laptop usage and final exam usage?  Many of the reasons I like to read typed final exams are the same reasons advanced by my students to support laptops in class.  I worry that it's a bit presumptuous of me to say they're wrong about class notes, when I clearly prefer the laptop product on final exams.

Posted by Carlton Larson on May 21, 2008 at 04:42 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Jason W,

I can easily imagine that if all the exams were handwritten, a bias would emerge in favor of neatly written exams; I believe studies have shown as much. But when you have, say, 57 typed and exams and 3 handwritten ones, it's a lot easier to spend the extra time to decipher the chicken scratchings. My profound gratitude that I became a law professor in the era of typed exams does not make me hostile to the holdouts using Bluebooks.

I do worry that there's a bias in favor of fast typers. The solution to that problem (and several others) is word limits. I am always amazed that virtually all of my students ignore my repeated pleas not to waste their exam time typing me background essays on the law and/or facts. I am especially amazed that the hand-writers ignore those please.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | May 22, 2008 5:18:14 PM

Uh...yeah, there's a distinction: we won't surf the internet during your final exams. I promise!

-Rick Lax

Posted by: Ric | May 22, 2008 4:06:04 PM

I question the primary justification for banning laptops in class (more conducive to learning; the pedagogical reason) to begin with. Law students are adults. Graduated college and everything. Why should you, professors, have to (or try to) hold your students' hands to make sure they get the Best Learning Experience? Let's consider the surfing the internet while you teach phenomenon. I have a few points to make.

#1. If the in-class discussion/lecture is vital to understanding the material, or to thinking through a problem, those who choose not to pay attention in class will be exposed by the final exam. But perhaps you don't want to fail anyone (perhaps your school has a policy against failing anyone). What does it say about a class when the professor establishes rules and policies the students find burdensome, ostensibly to help the students learn the material better, but then when it comes time to examine whether the students have learned the material, the professor doesn't honestly evaluate the students' work? (Unless you find passing someone who deserves (on the basis of their exam) to fail honest.) Perhaps, though, you don't think a student's performance should be decided in one moment, in the exam. Maybe students get nervous, and you're a softy. Tip: don't make the grade turn on 1 exam. Give more exams. Give weekly tests. Give quizzes. If you're trying to hew closely to law school Tradition, consider whether holding your students' hands in this fashion (rather than letting them sink or swim on their own) is consistent with law school Tradition. I'm not suggesting that you should be evil bastards intent on making class an awful experience. I'm just saying... the reasons I hear for banning laptops in classes don't strike me as all that rational.

#2. If the in-class discussion/lecture is not vital to understanding the material, or to thinking through a problem, then why do you want your students to focus so intently on the class discussion/lecture? Obviously you don't want to waste your time by speaking at people who aren't listening. But if the in-class experience doesn't, by itself, facilitate understanding, perhaps you should reevaluate the way you structure your classes. Now, perhaps you'll say that the in-class experience is an important part of law school, because there's a dialogue, and the class is spent wrestling with problems, and by not paying attention in class (surfing the internet; g-chatting; watching the baseball game online) we (the students) will miss out on a necessary component of law school. I say again, though. What's the grade for? If you're trying to teach us skills, rather than substantive law, test for the skills. If a student fails that test because the student decided to not pay attention in class, why should that be your concern? Maybe because even if a student pays attention in class, and engages in the process, they still might struggle on the test, even if the test is designed to assess the skills you were trying to teach. In that case, then, perhaps you should reflect on whether your classroom performance is as worthwhile as you are implicitly claiming it to be by trying to force your students to pay attention. Or, perhaps, those failing students really ought not be in law school. If those skills really are vital to being a lawyer, and a student pays attention and engages in the process, but still can't acquire the skills, maybe, just maybe, the person shouldn't be a lawyer. But maybe it's not your place to say (or to imply by failing) that a person shouldn't be a lawyer. Then why do you believe that it is your place to say that your classroom experience is crucial to developing the skills necessary to be a lawyer?

#3a. I'm an autodidact. I learn material in my own way. I have confidence in my ability to teach myself. Give me a detailed syllabus (as in, don't leave things out of it that you intend to cover in class as a back-door way of trying to compel your students to attend class) and give me the same amount of time as the rest of the class to learn the material. Let me decide when I want to come to class, when I want to pay attention in class, and when I don't want to do either. I am willing to submit myself to the same evaluation as everyone else, and so far, my experience has been that I do just as well as everyone else. In fact, not to toot my own horn here, but I tend to be in the upper percentages of my class. The only caveat, of course, is that the evaluation can't include questions like, "We talked about Case X in class. What did we say about it?" That's just another way to try to compel class attendance and attentiveness. I'm confident that my life as a practicing lawyer won't hinge on my ability to regurgitate what was said in a room with 100 people in it after 14 weeks, but without being able to consult with the other 100 people first, or where what was said wasn't memorialized in a document of some kind.

#3b. I would suggest that by banning laptops in class, perhaps you really are helping some students learn more. But perhaps, just perhaps, you're doing a disservice to other students. (To be fair, I feel the same way about attendance policies. I think they are ridiculous, tend to treat students like they're back in high school rather than in a professional degree program, and reflect nothing more than professors' beliefs that their class is Important and Worthwhile (regardless of whether the professor's class is, in fact, either.)) My question, then, is why do you prefer to benefit those who would be benefited vis-a-vis those who are not benefited by banning laptops?

#4. My final point reflects more my pure opinion, my pop-psych take on it. I think the move to ban laptops in class, while compelling class attendance--i.e., the attempt to force students to pay attention in your classes--stems from one trait I have noticed in the great majority of law professors (yes, law professors in particular). Namely, narcissism. Aside from teenagers, I have yet to meet a more narcissistic collection of people than law professors. Perhaps you want to force your students to pay attention in class--even if the class isn't vital to their learning or understanding the material, learning some vital skill, or even passing the class--because you want the rapt, captivated, captive attention of 100+ students two times a week. Maybe not. Maybe I'm wrong. I certainly know some professors who aren't utterly enamored of themselves and who don't believe that their Presence, their Word, in class is the key to a student's success in law. Interestingly enough, the most down-to-earth law professors I have met, know or otherwise experienced, the professors who are least consumed by themselves, are also the ones who didn't have attendance policies and didn't really care if you came to class or not. They taught their material, tested you on it, and if you didn't want to show up, fine. Most people needed to show up, though, in order to understand the material, at least at some points in the class. (I'm thinking of 2 in particular, in my experience.) At others, they (I) didn't. The professor wanted you to learn the material. To be able to apply legal concepts to factual situations. If you could do that successfully without showing up to class, great. If not, show up to class. Or don't do well. That was the choice we were given. We, adults all, made our choices.

Perhaps I'm being too categorical about professorial motivations. And I'm certainly generalizing from a small sample to the law professoriate. But I have yet to be given a clear, consistent and compelling explanation for why laptops really should be banned in classes. That just leaves me to my observations, which I've shared above. I readily admit that I could fantastically wrong and am open to being convinced that I am. But what I've stated is where I stand, for now.

Posted by: Learning Hand | May 22, 2008 2:59:09 PM

Jason W.:

I worry about an unconscious bias against hand-written exams, too, so I always check to make sure that the hand-written exams are not unfairly penalized. As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the handwritten exams and the typed ones. I've had many high-scoring handwritten exams and many low-scoring typed ones. The typed ones are easier to read, both for legibility and because they require flipping through fewer pages, but all professors should take steps to ensure that there is no influence on the final grade.


I hadn't considered this issue with respect to the bar exam, but I think it's a good point. Students should at least do some handwriting, even if just on their own, to practice for the bar. I remember my hand being very sore after the bar exam, and I'm sure it would be much worse now, given how little handwriting I do.

Posted by: Carlton Larson | May 22, 2008 1:31:27 PM

Law Student:

You are certainly correct that students today learn differently than students in past "generations" did. But you are wrong that you have no reason to learn to take notes by hand. Professional standards and conventions in the legal community require you to be without your computer at times. It is precisely BECAUSE you gave up handwriting in the fifth grade that some professors and instructors require you to learn the skill now

Posted by: Hillel Levin | May 22, 2008 11:08:07 AM

Larson says that he "took notes the old-fashioned way" and suggests that, since it worked for him, it should work equally well for his students. Other profs have made the same argument. This is amazingly obtuse. Don't you profs look in the mirror, look out at your class, and then realize that -- perhaps -- you are a bit older than your students?

The mesozoic era is past. We, your students, gave up handwriting as early as fifth grade. We've been typing since then and have had little incentive to develop good handwriting skills or methods of "old-fashioned" note taking.

Posted by: Law Student | May 22, 2008 9:42:10 AM

I think Jason makes a good point. There have been studies done on biases in the classroom. Those studies have examined everything from teacher-to-student clothing and political affiliation biases to handwriting analysis. For those requiring hand-written exams, there is a distinct possibility that the resulting grades may be skewed to favor those students whose handwriting is seen as "desirable" or "professional" by the professor.

Posted by: Christopher | May 22, 2008 8:12:13 AM

Having done my exams by hand for the first time this semester (my laptop just can't be trusted not to die in the middle of the exam, and my law school rather churlishly refuses to give you the time you lose to technology trouble at the end of the exam), I'm very concerned by the professors here who seem to be expressing a strong anti-hand bias. Have you analyzed your grades, professors, to see whether computer users are getting higher grades than writers? And then have you reexamined the exams to see whether this is actually a just result? These are the kinds of things profs routinely do to ensure that there aren't hidden biases in grading, right?

Posted by: Jason W. | May 22, 2008 1:00:01 AM

I ban laptops in class, but permit them for finals. My concerns with laptops in class are pedagogical; these concerns do not exist for the final. Instead, I want students to apply what they have learned and I want them to be able to demonstrate their knowledge and thinking ability in the most efficient way possible for them and me--they are under time pressure, and I do not want to have to decipher chicken scratch. I've graded hand-written bluebooks before and it ain't pretty.

Posted by: Adam Levitin | May 22, 2008 12:19:40 AM

I note that I took two bar exams - IN and MI - neither allowed laptops. Some states do (VA, for instance) allow typing the bar.

The hand is comprised of muscles, and those used for typing are very different than those used for writing. Hand cramps are distracting and difficult during the bar, and if students type for three years, and learn how to write and read using the computer, where will they be on the bar when their hand is exhausted after less than 1/2 of the exam is over?

Pragmatically, it would make sense to forbid laptops the third year of law school, in preparation for the bar exam.


Posted by: Jonathan | May 21, 2008 9:58:27 PM

I concur with all of the above. The negatives of laptops in the classroom--surfing and other distractions, steongraphic notetaking, non-engagement in class discussions--outweigh the positive that students type better than they write. As Orin notes, those negatives are absent w/ exam-writing. I also would guess that having students write their exams on computer likely is beneficial not only to those of us having to read the papers, but to the students as well, who probably cannot write well long=hand but do better on computers.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 21, 2008 8:11:35 PM

I banned laptops in my first year crim law class, but allowed (and preferred) their use for the final exam. I think that Hillel's thoughts on how to reconcile to two policies this are spot on!

Posted by: C.Hessick | May 21, 2008 7:56:11 PM

For the love of God, no. My students at Auckland are required -- yes, required -- to write their finals by hand, even though they are permitted to use laptops to take notes in class. It's a nightmare. I can only imagine how many excellent students are getting lower grades for no other reason than they write so slowly or have such bad handwriting that I cannot decipher it. What I would give for typed answers...

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | May 21, 2008 7:54:22 PM

I don't really understand the concern. In law school, as in law practice, as in life, sometimes something is appropriate and sometimes it is not.

In law practice, it may be inappropriate to use a laptop, say, when meeting with a client or taking instructions from a senior attorney; but it is appropriate to type memos and briefs on a laptop.

Although many of the same arguments that apply in the memos and briefs context also apply in the meeting context, it doesn't follow that the same behavior is appropriate in both contexts.

Posted by: Hillel Levin | May 21, 2008 5:44:29 PM

I think TJ gets it right. The no-laptops-in-class rule, where it exists, seems to reflect concerns about their negative effects on learning; no one thinks (I assume) laptops are bad when it comes to producing readable (easier-to-proofread) text.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 21, 2008 5:02:47 PM

Of course there is a distinction: presumably no one is surfing the net in the final exam. And no one is supposed to be paying attention to the lecturn in the exam.

Of course, the real reason that professors prefer laptop exams is that they are more readable. But there is also a difference between reading someone else's bad handwriting (professor reading exams), and reading your own bad handwriting (student reading notes). Most people can read their own bad handwriting.

Posted by: TJ | May 21, 2008 4:47:04 PM

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