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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Laptops and perverse incentives

Among those who want to ban laptops because of a dislike of stenographic notetaking, any proposal always includes some mechanism to enable students to obtain mostly-stenographic notes. Eugene Volokh's new policy provides that one volunteer student in each class will take notes that will be made available to the class. I am experimenting this semester with recording and providing audio files for each class (when i can get my MP3 player to work). Others make PowerPoint slides available, etc. Two common themes in all this.

One is an assumption that banning laptops will not break students of their (what we believe problematic) addiction to verbatim notes, which is what we are using to justify prohibiting each student from taking (verbatim) notes on her own. Is the assumption that forcing students to take "better" notes (danger quotes intentional) will not work and they will need to get their transcripts some other way? And the only way to sell a no-laptops policy is to ensure they get their stenographic fix another way? If so, I think the paternalism objection falls away somewhat--we no longer are doing iit "for their own good" (i.e., teaching them how to take notes the "right way"), but only to create the discussion environment we (as professors) want, which we can do however we think best (through our choice of classroom styles or through our choice to look at faces and not laptop backs). The assumption seems to be they are not going to learn to take notes any differently.

Second, as an e-mailer noted about my use of audio recording, these alternatives create the perverse incentive to skip class. Students need not go to class to get the notes they need--they can just download the audio file or get the common notes from the designated notetaker. I believe (and hope) that some combination of grading class participation, rigorous attendance policy, and my conducting an interesting and entertaining class on an interesting subject takes care of that. But it is an interesting example of unintended consequences--in taking steps to enhance the quality of the in-class experience, we give some students a reason/justification not to show up for the experience.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 23, 2008 at 07:35 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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P. DuPont:

In a vacuum, I might not agree with you that transcripts have their uses, based on being from a generation of students and law students (not *so* long ago) that did not need or use them. But learning styles have changed and current students need (or at least want and are able to work with) transcripts, so I will concede your point. And that leads me to two things:

1) Transcripts have their uses, but the *process* of transcribing appears to be inconsistent with fullest participation in discussions. If we stop students from transcribing, we can get better and fuller participation. Early anecdotal evidence of improved discussions and participation suggest at least some correlation. But since transcripts do have their uses, we compensate for the laptop ban for with some alternative means for obtaining the transcript--designated class notetaker/stenographer (Volokh), audio file made available (me), allowing individual audio recording, or some other method.

I have written elsewhere that the analogy I draw is to a deposition or a trial--you take quick notes while it is going on so you can follow the testimony and now how to participate (asking questions, objecting, etc.) and could not possibly transcribe and conduct the dep simultaneously. You then get a full transcript a few days later and can work more fully off of that.

But that was my original point in this post--we have accepted that transcripts are essential, even if laptops are not.

2) You said "I find that the process of reducing a transcript to a concise set of notes is one of the most effective ways for me to study." This touches on a different concern: Too many students taking stenographic computer notes do not do anything to reduce the transcript to a concise set of notes or an outline--they simply cut-and-paste the transcript/class notes into a single document and study from that. This is unfortunate because a) individual class notes are not necessarily organized in the best way to synthesize all the material and b) it is a thoughtless process and it is the process of reducing transcript to notes where (I believe) learning occurs. Clearly, your description of your study process suggests this is not a problem. Would that more students took your approach.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 24, 2008 6:49:40 PM

The concerns in this post don't address what I think the bulk of law students do with their laptops, which is to take non-verbatim notes. I've only run into a couple of students at NYU who actually try to write down every word.

That said, taking notes by hand is totally hopeless for me. I simply cannot write fast enough to be able to pay attention to what's being said, boil it down and transcribe the important bits all at the same time. It probably takes me four times as long (or longer) to write something by hand. That means that I have to spend four times the amount of time holding the idea in my head as I write it down. I probably only spend 10 percent of class time typing when I have a computer. My writing time balloons to about 40 percent if I have to rely on handwriting. The extra time I have to spend getting down a point I have just heard has a serious impact on my ability to focus on the next important point coming down the pike. The effect is sufficiently deleterious that I don't bother to take handwritten notes at all in laptop free classes. I'm forced to rely on a recording, or an assigned note-taker. Were I forced to take a class in which the professor forbade me any recording devices outside of a pen and paper, I would be screwed.

Finally, I find that the process of reducing a transcript to a concise set of notes is one of the most effective ways for me to study. Transcripts have their uses.

Posted by: P. Dupont | Aug 24, 2008 4:31:15 PM

There's an elephant in the room that no one is discussing.

Does having a "transcript of the class" translate to

1) Better grades on the sole exam for that semester?

2) Better lawyers in the 5 years after law school?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Aug 23, 2008 7:17:28 PM

What, exactly, is wrong with taking verbatim notes? It's interesting to me that this is considered such a negative thing.

I find that in some classes, taking down as much as I can type helps me when I get home later that day and try to synthesize. Sometimes (read: slow-moving classes with dry professors) I can do that mental sorting in class. More often (fortunately, I've had mostly great professors), I need to pay attention to what's said and to follow the arguments at hand; only later can I take the time to really digest them and pull out the important stuff. Is that the mark of a bad student? I hope not. I know how I study, and that's what works for me.

As to the argument about taking notes by hand with clients, I can ask the client to wait while I finish writing, I can ask the client if I can record a conversation, and I can ask the client to repeat him- (or her-) self. I can't do any of those things in class. And, I have to wonder really, if that won't change anyway. My doctor, for example, comes in now with a laptop and types out his notes. Why not lawyers, too?

Posted by: JM | Aug 23, 2008 5:40:20 PM

I have to say, I don't understand what all the concern is about. Let 'em do whatever.

That said, I have a question. IANAL(TG), so I'll pose this to the attorneys out there: As you go through your day, doing whatever you do (meetings, etc.), do you carry around a laptop and take notes on everything? Do you sit in a conference with clients and tap away on your Dell? Use a laptop in court? More to the point, what would you think of an attorney who did?

It struck me that one (quite compelling, from the students' perspective) rationale for forcing students to take notes "by hand" is that doing so is a skill that will serve them well in their careers. But I'm likely all wrong about this.

Posted by: C. Zorn | Aug 23, 2008 12:47:17 PM

Some of us take copious notes as a way of easing the boredom in the classroom. I remember taking my notes in calligraphy script until the point I decided it was better to skip the boring classes altogether.

Professors deceive themselves who imagine they are too interesting to bore the brightest students.

Posted by: jimbino | Aug 23, 2008 10:49:59 AM

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