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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Laptops are loud

I banned laptops from my classroom beginning in January 2009 (the first semester following the faculty vote on my tenure) and my only regret was that I did not do so sooner. This was the early days of the anti-laptop push-back. A few professors (including David Cole of Georgetown) had begun identifying and arguing the negative effects, although we did yet have the empirical studies as support. In any event, it ha been about 20 semesters of teaching with no computers in the room.

In the past week, I have visited classrooms of three colleagues (as part of P&T review) who allow laptops. And boy do they make a lot of noise when 20+ students are all typing away at once. I noticed the quiet of no laptops almost immediately in January 2009. I forgot the loudness until this week.

 I know the students in the classes I observed either have in this semester and/or had in past semesters) professors who banned laptops. I remain struck and confused by how little voluntary change there has been. I keep expecting the no-laptop benefits to become so clear that students would recognize and never go back. But it has not happpened. Despite being prohibited from using laptops in Class A, more than half the students in both classes have gone back to using them when allowed to do so in Class B.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 12, 2017 at 10:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


I've always wondered why it is so important to take notes in class. What would law school be like if you had to prepare for class without your notes, and you had to completely listen to the professor? I think the class would be much more engaged. Probably, they would learn how to be a lawyer instead of a notetaker.

Posted by: KenGriffis | Oct 16, 2017 5:46:16 PM

Thanks for the post, very useful

Posted by: Visa Liendaiduong | Oct 16, 2017 3:02:32 AM

"I keep expecting the no-laptop benefits to become so clear that students would recognize and never go back."

Oh, like how drug use is no longer a problem because the benefits of being sober are so compelling?

Posted by: Hagridovitch | Oct 14, 2017 12:09:35 AM

It is interesting that the same professors that argue that cell-phones are protected under the fourth amendment don't think computers are protected under the first.

They want unlimited freedom in the bedroom and the abortion clinic, but they rule like tyrants in their classrooms.

Posted by: Lawrence Roe Obergefell III | Oct 13, 2017 9:52:21 PM

The idea that the substantive due process clause only protects abortion was rejected in Bracy v. Gramley.

Posted by: mud-and-soil | Oct 13, 2017 9:44:54 PM

"Looks like this website has attracted a dedicated troll."

The fourteenth amendment doesn't only mention gay sex or abortion, so it would be surprising to find that it doesn't also cover less dangerous things like laptops (since the clear-and-present danger test is the strict-scrutiny test the court uses to determine what's covered under substantive-due-process; gay sex doesn't cause a clear and present danger, so it's covered--read Lawrence--you're the troll!). If "speech" covers burning flags, surely "substantive due process" covers laptops, right?

Posted by: mud-and-soil | Oct 13, 2017 9:43:20 PM

Looks like this website has attracted a dedicated troll.

Posted by: Ben Dov | Oct 13, 2017 7:22:14 PM

If abortion and gay sex are protected under the substantive due process clause, it would be patently bizarre to find out that typing in class isn't protected. Typing in class surely isn't as morally abhorrent or dangerous as abortion or gay sex. If gay sex is safe (and it is!), surely typing in class is safe. Only actions that create a clear, present, imminent danger can be prohibited under Texas v. Johnson and Lawrence v. Texas--typing in class simply doesn't create a clearer, more present, and more imminent danger than typing class. Gay sex sets the floor for danger, and typing isn't dangerous enough to get off that floor.

Posted by: Roeing and Typing | Oct 13, 2017 5:35:25 PM

According to the state of California, knowingly transmitting HIV isn't a felony because living with HIV isn't difficult. If living with HIV isn't difficult, listening and concentrating over the sound of typing surely isn't difficult. I'd rather have to hear typing than take $17,000/year antiviral drugs every morning so I don't die.

Posted by: typing is better than HIV | Oct 13, 2017 5:31:21 PM

According to the ninth amendment, there is a presumption of liberty--the onus is not on the person arguing for liberty, the onus is on the government arguing for the penalty.

If professors claim students can't learn in classrooms where students have laptops, they can get grants and do research proving that even the best students are unable get passing grades until laptops are removed from the classroom.

But any professor who claims that homosexuality doesn't inter with civilized society has a steep hill to climb to show that a homosexual student who is able to protect themselves from HIV-infections somehow is unable to learn over the sound of typing in a classroom, even though they can be a competent juror over the sound of typing in the courtroom.

Posted by: sounds of silence | Oct 13, 2017 5:22:55 PM

I am not even that old and I don't know what it feels like to grow up with reliable computers. Even then, my reliance on computers over the years has heavily affected my writing; for example, I could no longer write without copy-and-paste. Lawyers used to dictate structured essays to their secretaries. I doubt many in my generation could do that. We simply do not think in that linear way anymore.

The kids now entering college grew up with reliable computing. They started with Windows XP, may not have seen a "Blue Screen of Death," may not know what is "dial-up," and may not have lived a single day with internet access. They grew up relying on computers even more than I ever did. I would not even begin to imagine how that reliance on computers has affected the way they learn. If kids say they couldn't learn without laptops, I think they ought to be believed.

Posted by: anon | Oct 13, 2017 5:05:45 PM

Somehow I have my doubts that had all these really successful people been born just 20 years earlier they would have lived lives of menial labor because it is impossible for them to learn anything without a laptop.

Posted by: joe | Oct 13, 2017 2:24:18 PM

I know my view on this is in the deep minority, but I hold it quite strongly. Here it is: I not only think that professors should not ban laptops, but that law schools should prohibit professors from banning laptops. A student's right to take meaningful notes should trump the professor's personal views on whether laptops are a boon.

I cannot take meaningful notes by hand. I have tried many times, and I just can't do it. My arm does not work that way and I do not have quick handwriting. To this day, long after my law school graduation, I try to arrange meetings so that I can take notes by typing. It's the difference between excellent notes and useless notes for me.

So thank goodness I went to law school when I did--in the sweet-spot years after laptops became widely available and before banning them became the chic thing for profs to do. So this comment is based on no personal bitterness. I'm just concerned because I know there are many others like me who need to be able to type to get anything meaningful down in writing. The space bar and backspace keys are directly wired to our brains.

Banning laptops merely punishes the law students who use them responsibly in a misguided attempt to confer a benefit on those who use them irresponsibly. With my laptop to take notes, I graduated near the top of my law school class. Without it, I am one hundred percent certain that my class rank would have been far lower. If other students distract themselves with laptops, they should be the ones to pay for their poor decision-making.

Posted by: Matthew G. | Oct 13, 2017 1:04:47 PM

I think the fact that no one was surprised that Hillary was defeated so she couldn't overturn Heller shows that people understand both values (heller and reversing heller) and respect the rationale of both values.

On the other hand, if most college students were only taught that Heller was bunk and that Scalia was a joke, then they might be surpised that Hillary was defeated.

The fact that Hillary was such a good loser and didn't write a book about the election just goes to show that even she wasn't surprised that there are people who disagree with her. Even she was aware of the opposing side and believed they were rational and sincere.

Posted by: ghost in the sheller | Oct 13, 2017 8:11:37 AM

Even if they disagree with Heller, most con-law professors devote the same amount of teaching time and show the same respect for the logic and rationale of Heller as they do for Brown or Roe.

Posted by: Doubting Thomas | Oct 13, 2017 7:51:47 AM

"The fact that professors are no more likely to support gun-control or abortion-control than the average adult shows students that there are no right final solutions to america's problems."

I think most political-science and law-school facilities are evenly split on Heller, just like the supreme court is. The idea that all law-professors agree with Hillary that Heller should be reversed is balk.

Posted by: Professor Anon-omonpia | Oct 13, 2017 4:03:53 AM

"It seems as if they think there is a right answer for an introduction, and a right answer for thesis, and a right answer for the first body paragraph and a right answer for the source to cite."

I think most students know that when they apply for a professorship, they will not judge them based on the subject-matter of their thesis, but on its quality. Colleges aren't interesting in only hiring people who support gun-control, but anyone who can think critically on guns, whether they agree with Scalia or Stevens.

Posted by: With or Without a Thesis | Oct 13, 2017 3:04:05 AM

"It seems as if they think there is a right answer for an introduction, and a right answer for thesis, and a right answer for the first body paragraph and a right answer for the source to cite."

Fortunately most schools, like Berkeley, have an intellectually-diverse group of professors and guest-speakers on campus, so the students know that its critical-thinking that is valued in the academy, and not just agreeing with Obama and Clinton.

The fact that professors are no more likely to support gun-control or abortion-control than the average adult shows students that there are no right final solutions to america's problems.

Posted by: Haidt's student | Oct 13, 2017 2:50:18 AM

I ban laptops and it's better in so many ways. The students are more engaged. They don't transcribe. There isn't the racket of typing. I can see their faces, and they can see each other. And on and on. Some complain, others thank me.

In the other classes they take, most of my students use laptops. But it's hard to figure out how much of this is a collective action problem. When other members of the class use laptops, that lessens the value of not using one yourself, because you're going to be distracted (and the class is generally less engaged) either way. The quality of discussion in my class is so much higher when I don't allow laptops that I have no problem resolving any dilemma this might present.

With respect to the disability issue, of course I encourage them to seek accommodations if they feel they are entitled to them (including the use of a laptop). I recognize this is not a perfect solution from a fairness perspective, but neither is allowing laptops. If you accept the argument made above that heavy transcription is rational, then you also accept that students from privileged backgrounds (who, I would wager, tend to be more adept typists) have an advantage in a setting that allows laptops. By this comment I do not mean to suggest that the needs of students with disabilities are less important than the needs of slow typists. But of course ADA-covered students can receive accommodations, so we're really talking about the ability of maybe one or two students in a given year to receive an accommodation in secret in a class that is graded on a blind basis. I'm not indifferent to this concern, but I think it's a thin reed on which to hang an imperative of permitting laptops.

There are valuable technological innovations in learning but I don't think the ability to take notes on a computer (while also using Facebook etc. - a whole other issue) is one of them.

Posted by: anonymous | Oct 13, 2017 2:19:03 AM

Professor Horwitz's comment is delightful. I honestly can't say I've ever taken more than 500 words of notes in my life, cumulatively, but if I had I would have been unable to comply with your policy and you wouldn't have been permitted to apply it to me; I had a handwriting exception through high school, college and law school on account of a coordinative disability, though I only had to use it in law school on one exam. (I'm bad enough at handwriting without imposing enormous tension on my hand/wrist that even filling out a bubble sheet with any pace is painful; I always had to take a 2-minute break at the beginning of standardized tests after I bubbled in my name and Social Security Number and the rest just to recuperate.)

I suspect such exceptions, in the days when handwritten tests were common, were also quite common (mine certainly wasn't hard to obtain, at least at some of the schools I attended, and I could have gotten it without being nearly as deserving), and that you've already had or will had a student who gets a disability exception from your rule. When you do, or if you already have, you may find that the one student typing while everyone else has to forego their laptop and hand-write notes will feel a little uncomfortable about his exceptional privilege. With exams in the handwritten-exam era, it was easier, because typing students were often if not always sent to another room.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Oct 12, 2017 6:14:38 PM

This reminds me a little bit of a class I took in college in organic chemistry. Most the the class were pre-meds. The professor had different color pens he would use to draw on transparencies (yes, I'm old). When he picked up a new color and started drawing with it you'd here this giant clicking sound as all the pre-meds changed colors on their multi-color pens.

Posted by: brad | Oct 12, 2017 3:20:17 PM


Knowing stuff is certainly a prerequisite to critically thinking on any topic. Specifically, knowing stuff helps us to introduce those "but what about?" questions which help us to revise and refine our ideas.

The issue I think AnonProf is bringing up, and certainly the issue I find myself dealing with, is that transition from knowing stuff to critical thinking. If you go through K-12 primarily concerned with reading facts in a book, hearing facts in a class, making notes of those facts, memorizing the facts, repeating the facts back, and being graded on how many facts you could recall, then suddenly being asked to do analytical thinking and not merely know things can be quite disorienting.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Oct 12, 2017 2:39:59 PM

Two things:

1) I provided my students with Powerpoint slides before class and the laptop use allowed them to make notes on the slides. (Never measured but doing so may also have subverted the use of computers for other diversions.)

2) On the "know stuff / critical thinking" issue. I think that is a false dichotmy. The coginitive psychologists whose work I have followed consider knowing stuff (deep knowledge) to be essential to critical thinking. (see http://knowledgematterscampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Willingham-brief.pdf) Thus, my class would have a lot of required knowing stuff in the subject matter area I was teaching in addition to class discussions leading to critically thinking about solving problems (or on exams identifying issues and offering analysis and conclusions).

Posted by: SG | Oct 12, 2017 1:15:01 PM

That was not given as a *reason* (i.e., "I banned laptops because they are loud.") I didn't give reasons in this post.

TJ: You might be right on that. Doesn't change my mind, but a fair point.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 12, 2017 1:10:35 PM

I tend to be wary of laptop bans because of a motivated reasoning problem. We professors have lots of reasons to dislike laptops in class. Only some of those reasons are really for the benefit of students. Yet whenever people justify their laptop bans, they always talk only about reasons that benefit students. The fact that many students who are forced to not use laptops change back at the first opportunity, even after a semester (which should be long enough that any benefit to them becomes clear), indicates to me that the real benefit to them might not be as much as we might wish it to be.

Posted by: TJ | Oct 12, 2017 12:42:35 PM


As an undergrad professor, this is a big concern for me. My students often approach essays as if they're being tested on just knowing stuff. It seems as if they think there is a right answer for an introduction, and a right answer for thesis, and a right answer for the first body paragraph and a right answer for the source to cite. It's hard to get across that we're concerned with them mastering the process, not coming up with a specific answer.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Oct 12, 2017 12:21:50 PM

Wasserman , let me quote it :

" And boy do they make a lot of noise when 20+ students are all typing away at once. I noticed the quiet of no laptops almost immediately in January 2009. I forgot the loudness until this week. "

Do , we need more than that ?? And by the way , no other reason , no bunch of reasons , but this one mentioned . But , can happen to all of us …..


Posted by: El roam | Oct 12, 2017 12:18:39 PM


The very first time I was in a law school class (visiting schools during admissions season), I actually thought at first it was raining, until they stopped typing for a moment and I realized what was up.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Oct 12, 2017 12:11:11 PM

People managed to take notes without laptops not that long ago and they should (except for the limited number of people with special conditions) be able to do so today.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 12, 2017 12:08:10 PM

I did not say I banned them because of the noise. I banned them for a host of reasons, having nothing to do with noise, that I have explained over the years. I was simply making a factual statement--they're loud.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 12, 2017 12:03:17 PM

Thanks for the post , but it is hard to understand that for such reason ( noise ) laptops shall be banned from class rooms . Noise is an issue indeed , but technology can overcome it pretty efficiently :
There are virtual keyboards , and on screen , can be typed with no noise . Voice or sound of lecturers can be converted to transcript , and more ……

So , those noised may be banned , but , new technologies , in silent mode , can be permitted .


Posted by: El roam | Oct 12, 2017 11:57:35 AM

Part of the reason that students don't voluntarily stop using laptops based on the evidence of no-laptop benefits is that those benefits are not as clearly supported by the evidence as people claim. Here's a blog post summarizing the problems with the research and what, precisely, it does and does not say. https://scatter.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/of-laptops-and-learning-causal-mechanisms-and-heterogeneity/

For me personally, the fact that students with disabilities often need to/would benefit from use of a laptop in class is reason enough not to ban them, as providing exceptions merely for these students would really single them out in a damaging way.

From AnonProf1:
> Then, students show up to law school thinking their job is still to know "stuff."

Funnily enough, many of the law school exams I took also seemed to think my job was to know 'stuff.' I wish they didn't, but while they still do, aggressive note-taking is still a rational strategy for many law students.

Posted by: J | Oct 12, 2017 11:38:04 AM

Paul: I like the rain comparison. It was more noticeable when it went off as a student started speaking and on again when I summarized or elaborated on what the student had said.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 12, 2017 11:07:00 AM

I think this has a lot to do with the new direction of college education. Most students spend four years being inundated with the idea that their job is to "know stuff." The way to make sure that you can regurgitate enough "stuff" on the exam is to take down every word the instructor says. Training on critical thinking is left to the rare schools training students to be decision-makers. Other schools simply teach students to "know stuff" so as to produce uncritical middle managers who implement decisions from above.

Then, students show up to law school thinking their job is still to know "stuff." (This is why we see a page of rules and a quarter page of analysis in exams; they avoid doing analysis because, after all, that's what the decision-makers do ... not me.)

One semester of a laptop ban is, arguably, insufficient to undo four years of the socialization they receive to "know stuff."

Posted by: AnonProf1 | Oct 12, 2017 11:01:16 AM

I would switch back to a laptop in a heartbeat. I type 20x faster than I write. I've never been a rote note-taker, but even for "good" notetaking I want to type. I typed all my notes in law school - back in the days when I had to carry around an orange extension cord (my classmates probably remember, and some even brought power bars to share the love) to keep my computer charged long enough to do it because the only outlets were far in the back of the room.

It's one reason I've never banned laptops - I just can't ban something that I would be unwilling to live without.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Oct 12, 2017 10:55:42 AM

Leaving aside the policy questions, I found when I allowed full laptop use and students were busily transcribing every word I said, bless their hearts, that it always sounded as if it there was a heavy fall of rain, with the deluge coming to a sudden halt every now and again a few seconds after I had stopped speaking.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Oct 12, 2017 10:53:51 AM

Students need that sweet, sweet dopamine fix.

Posted by: juniorprof | Oct 12, 2017 10:36:01 AM

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