Laptops in the Law School Classroom

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Laptops and the internet may have changed how law students prepare for class and do research, but most professors stick to the Socratic method of teaching. Despite this, students use laptops during class, and whether this is a hindrance or an advantage is a contentious subject.

Some students furiously write down everything the professor says and never take the time to dissect and understand the larger picture. Other students somehow manage to check email, instant message, take notes, and still give good answers when called on to answer a question. For the most part, whether a student learns better seems to depend on the individual.

With that in mind, it seems odd some professors ban laptops in the classroom. Many attorneys use laptops in the courtroom, and most schools require students to buy a computer to attend their law school. Using a computer does not provide some secret advantage for class discussions. It might distract some students, but isn’t that the students choice to not pay attention? Even if these students did not have laptops in class, I am fairly certain they would find something else to distract themselves.

Good students use laptops to enhance their learning, and they should be allowed to do so.

(photo: Felix42 contra la censura)

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  • Steven Lacks

    Not allowing laptops is a shame. Since I have been in law school, I tend to use it for only note taking, during class. This allows me to use my time outside of class much more efficiently when reading, researching and studying. I do not use the internet in class, however, most do.

    A handful, use it productively. When the professor brings up a case in the notes, they load it up.

    Professors who are open to the internet use, welcome a statistic or a specific state statute.

    There are others, who use it for email and facebook. I find it hard to believe that most are getting everything to be potentially be gained in the classroom. If they are great for them. If not, then that is really their problem… these are the same people who would not be paying attention anyway. It’s a shame and no one wants to admit they exist, but many people just can’t concentrate on an hour and a half to three hour long class.

    Banning laptops would be another example of catering to the bottom. Instead of looking at the benefits to the people who actually gain something, we continue to focus on those who choose to let opportunity pass them by.

  • I’ve returned this year to teaching legal writing as an adjunct after an 8-year hiatus. About 9 of my 12 students bring their laptops to class. Maybe it’s because the class is small (and I walk around the room sometimes), but it does not appear any of my students are surfing, emailing, or facebooking during class. They all make eye contact with me and I only see them typing when I seem to be saying something they would want to remember. So, I don’t see any problems.

    In fact, as an attorney operating a paperless office, I think I would be disappointed if the students were not using their laptops. I bring mine as well and plug it in to a projector. I think that good students should be looking for ways to organize their note-taking and studying on the computer. For those who are distracted by e-mail and similar pastimes, law school is a good place to learn how to manage distraction. It only gets worse in practice.

    It is the law schools that seem to be lagging behind on adapting courses and teaching to technology.

  • In a rare role-reversal, I have banned laptops from my appellate advocacy class this year.

    I am no Luddite, but over the past two years, I got tired of my students asking me about things we went over several times in class. And I think I know why. There was a lot of touchpad-clicking (games), and not much typing going on.

    Besides, there is no real need to take notes on most of the things we discuss in class. Attentive listening is much more important.

    In a substantive class, I would not ban laptops, but I do firmly believe that students retain far less information when typing notes than when taking them by hand. My advice: take notes by hand, and get the word-for-word transcription from someone in your study group.

  • Robby T

    As someone who graduated last school 4 years ago, I wouldn’t let anyone bring a laptop during class if I taught

    Most used it for internet/chat….many took for chat too but it was a big distraction for many

    In the few classes who banned laptops, students learned MUCH more….coincidence?

  • @ Eric – I think you are 100% correct. If students cannot manage distraction in law school, they will not be able to manage it as professionals.

    @ Sam – for a Moot Court class, that makes sense to me, but I think that is a fairly unique class.

    @ Robby – I’m curious how you know students learned more in the banned laptop classes? Paying attention more and taking less notes does not necessarily equate to learning more. In many ways, being able to take more organized notes via computer, and then reviewing them later, leads to learning more.

  • There are certainly learning style differences wrapped up in this discussion.
    Part of this comes from the assumption, proven true very often, that students with laptops are multitasking during class, as opposed to focusing solely (or mostly) on what’s happening in the room. Now, students may be able to multitask effectively under certain circumstances, but I believe that it hasn’t proven to be the most effective way to learn new material. Moreover, should the classroom be set up to permit multitasking at all via laptops, as opposed to requiring focused attention? I think that’s the core of the debate.
    If laptops could only be used to take notes, I could see why there could be a time advantage to students. However, if that isn’t how they’re being used, why else have them in the room? As Sam suggests, in some types of practical skill classes, they have little use at all.

  • Steven Lacks

    If an adult needs to be told how to pay attention, they probably are not responsible enough to be taking care of clients as attorneys.