Before You Ban: Empirical Data on Student Laptop Use

The following comes to us from Professor Kim Novak Morse. Professor Morse is the Associate Director of Writing Support at Saint Louis University School of Law as well as adjunct assistant professor in Pre-Law Studies at Saint Louis University, undergraduate school. This study is a component of her Ph.D. Dissertation. Please direct questions or comments to morseka@slu.edu.

Laptops and law students go hand in hand in the classroom nowadays. I would not be alone when I say, I find myself having a pang of annoyance toward laptop users since their laptop commitment strikes me as disrespectful. Pedagogically speaking, teaching to heavy laptop users frustrates the typical visual cues faculty rely on that demonstrate students grasp of the information being taught. In effect, teaching to classroom laptop users eerily comes close to teaching to an empty classroom (or so it seems).

Beyond frustration, however, more and more faculty are turning toward banning laptops in the classroom citing, at minimum, that classroom discussion is completely stymied, or worse, students are failing to learn.

The outright banning of laptops seemed hasty to me since most of the reasons for doing so were anecdotal, or based on student-self reporting of misuse.  In order to get an objective picture of off-task laptop behavior, I initiated an empirical study. For the entire Fall 2010 semester, in an IRB-approved observational-study, six of my research assistants and I observed five different law classes where students used laptops (total population size of 95).

In the study, we observed two first-year courses, one second-year course, and two third-year courses at one law school. The research assistants sat throughout the classroom and manually timed, with special software, how often students went on or off-task.

Four research questions drove the study:

1. What is the actual extent of laptop misuse in class?

2. Does off-task behavior correlate to final course grade?

3. What classroom conditions promote off-task behavior?

4. What classroom conditions redirect laptop users’ attention away from off-task behavior?

The results from the study reveal that indeed students are off task in class; however, it is not as extensive as we thought, nor is it the population of students we thought it was (of course, this depends on whether you are an optimist or pessimist). Second-year students were off task the most time, at 42% of the entire semester. First-years were off task approximately 35% of the time for the semester while third-years spent approximately 28% of their class time off task. Regarding how many individual students were ON-task at a given instant, roughly 82% of third-years, 69% of first years, and 50% of second-years were NOT misusing their laptops (chart 1).

Interestingly, students who had higher LSATs were off-task more than students with lower LSATs (chart 2 & 3). In fact, higher LSAT students reported that they often are off-task in classrooms and only redirect their attention back to the lecture when they need clarification on topics.

While the numbers indicate that students are off-task, my second research question sought to answer whether more off-task behavior might correlate to lower final course grade. Through statistical analysis, the results indicate that there is no correlation between high off-task behavior and lower final course grade (chart 4). Nor is there a correlation between low off-task behavior and higher final course grade. Such results support the idea that students learn outside of class as well as in class and, though they may miss ideas in class due to off-task behavior, they often learn or supplement it through readings, study groups, clinics, etc.

The study is further instructive to legal educators since it also identifies some of the conditions that promote off-task behavior:

1)    Student laptop users tend to go off-task when X-(anything) occurs for 4 minutes or more…

2)    When professor is engaged in Socratic method with one student, there is an increase in off-task behavior by other students.

3)    When a classmate engages with professor, there is an increase in off-task behavior by other students.

4)    When professor is monotone, or, overly uses one linguistic intonation style, students tend to increase off-task behavior.

5)    Approximately 40 minutes into class, off-task behavior increases.

6)    When professor calls on students in expected order, off-task behavior increases.

Just as students went off-task when certain conditions existed in the classrooms, my study also captured when students re-directed their attention away from off-task behavior. Faculty can employ the following strategies:

1)    “Announcing-the-Good-Stuff” Strategy: Students redirect attention

away from off-task behavior when professor provides big-point-summaries,

rule formations, definitions, and conclusions.

“Ultimately, courts look at X…”;  “The upshot is…”           

2)    Using the “Rupture Strategy”: Students decrease off-task behavior when directed to an item in a book, chalkboard, digital presentation, in-class task, etc.

“Look at page X…”;   “On the chalkboard you see…”; 

“On the screen, notice X…”, “Write a brief X…”

3)    “Changing-up-the-Voice” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor prefaces content with signal phrases like:

“This would be a good exam question…”

“ I want to flag for you…” , “The critical idea here is…”

Or, by using linguistic mannerisms like intonation, especially rising intonation found in questions:

“And, how would you know   X     ?”;  “Because……..?”

4)    “Problem-Posing” Strategy: Students redirect attention when the professor asks a problem-solving question to the class (less so than targeting one student).

“How might we determine X…?”

“If we alter X, what might Y?”

5)“Keep-the-Show-Moving” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor manages “the duration of any X” so it doesn’t exceed 4-5 minutes. For example, the professor

1) may present info (5 min or less)

switch 2) ask a question to the class (5 min or less)

switch 3) direct students to book (5 min or less)

switch 4) ask an individual a question and have student respond (5 min or less).

switch, etc.

6)“Moving-into-student’s-space” Strategy: Students redirect attention when professor moves toward off-task individuals (but surprisingly only for a short time).

Some faculty may feel it is just simpler to ban laptops than employ some of the “workaround strategies” offered above. Before doing so, however, I would urge faculty to recall that the study indicates that the majority (82%, 69% & 50%) of the students are not misusing their laptops. In fact, students are listening– counter to the common assumption that everyone is monkeying around.

5 Responses

  1. I think this report is very useful and interesting. Intuitively I have chosen not to ban the use of wireless devices during face-to-face activities, because I believe that the current generation of students are habituated to being ‘wired’ and resent being taken offline, which in turn ‘spoils’ engagement with the learning event. It seems to me that whole class interactive approaches and co-operative learning approaches carefully used together with experiential learning methods tend to draw students away from their devices anyway. If the learning event also includes allowance for students to have ‘own time’, after a while they seem to use their devices then.

  2. [...] post over on the Best Practices blog, Before you ban – empirical data on student laptop use, blogged by Kevin Ramakrishna, from Prof Kim Novak Morse’s doctoral dissertation (how refreshing [...]

  3. Dear Professor Mary Lynch,

    I want to thank you for posting this article. I was wondering if by any chance you have a link to the actual study report, and not just the summary of the data. The report I find intriguing because it raises more questions than it answers. The report takes a problem effect -students increased off task time in class due to internet surfing – and compares it to its effect on students learning – final grades. As a recent graduate, I watched my law school (not albany law) implement many draconian policies that were counter intuitive to student learning. The paternalistic decision was often made without any serious inquiry into whether the proposed solution actually addressed the underlying problem. Here, the underlying problem seems to be that students are not performing up to their potential. Intuitively, acknowledging that there may be a rare outliner, one would expect that a student who pays attention, is prepared, and is on task for the entire class period should score higher than a student who doesn’t do all three of things. This is the unspoken contract between professor and student. In otherwords… if you attend class, do the work, and pay attention, you will succeed. However, this report suggests otherwise and in doing so – the unspoken contract between professor and student is breached in the Law School classroom. This is a problem because it devalues not only the professors role in the student learning, and the purported benefits of attending class, but undermines student motivation because doing what is asked of you and giving 100% may not yield the student any better results. What the article does suggest is that there is a course design issue- whether curriculum issues, poor teaching methodology being employed, or a poorly designed assessment that gives disproportionate weight to skill mastery that is not taught in the class. I feel uncomfortable commenting on this article anymore because without seeing the reportfor I risk extrapulating too much. But I find the topic intellecutally stimulating and disturbing at the same time.

  4. [...] out, a study shows that one’s computer usage and “off-task behavior” during class do not [...]

  5. Note: By comparison, Protect can do custom molded covers for a variety of keyboards. After you decide on your laptop’s specs and find the right one for you, it’s time to buy.

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