Do You Want to Engage Students More in Class? Consider Prohibiting Laptops.

Pace Law Professor Darren Rosenblum published an op-ed in the New York Times describing his experiences with and without laptops in his classroom.

He wrote, “When I started teaching, I assumed my ‘fun’ class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students.  One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back.  The screens seemed to block our classroom connection.”

He then described what probably all instructors know these days, that many students are distracted by their online world and don’t pay attention in class.  He reported observing a colleague’s class, where he could see that many students were shopping online or surfing Facebook.  His article cites research consistent with these concerns.

After banning the laptops, he found that, “With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not.  Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”

I prohibited laptops in my classes and found that students were much more engaged.  Banning laptops also reduced distraction by nearby classmates as well as my own distraction watching student clack away, obviously not related to the class discussion.  When I mentioned my policy at a faculty meeting, several colleagues enthusiastically endorsed this idea based on their own positive experiences.

About 25% of syllabi posted on the Dispute Resolution Resources in Legal Education website either prohibit or restrict use of laptops.

If you prohibit laptops, some students may resist, coming up with all sorts of cockamamie reasons why using laptops really promote their learning.  Although there can be some merit to these pleas, I think we all knew that they mostly wanted the freedom to mentally check out of class without detection.  Fortunately, most students accepted this policy without complaint, especially if it was presented decisively.  Indeed, I think that some students actually were relieved to be protected from this addictive form of distraction.  It probably also helps if a critical mass of colleagues at your school have the same policy so that it doesn’t seem as if you are just a single mean old Luddite when all your colleagues allow laptops.

If you are going to ban laptops, you should also prohibit use of cell phones except in emergency.  You probably have had the experience of seeing students appear to be fascinated by their laps as they check their phones beneath their desks.  I told students that they should let me know if they had a particular reason why they needed to check their phones.  For example, one student’s wife was expecting to deliver a baby and he wanted to know if he needed to rush to the hospital.

Here’s the language I used in my syllabus (including the following link): “You may not use laptop computers in class.  After many years of allowing students to use laptops in class, I decided to prohibit them because they distract students too much.  You may not use smartphones or other electronic devices in class except if you may have to deal with an urgent matter (such as a medical situation of a relative).  If you anticipate needing to deal with an urgent matter, please let me know at the beginning of class.”

It also helps if you provide students with some of the material of your presentations so that they don’t need to madly transcribe all your words of wisdom.  Even before I banned laptops, I posted on TWEN outlines of the class material for the day, which I think that also helped students focus on the class discussion.  Part of the trick is providing enough detail so that students have confidence that your notes provide the basic information they need but not providing so much that they feel they can get all they need just by reading your notes without paying attention in class.

Have you banned (or restricted) laptop and/or cell phone use in your class?  If so, what changes, if any, did you observe?

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One Response

  1. I ~require~ laptop use in class, but that’s because I do very little lecturing per se.

    1. We spend much of our class time working through exercises keyed to the current- and past reading assignments. The exercises are designed to mimic situations that students might encounter after they graduate.

    Students post their answers to the in-class exercises (anonymously) using a shared virtual whiteboard such as Workflowy [1]. This lets each student see everyone else’s work in near-real time.

    I display the students’ exercise answers on the classroom big-screen monitor and provide immediate feedback, which typically provokes additional class discussion.

    All this is really just an adaptation of traditional Socratic method, when you think about it.

    2. Students typically do much of this in-class work in groups of two or three. That brings to the classroom the benefits of the traditional study group.

    * * *
    Using this approach, the students seem to stay pretty engaged. Their course evaluations indicate that they like the overall approach very much. The mid-term quizzes and final exam results suggest that most of the students are “getting it.”

    Other academic disciplines get excited about “novel” pedagogical approaches such as flipped classrooms and peer instruction. We in law have for decades been doing what amounts to the same things.

    [1] This semester I’m planning to switch the virtual whiteboard from Workflowy to Dynalist. Google Docs is also a possibility, but it’s not anonymous.

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