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?

Best Legal Education Articles of 2016

At Tax Prof Blog, Scott Fruehwald has posted the Best Legal Education Articles for 2016. You can find it here. Cognitive science themes play a prominent role in the list, as well as interesting articles on professional formation by Louis Bilionis and assessment by Adam Lamparello. On the topic of professional formation, I would add Neil Hamilton and Jerry Organ’s article Thirty Reflection Questions to Help Each Student Find Meaningful Employment and Develop an Integrated Professional Identity. Add your “best of 2016” in the comments.

Teaching Self Reflection

Self reflection is a valuable skill which should be taught across the law school curriculum.   Engaging in self reflection will serve students’ life long personal and professional development.  While self reflection is perhaps not the first topic that comes to mind when thinking  of a typical law school curriculum,  it may be one of the most important, as self reflection aids learning in all areas.  To reflect, we process information, synthesizing and evaluating data with the hope of translating what we’ve learned about ourselves to contexts beyond the original situation in which we learned.  That is what lawyers do with every new client or situation.   Shouldn’t we teach this important skill alongside others fundamental to lawyering?

Students may not have thought concretely and specifically about their learning processes prior to entering law school. They may view their academic successes and failures as isolated and unrelated events.  However, upon reflection there likely are threads which run through those successes and failures which could prove instrumental to further development.  Law school requires higher order thinking, which may not have been required of students before.  To allow students to develop these abilities, in addition to teaching black letter law, we must also teach students to reflect:  on their work to enhance its meaning and on their experiences to encourage insight and complex learning.

While self reelection might appear to be an inward and solitary process, that is not always true. Reflection can be enhanced by thinking about our learning with others and the classroom is a perfect place to introduce it to students.  In fact, the ABA has opined in relation to revised standard 302(d) that self evaluation may be one of the “[o]ther professional skills needed for competent and ethical participation as a member of the legal profession”. While clinicians have been teaching self evaluation and reflection for some time, it is a skill which can be taught and practiced in any law school classroom.

Some easy ways to introduce self reflection into a class include:

  1.  Ask students to complete a self reflection of the content of their graded work–what did they do well, what do they plan to improve upon, etc.  This helps students to actively internalize their role in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of grades and information.
  2. Have students reflect on the process of doing the work itself– what came easily, what did they struggle with, and why.  This allows students to become better learners as they implement changes in response to their own observations. This can be done in writing or orally in class if time permits.  If your class is too big to allow every student to share their reflections, have students volunteer or randomly select a sampling of students.  This way students can also appreciate others students’ learning process.
  3. After students receive a graded assignment back and have had time to review it, have students comment on something they have now “learned”, after looking back at their work.  To the extent a common thread appears in the students’ reflections, the teacher can identify topics with which students may have collectively struggled.  The teacher can model self reflection by commenting on how their teaching of those topics could be adapted in the future.  Even better, the teacher should continue to reflect and make appropriate changes as needed.
  4. One of my favorites:   I ask my students to identify questions they wish they had asked me before an assignment was due. This helps students once again recognize that they are not merely passive recipients of information, but rather, that they can and should control the process and seek guidance when appropriate. If they recognize this, it will allow them to ask for help and take charge of their own learning more appropriately in the future.

Bilingual Legal Education for Spanish-English Speakers

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Journal of Legal Education asking whether it was time to think about providing bilingual education in the United States (see S.I. Strong, Review Essay – Bilingual Education in the United States: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, 64 J. Legal Educ. 354 (2014),  In that piece, I noted that although the longstanding connection between law, language and the state traditionally led law schools to provide legal education in a single language, contemporary lawyers are increasingly likely to need foreign language skills in both domestic and international settings. As a result, I suggested that U.S. law schools might consider taking steps to improve U.S. lawyers’ ability to operate in multiple languages, as is routinely done in a number of European nations.

This is not to say that U.S. law schools do not offer courses meant to help students achieve fluency in the legal language of other jurisdictions. Some do.  However, U.S. law schools lag far behind their European counterparts in this regard.  Furthermore, U.S. legal educators suffer from a lack of resources for instructors of foreign legal language courses and from the absence of any discussion about what constitutes best practices in the field.

Some help in this regard may be forthcoming as the result of the work of the International Academy of Comparative Law, which will be considering bilingual education in 2018 at its upcoming World Congress in Japan (see  Various members of the American Society of Comparative Law will be in attendance at that meeting and will hopefully be able to bring back some ideas about how U.S. law schools can improve their curricular offerings.

In the meantime, however, there is a resource already available to those teaching across the Spanish-English linguistic divide that provides a new, potentially revolutionary approach to bilingual legal education. Comparative Law for Spanish-English Lawyers: Legal Cultures, Legal Terms and Legal Practices / Derecho comparado para abogados anglo- e hispanoparlantes: Culturas jurídicas, términos jurídicos y prácticas jurídicas (Edward Elgar Publishing, Ltd., 2016) (see is an entirely bilingual text that goes “both ways,” as it were, so as to help those involved in teaching legal Spanish to native English speakers (as would be the case with many J.D. candidates) as well as those involved in teaching legal English to native Spanish speakers (as would be the case with certain foreign LL.M.s).

The goal of the book is to help those who are conversationally fluent in a second language achieve legal fluency in that language while also contextualizing the analysis in a comparative paradigm.  The text was co-written by Professor S.I. Strong of the University of Missouri, Professor Katia Fach Gómez of the University of Zaragoza and Professor Laura Carballo Piñeiro of the University of Santiago de Compostela to offer practical, doctrinal and linguistic insights into a variety of English- and Spanish-speaking jurisdictions, thereby providing comparisons not only across the Spanish-English divide but also within each language.  Given the nature of this particular language pairing, the book necessarily addresses various issues resulting from the differences between the common law and civil law, although the discussion is not limited to that type of binary analysis. The book is suitable for both group and individual study, and provides useful tips for academics, practitioners and law students.

Hopefully books like this will not only help those who are currently interested in Spanish-English bilingual legal education, they will also trigger a larger discussion about both the need for and the shape of bilingual legal education in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, that sort of conversation seems long overdue.


Adding Your Name to the Professor Watchlist

Most of you have probably heard of the Professor Watchlist, a website that seeks to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

As the AAUP notes, “This website poses a clear threat to academic freedom. Over the past century, such lists have been used to harass and intimidate faculty, and have a chilling effect on academic freedom and free speech.”

One way to stand in solidarity with those who have been named to this list is to voluntarily place yourselves on this list.  If you would like your name to be added to the list,  the  link is:

You also could consider spreading the word to colleagues at your school and in other departments.

As our core values come under attack, addressing those attacks both empowers us and demonstrates to our students that lawyers must continue to take the lead in fighting for social justice – especially in times where doing so may present personal or professional risks.

Playbook for Student Resistance

In the aftermath of the national election, many students are looking for ways to respond to what they see as a greater need for and focus on social justice in their studies and their field work as students.  In the early 1990s, as a law student, I was honored to have been a part of a team of students, faculty, and practitioners that brought a legal action to halt the U.S. government’s detention of HIV+ Haitian refugees on the US naval base on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, long before that site became a household name.  I have written about that experience here, and include a few practical pointers for students looking to take on similar social justice projects today.  Please share the piece if you think it helpful to any of your students.  If of interest, a full-length, law review-style treatment of these issues is also contained in a forthcoming piece in the New York Law School Law Review.

Dealing with the Aftermath of the Election

I just re-read Mary Lynch’s passionate and thoughtful post about teaching to students traumatized by the election, along with comments in response.  I share many of the reactions described there.

In the aftermath of the election, I wrote several posts on the Indisputably blog that complement these ideas.  These posts are part of a general theme emphasizing the importance of seeing the world through others’ eyes.  This is an important practical orientation for lawyers and other dispute resolution professionals in their work.  I think it is also valuable for dealing with conflicts in our daily lives as well as in the political realm.

In a post entitled, How Can We Build Common Ground Between Bubbles?, I suggested that probably most of us live in bubbles as society has become more polarized and less emotionally safe.  I described how many people, on all sides of the political lines, feel painfully disrespected by the others.

I suggested that it may help to start by using a neutral, mediator’s mindset to sympathetically understand how the world looks from others’ “bubbles” without evaluating the merits of the views.  A fundamental part of the conflict reflected in the election seems to be about identity – who is worth respect and help and who is not. Recognizing the reality of people’s experiences and empathizing with the pain felt by people on all sides is really hard especially because some people feel that acknowledging others’ problems is an implicit devaluation of their own problems.

Starting by understanding different perspectives does not require that people believe that there is equal merit on both sides.  I certainly don’t believe that.

In a later post, I suggested that the approach and tone of then-Senator Obama’s 2008 More Perfect Union speech provides a good model for trying to build common ground.  It described perspectives of blacks and whites in the US, and judged them sympathetically without suggesting that one was better than the other.

After serious effort to understand others, we should judge as Senator Obama did. All ideas are not equally valid or beneficial (or harmful).  So being non-judgmental isn’t a good solution. People should not agree just for the sake of agreeing.  Rather, I think that people should try to constructively engage in conflict, though that’s easier said than done.

I also posted two messages from the National Coalition on Deliberation and Dialogue.  One provides general suggestions and resources for dealing with the aftermath of the election. The other provides tips for better Thanksgiving conversations.  These ideas may be helpful for family gatherings during the upcoming winter holidays.

Of course, these posts provide more detail about all of this.  They stimulated a number of comments, including some controversy about how to best manage holiday conversations.

I wish I felt confident about a solution to recommend for constructively dealing with the highly polarizing conflict reflected in this election.  I don’t.  I hope that the ideas in my posts may be helpful in figuring this out.

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