Are You Ready to Apply Unequivocal Research Findings That Students’ Use of Laptops in Class Reduces Learning?

University of Michigan Education Professor Susan Dynarski wrote a compelling article in the New York Times, Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

She cites research finding that when students use laptops in class, they not only reduce their own learning, but they also reduce the learning of nearby students.

The whole article is worth reading.  Here are some excerpts:

“[A] growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures.  They also tend to earn worse grades.  The research is unequivocal:  Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.

. . .

“In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture.  Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

. . .

“The strongest argument against allowing [students to choose whether to use a laptop in class] is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them.  In a series of lab experiments, researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada tested the effect of laptops on students who weren’t using them. Some students were told to perform small tasks on their laptops unrelated to the lecture, like looking up movie times.  As expected, these students retained less of the lecture material.  But what is really interesting is that the learning of students seated near the laptop users was also negatively affected.

. . .

“I ban electronics in my own classes.  I do make one major exception.  Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class.  This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability.  That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test.  Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.”

Given the “unequivocal” findings described in the article, you may want to generally ban laptops in your classes.  While you are at it, you might also prohibit use of cell phones, which may be even more distracting.  Students are likely to readily accept restrictions on their use of electronic devices in class if this is a normal practice of a substantial proportion of faculty in the school.  If you are ready to start restricting use of electronics in your classes, you might encourage like-minded colleagues at your school to do so too.

In my classes, I made exceptions if students told me in advance that they had a specific reason they needed to check their cell phones (such as one student whose wife was about to give birth).  I also allowed students to use electronics to refer to role-play instructions during simulations so that they didn’t have to print them out.  Students should get accommodations for disabilities through the normal procedures.


Not Beyond Politics: What the Al Franken Revelation Can Teach Us About Teaching Justice

The past few days–let’s be honest, the past year–I’ve grappled with how to teach my law students about eradicating misogyny and sexual misconduct without politicizing my clinic, classroom, or law school.  The hard truth is that perhaps I cannot escape the “politicization” of our legal system.  The law, and justice, are after all built on a democratic system that relies on elections and appointments to assign power and mete out justice. I’ve become more open in the classroom, the clinic space, and all my student interactions about both my outrage and my optimism.  Like many, I remain outraged–and frankly, anxiety-ridden–about last year’s executive office results (I still can’t type certain words like “President” and “T#u#p” in the same sentence).  Still, I harbor optimism and pride about the political mobilization it has triggered.  One connection, I believe, is the wave of victims speaking out about sexual misconduct inflicted on them by powerful men.  Can we as law professors use these news bites as teaching material? Absolutely. Sexual misconduct is almost always criminal conduct, and its impact on the victims is wildly misunderstood. Beginning to understand it better is an obligation of our legal system, so we can devise better legal responses.  Only then can we heal as a nation of laws and of humans, incidentally and systematically.  Over on Prof. Carolyn Grose’s blog, she gives a law student the voice she deserves to discuss Al Franken and its impact on her and the law. It inspired me:





Teaching Programs at AALS Annual Meeting

Early bird registration for the AALS Annual Meeting in San Diego ends tomorrow.  

Here are some more reasons to be there, from the newly-formed Section on Technology, Law and Legal Education:  

Half-Day Program: Friday, January 5, 2018 from 8:30 am – 12:15 in Pacific Ballroom 24.

Join us for an interactive program designed to open our minds to the challenges and opportunities presented to law schools by the changing nature of student learning styles and the legal profession in the digital age. How can we respond to the changing nature of student learning? The premise of the Socratic method is that during a dialogue between professor and student A, all students are closely following along, imagining their response, and drawing understanding from their own reading and their rapt engagement with the dialogue. However valid this premise may have been in the days of Christopher Columbus Langdell, it seems dubious for the digital age. Our challenge is to find ways to meet students where they are. Digital technology offers new possibilities for learning, but also for distraction. How can we prepare our students for work in light of the changing nature of law practice? The work of Richard Susskind and others has illuminated the ways in which artificial intelligence and the worldwide digital communications network have altered the needs and possibilities of law practice. We will consider those changes and how as professors we can better prepare our students for that changing world.

We are working on this in collaboration with a group of law professors from Australia. Peter Strauss (Columbia) and Kathy Laster (Victoria University, Australia) are leading the program. Papers will be considered for publication in the Journal of Legal Education.

Pedagogy Program: “Teaching Through Technology” Thursday, January 4, 2018 from 3:30-4:45.

Technology is impacting everything — from how we shop for groceries, meet our partners, and track our daily walks to how we practice law and teach law students.  Join us to learn about how technology is being used in the practice of law and in legal education to make lawyering and teaching more effective and efficient. During the first part of the program, our speakers will talk about the state of technology in the legal practice. During the second part of the program we will hear from law professors as they discuss paper(s) relating to how faculty have incorporated the teaching of and with technology into their curricula.

Papers from this program will be published in Journal of Legal Education.


Speaker: Ruth Hauswirth, Cooley LLP

Speaker: Emily Janoski-Haehlen, University of Akron School of Law
Speaker: Elmer R. Masters, The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI)
Moderator: Laura Norris, Santa Clara University School of Law
Speaker: Karen Sanner, Saint Louis University School of Law


Improving Legal Education Across the World


By: David Thomson, Professor of Practice at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law

Many of us who focus at least part of our research and scholarship on legal education reform focus most or all of that time on the situation in our own country, the United States.  With 200 law schools here engaging in numerous “natural experiments” to improve legal education (from expanding experiential learning to allowing the GRE for admissions, and more), and with the U.S. market for legal services roiling through its own changes, we have our hands full as it is.

At least speaking for myself – the author of Law School 2.0: Legal Education for a Digital Age (2009), a book about the future of legal education – for many years, I myopically focused on the situation in the U.S. exclusively.  I was, for the most part, ignorant of the situation in other countries.  But as that book slowly made its way around the world, I have found myself drawn in to a broader interaction with what is happening in legal education outside our borders.

I recently returned from trips to Japan and Russia, and I write this still dealing with the scrambled egg brain of double jet-lag (so please keep that in mind if this post makes no sense).  I thought readers of this blog might be interested in what I am learning from our colleagues in these two other countries.

It turns out everyone is dealing with the same things we are dealing with.  That is a vast oversimplification, of course, but the recurrent themes we often discuss – in conferences and scholarship and blog posts – are themes I have heard in these other countries.  Would it surprise you to know that the legal education system in Japan and Russia (whether in undergraduate form, or at the masters level) is primarily lecture based, and that there is the desire – but resistance – to move away from that?  Would it surprise you to know that clinical education is growing, but is by no means as strong as many would like it to be?  Would it surprise you to know that there is interest in best practices for teaching law, but that progress is slow?  We might be a little bit ahead of the common practices in these other countries, but the themes are much the same.

In Japan, I had the honor of making the acquaintance of Professor Akira Fujimoto, one of the founders of the PSIM consortium at Nagoya University’s faculty of law.  PSIM began by establishing a relationship with NITA here in the U.S., and NITA has long supported PSIM in its development.  It now comprises law professors and administrators at 30 Japan-based law schools, and is primarily focused on trial advocacy training.  I was a speaker at their 10thth Anniversary symposium on Teaching Sustainable Practical Skills in early September, with Karen Lockwood, the Executive Director of NITA.  PSIM members attended the symposium to learn more about legal education in the United States, and to understand changes in law teaching that are becoming more common here.  I spoke about the “Carnegie Integrated Course” model that we developed at the University of Denver, and also about the impact of technology on law teaching in the U.S.  During the Symposium Q&A and the social event that followed, there was intense interest in learning about different models of teaching the law than the classic lecture format.

In Russia, I have been lucky to be a part of the Legal Education Exchange project, sponsored by the U.S. Russia Foundation, for the last four years.  This project brought four U.S. Law schools (Georgetown, Denver, McGeorge, and Emory) together with four Russia-based law schools (Baltic Federal, Moscow State, Russian Foreign Trade Academy, and Urals State), with each school having a “partner school” (in the order provided here).  It started with the first LEX Conference in Moscow in 2014, which brought us all together for information exchange about teaching methods, and for preliminary meetings with our partner schools.  Since then, I have traveled to Russia three times for additional meetings, and last week was at Moscow State to offer a two-day workshop on Law School Assessment in the U.S.  Over 20 professors from seven Russia-based schools attended the workshop, and there was great interest in how to draft learning outcomes and rubrics, and the backward design of courses.  I also had the pleasure of teaching MSU’s Masters degree students over two days, and was very impressed with their fluency in English, and their genuine interest in our legal system.


In both countries, there are issues of lower enrollment, reductions in bar passage rates, and complaints from the practicing bar about graduates being underprepared to practice law.  These pressures are – as they are in our country – encouraging a broader discussion about how to improve legal education, while retaining those aspects of it that remain valuable.  It has been immensely encouraging to me when I meet kindred spirits in other countries who love teaching, and who care deeply about how to make legal education better for their students.

This post, of course, is only a small window into a complex topic, but it is a snapshot from the window I have had the privilege of looking through.  I hope that others who have experience teaching best practices in other countries will comment on this post about what they have learned, so we can add to our understanding of how best practices for legal education are spreading around the world.

How do you create a sense of belonging in your classroom?

If your campus is anything like mine, students are struggling. Many students, especially those from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, face ongoing achievement gaps and report a less than favorable campus climate. What if there were a cost-effective, easily implemented, and valid way that we, as individual instructors, could increase students’ achievement and reduce educational inequalities? Would you implement it?

The good news is that such a solution exists. Social psychologist Aneeta Rattan and her colleagues have drawn from robust educational research and made policy recommendations to do just that. They suggest that when students have a growth mindset and a belonging mindset educational outcomes improve, achievement gaps narrow, and more students report a sense of belonging.

Growth mindsets: For decades, Carol Dweck has championed the well-documented benefits of nurturing growth mindsets in students. In this case, a growth mindset refers to a belief that intelligence can be developed with effort and strategy, as opposed to a fixed mindset – believing that intelligence is innate and doesn’t change much. Because students with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence can grow, they engage in behaviors that promote learning and achievement. I’ve written about how to encourage growth mindsets in an earlier post:

Belonging mindsets: When students feel they belong in an educational environment, they perform better and are less likely to drop out of a program. This is particularly true for underrepresented students who, by virtue of being different, often feel they don’t belong.

When negative stereotypes exist, members of the stereotyped group worry about whether they fit in, whether they will succeed in law school, and whether the legal profession is for them. These worries can deplete students’ cognitive resources, zapping them of their motivation and their ability to bounce back from setbacks. Because learning depends on motivation, students without a sense of belonging fall behind.

That’s why educators must be in tune with the kind of environment they create. Do you work to encourage belonging mindsets? If so, what do you do? I’d love to hear your ideas and learn from your methods. If you haven’t spent much time yet thinking about how to foster belonging in your classroom, check out this short web course developed by researchers from Stanford University:

I also recommend reading: Leveraging Mindsets to Promote Academic Achievement: Policy Recommendations in Perspectives on Psychological Science (Aneeta Rattan, Krishna Savani, Dolly Chugh, and Carol S. Dweck 2015).

Cultivating Self-Directedness among Law Students

The Legal Academy’s efforts to respond to the Carnegie Report’s call for more attention to the “third apprenticeship,” i.e., helping law students to develop a “professional identity,” continues to gain momentum.   I see that not only in increased scholarship on the topic, but also personally from taking part in presentations.   One in particular was a symposium last year at University of St. Thomas Law School, co-sponsored by three other schools that have promoted this movement (Georgetown, Pepperdine, and Regent) designed to measure how far legal education had progressed in the 25 years after the MaCrate Report first introduced the idea that legal education should including features such as professional formation.

Schools that have consistently shown an interest in pursuing ethical professional formation met at that Symposium and form “working groups” to continue, since then, to meet by Skype conference calls and develop assessment rubrics.   Because many law schools have been adopting learning outcomes that implicate formation of professional identity, see, the working groups decided to develop the rubrics as a way of helping schools to have methods to assess progress in particular characteristics of professional identity formation.  I joined the workgroup on Self-Directedness, which includes Professor Neil Hamilton (St. Thomas), Professor Kendall Kerew (GA State), Professor Nicole Iannarone (GA State), Associate Dean Rupa Bhandari, Professor Ann Novak (Touro Law), and me (Regent Law).  Professor Kerew has organized regular video-conferences of our team to work on the rubrics, which we store in a shared site in the Cloud.

Self-directedness, in particular self-directed learning, is a skill that students (and lawyers) need. In his book Self-Directing Learning, Malcolm Knowles defines self-directed learning as “a process by which individuals takes the initiative . . . in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying the human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Malcolm Knowles, Self-Directed Learning 18 (1975).

Intrigued by this concept, my colleague Natt Gantt and I surveyed students at a number of schools in two sets of surveys to highlight the significance of self-directedness.  In an article for the St. Thomas Law Journal, we report the contrasting survey results.  See  The first survey sought from students their top goals leaving law school. One of the top goals, ranking even higher than paying off student loans, was to find meaningful employment.   The other survey, of the same schools, asked students to fill in a survey that assessed the degree to which they possess self-directedness.  The results showed that most law students are lacking in this quality.   We observe in the article that students need to understand—have us “connect the dots” for them on this point—that if they are going to find meaningful employment, they need to cultivate self-directedness.   We then describe some of the schools that have initiatives designed to do just that.

In short, the professional identity movement continues.  As it does so, its benefits for legal education become even clearer.   We only hope that more schools agree and take advantage of the efforts of the working groups seeking to move the ball forward in this important area.

Teaching Transformation for Well-being

In his August 21, 2017 blog, John Lande offered cogent observations about the new report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.  Noting the substantial stress that both law students and lawyers experience and the evidence that this stress contributes to the high incidence of substance abuse and mental illness among both groups, John opined that addressing the symptoms of these problems without taking on their causes was insufficient: in order to prevent these problems from arising, both the law school and the practice of law require cultural change.  I agree, although my interest in work towards such a shift has taken a different direction.  John quotes from the report: “Our legal system is adversarial—it’s rooted in conflict.”    Of course, conflict is inevitable.  But is an adversarial legal system inevitable?  I suggest that adversarialism need not remain its dominant paradigm.

This cultural transformation has been incubating in a growing segment of the profession and the academy for at least the past three decades.  Examples include Collaborative Law, Restorative Justice, Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Integrative law, and Humanizing Legal Education, among other developments in the law, seeking healthier, happier paths to achieve justice and practice law.  By introducing law students as well as lawyers to more healing, relational and therapeutic ways to be a lawyer, resolve conflicts and achieve justice, we can increase the chances that they will choose careers more consistent with balance and well-being—for themselves and for their clients.

Humanizing Legal Education

At the end of the last century, propelled by the energy and commitment of Professor Lawrence Krieger[1] from Florida State University, whose work is likely well known to the readers of this forum, a group of law professors forged an online Humanizing Legal Education (HLE) community.  In 2009, that community achieved permanent status in the American Association of Law Schools (AALS), becoming the Balance in Legal Education (Balance) section.  A primary goal of HLE and the Balance section is the enhancement of student well-being.  Many law professors, not only around the country but around the world, have been reforming how they teach to compassionately support their students in constructively managing the inevitable stress of legal education.  This is what Healing Classrooms, the chapter I contributed to the recently published book, Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law, is about.[2]

Healing Classrooms, the reader may already have noticed, is a double entendre, one that deliberately captures two modalities for humanizing legal education generally and teaching transformation in particular.  Examples of atypical courses discussed elsewhere in Transforming Practices include Susan Brooks’ Communicating for Success, Victor Goode’s Contemplative Practice, Rhonda Magee’s Introduction to Race Law and my seminar Transforming Justice and Lawyering (New Paradigms in Law and Lawyering), discussed below.  These are courses outside the mainstream curriculum, focusing on skills, values, and content to support alternative approaches to practicing law and achieving justice.  The former, and by far the most common, are those that, while part of the mainstream curriculum, are taught by faculty attuned to and concerned with the emotional well-being of their students and the lawyers they will become.  These teachers proactively, consciously endeavor to humanize all the classes they teach.  They approach legal education holistically.  Much as integrative lawyers relate to their clients as whole persons, not just legal issues or “files,” these teachers regard their students as individuals, each of whom brings to the classroom her unique set of experiences, challenges, joys and sorrows.  They deliver traditional academic content informed by best practices in teaching and learning theory, including nonjudgmental compassion.  Their classrooms serve as antidotes to the too often toxic effects of traditional legal education.

Faculty I have encountered who fall into either or both categories are too many to mention, but Appendix A in Transforming Justice highlights the course offerings of many who have inspired me in my journey as a teacher.  Appendix B, also undeniably incomplete, includes the names of many others who are dedicated to humanizing their classrooms and supporting the healthy development of their students.  There is no doubt that their legions will grow, as the Legal Academy, much like society as a whole, accepts the indisputable connection between the well-being of its graduates and the fulfillment of its mission to educate lawyers as part of a helping profession.  Our students are much the better for these efforts.

Humanizing the Profession

In the spring of 2015 I began to teach a dedicated seminar with an experiential component, Transforming Justice and Lawyering.  The course serves as an overview of the Integrative Law Movement.[3]  Students learn about collaborative law, restorative justice, treatment-based (problem-solving) courts, transformative mediation, and other approaches to practicing law, resolving controversies and administering criminal justice outside of the traditional adversarial paradigms, in ways that aspire to enhance the well-being of participants and engender relational and healing outcomes in matters that might otherwise end up in acrimonious or punitive litigation.  Students spend an average of four to five hours per week in one or more of these settings, learning from those who are solution-oriented judges and lawyers practicing in these transformative paradigms.  In addition, students learn about mindfulness, emotional competence, and effective communication, all of which help students develop both self-awareness and awareness of others.  The course also emphasizes the importance of self-care, health, and well-being to the sustainable practice of law.

Transforming Justice and Lawyering offers students the choice to be different kinds of lawyers—lawyers who can enhance their clients’ well-being and their own.  Lawyers who can contribute to address the brokenness of justice-involved persons through appropriate resources and treatment, rather than incarceration.  And the students meet lawyers and judges who have enriched their own lives as well as those they represent, supervise, or serve through work that they love.  Whether these students ultimately seek employment in these settings or not, they are able to experience that there are many ways to be a lawyer, and many ways to find joy and satisfaction in the practice of law.  By introducing them to a number of humanistic innovations in processes and settings designed to achieve justice and resolve disputes, they are better able to critically examine how well the adversarial system of justice and traditional law practice succeed, or fail to succeed, in enhancing the well-being of all stakeholders.

However, it doesn’t require a dedicated course to expose students to these alternative practices.  In both my Professional Responsibility course and Civil Externship seminar, I spend some time exploring the range of careers and settings available to those with a law license, and make sure to discuss these practices as well.[4]

For example, I have included restorative and collaborative practices in the ADR segment of my Civil Dispute Resolution and Procedure course. Criminal Law and Procedure professors might introduce Restorative Practices and Treatment (Problem-solving) Courts in their courses, and compare the potential for therapeutic outcomes for participants in such processes with the punitive, retributive nature of our criminal justice system.  As restorative justice is increasingly used as an alternative to suspension in elementary and secondary schools, those who teach courses on Juvenile Justice and Education Law might incorporate coverage of such practices.   Family Law courses could contrast the benefits and drawbacks of the collaborative process with divorce litigation.  By learning about alternative roles focused on practicing law as a helping, healing profession, law students are able to expand their conceptions of the professionals they might become and envision increased possibilities for being healthy and happy in their chosen profession.

Changing legal culture is an evolutionary process.  As J. Kim Wright’s new book, Lawyers as Changemakers[5] documents, the Integrative Law Movement is spreading throughout the world.  Perhaps it will never become the dominant paradigm in the United States, but those of us who might like to see a kinder, healthier legal culture, have an obligation to introduce our students to these possibilities as part of their legal education.

[1] The empirical research conducted by Larry, and his colleague and collaborator, Ken Sheldon, has likely done more to identify and address the causes of law school distress than any other work.  See Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015); Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-determination Theory, 33 Personality Soc. Psychol. Bull. 883 (2007); Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being, 22 Behav. Sci. Law 261 (2004).

[2] In my recently published book, Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law (Marjorie A. Silver, ed. 2017), I have described some of these methods.  See ch. 9, Healing Classrooms 251-98.  Most of the remainder of this blog is adapted from that chapter.  Footnotes omitted.

[3] See infra, note 5 and accompanying text.

[4] The chapter I contributed to the text for externship programs, Learning from Practice, ch. 25, Work and Well-Being, includes a segment on the Integrative Law Movement.  Learning from Practice: A Text for Experiential Legal Educations 714-16 (Wortham, et al. eds., 3rd ed. 2016).

[5] J. Kim Wright, Lawyers as Changemakers:  The Global Integrative Law Movement (2016)

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