March 23, 2006
Banning Laptops in the Law School Classroom
Posted by Gordon Smith

Sandlaptop This semester, I am teaching a seminar in Law & Entrepreneurship, and I asked my students to leave their laptops in the carrying cases. I have written about banning laptops in the classroom (here and here), but this is my first experiment with it. And I like it.

I suspect that June Entman of the University of Memphis is having less fun with her experiment:

A law professor at the University of Memphis has banned laptop computers from her lectures because they fence her off from her students.

Professor June Entman's decision has some students in her Civil Procedures class so upset they are considering transferring to another law school, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. They say they can't keep up without their electronics.

  "If we continue without laptops, I'm out of here. I'm gone; I won't be able to keep up," said Cory Winsett said.

  Entman does not think that students need to take verbatim notes.

"My main concern was they were focusing on trying to transcribe every word that was I saying, rather than thinking and analyzing," Entman said. "The computers interfere with making eye contact. You've got this picket fence between you and the students." James Smoot, the law school dean, said he would not interfere with Entman's decision, although he would not ban laptops from his own class.

The picket fence phenomenon is real, especially in large classes. In large second- and third-year classes, I deal with that phenomenon by lecturing more than I did when I first started teaching. Next fall, I will be teaching a large section of Contracts for the first time, and I am not sure how I will handle that.

I was emboldened to ban laptops in my seminar this year because the students are being graded on two papers -- a case study of their own choosing and a business history book report -- whose contents are not discussed directly in class. Plus, I give them hard copies of all of my PowerPoint slides. As a result, there is very little that we discuss in class that is necessary for them to record. I hope that the result is that they are listening more closely to me and to their classmates.

Then again, I may just be kidding myself.

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Comments (9)

1. Posted by Dave! on March 23, 2006 @ 11:08 | Permalink

I would be more sympathetic to the Prof. if it were an undergraduate course or a smaller, more intimate course like you described. The problems I have with the policy for most graduate/professional courses are:

1. It's overly paternalistic. If you don't know how to take notes and study *by the time you reach law school* it is _not_ her responsibility to teach it.

2. There's a lot of information in a CivPro class. *If* she were taking some of the same steps you indicated, it might be different. But I'd be *much* more receptive to a "no laptop" policy in an Entrepreneurship class than I would in Contracts or any other 1L large lecture. Are you _really_ going to create a more intimate atmosphere in a lecture of 125 students just by eliminating laptops?!

3. Many of us who *do* use laptops aren't transcribers. In fact, I take very succinct notes (if I do say so myself) and I try to pay attention in class and participate. However, my writing is *horrible*. I don't write fast (which means I often can't get my complete thought written into notes longhand, even if it's not a 'transcription') and frequently I can't read my own writing 15 minutes later--let alone 4 weeks.

I sympathize with the Prof. who wants more engaged students--but penalizing those of us who know how to use a laptop as a tool, not as a crutch isn't the answer. This isn't high-school; we're all students in law school by choice and we should be allowed to choose the method in which we take notes. If that method fails, it fails no one but ourselves.

2. Posted by Kate Litvak on March 23, 2006 @ 12:49 | Permalink

One of our junior profs banned computers in her large first-year course, and it's been a huge success. I mean, big, big success. Students are visibly more engaged, more prepared, talk more.

I then asked a few finance profs at our b-school whether they allow computers in large MBA classes. Turns out, about half of them ban computers too. Same reasons -- students "wall off" and browse the Web, play games, or simply type ever word without thinking and without participating in the class discussion.

I am sold. No computers in my Contracts class next year.

3. Posted by classOf9x on March 27, 2006 @ 12:20 | Permalink

I was a pioneer in the mid-90s in taking notes on a laptop. The only one first-year, and one of a handful by graduation. I did it because I was a returning-student programmer, and could type more than twice as fast as I could handwrite. I'm sure it hurt me on exams, because I found it very awkward to write (meaning both to make letters and to compose) by hand in bluebooks.

When students complain, you profs should remember that there really is a portion of your class (like me) whose relative class participation will suffer. If the pen-klutzes aren't engaging in web-surfing and chat more than the pen-competent, then you should expect some legitimately unhappy campers.

If you're banning computers for exams, too, I'll be writing a letter to the dean and bringing the rope to your deserved lynching.

4. Posted by TLaw on March 28, 2006 @ 7:17 | Permalink

Boring ass professors can only blame themselves for students surfing. If law schools would hire professors that know how to teach as opposed to self-absorbed academics with all the personality of a rock, students would pay closer attention. Ultimately it should be up to the student to decide if they need to pay attention. If it doesn't hurt their grade, or if they don't care about their grade, then surf away. As for it being disrespectful to law professors, well boo fucking hoo. You work six hours a week, eight months a year, and make a $100k+. If you can't hold students' attention for 50 minutes it's your own lame ass fault. This isn't directed at this blogger, just professors in general.

If professors gave complete outlines ahead of class so all we had to do was listen and add occasional notes, and I don't see why they wouldn't if the goal is for us to know the material, then I would be open to a ban. Otherwise, professors should have to sleep in the bed they make.

5. Posted by Justin on March 29, 2006 @ 11:37 | Permalink

I find laptops in class to be quite helpful, in fact. I use them to find briefs on LexisNexis to aupplementary materials, law review articles, etc... Moreover, I hate taking notes by hand. As Classof9x pointed out, many of us never write anything by hand anymore. I consider this a good thing: when's the last time a lawyer turned in a hand-written document to the court? The computer is here to stay, and, subsequently, there is no pedagogical value to forcing students to take notes by hand.

On the flip side, I do agree that surfing the net during class is a tempting distraction. I agree with TLaw, to a point, that the burden is largely on the professor to make the class more interesting than the internet. The times I'm most tempted to use the internet are the class periods when the professor assumes the class has done a shoddy job on the reading. If I've done a thorough job with the assigned reading, and the professor is spending too much time lecturing on the information I've read, I'm more likely to find something else to do. This doesn't happen nearly as much in discussion-based classes, I've found.

6. Posted by Jeff on March 29, 2006 @ 13:09 | Permalink

This is now posted on the CBSNews site under "Strange News"

7. Posted by SLMK on April 1, 2006 @ 10:59 | Permalink

To follow up on the comment by Kate Litvak, I'm a student IN that first year no-laptops class. More visibly engaged would be an understatement. I remember my shock when a student I'd never once seen participate last semester, who'd always been more in touch with their AIM chats than the class, suddenly raised their hand and asked a question. And it was a good question!

And to follow up to the obnoxious post by another law student about professors demanding his attention for a mere 50 minutes: Life doesn't come with outlines, neither does law school. Grow up. You're making the rest of us look bad.

8. Posted by TLaw on April 3, 2006 @ 10:53 | Permalink


Last time I checked, I was paying my law school $40k a year, not the other way around. Their obligation is to convey information in an interesting, or at least clear, way. Most law professors seem incapable of doing so. I am happy for you that your professor is engaging. Most are not. If students are going to be held to a high standard, so should professors. I apologize if demanding excellence of professors offends you. Guess what, in the real world professionals have to prove themselves or they are fired. In academia, apparently they are not. That is reality. Grow up.

As for outlines: I am a 3L in the top 10%, I could care less if law school comes with outlines as I have made my own for three years and done well by them. My point was that if professors provided comprehensive outlines, they would obviate the need for laptops and allow students to engage in discussion instead of trying to take down every word. It is a question of pedagogy, not whether law school should be easier.

9. Posted by Student aka hayabusa on March 12, 2008 @ 22:39 | Permalink

If the student's are paying for their education then they should be able to decide on their own how they want to take their notes. Everyone is different and they do things differently. You as a teacher of course have your own say so, but in this generation we find it allot EASIER and more RELIABLE to use laptops. For you to even make this website is a waste of your time, also you should think about others besides yourself when it comes down to their education and also ask your self if you would like to be forced into doing something like taking notes in a way that you wouldn't like.

p.s Think about what you could have done with your time to help your students instead of making this site.

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