A Game Changer: Assessing the Impact of the Princeton/UCLA Laptop Study on the Debate of Whether to Ban Law Student Use of Laptops During Class
36 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2015 Last revised: 1 Feb 2015
Date Written: 2015
In this Article I discuss the impact on legal education of a recent study conducted at Princeton University and UCLA, which compared the levels of comprehension and retention of class lectures by those students who handwrote their class notes with those students who typed their notes onto their laptops.
The study involved three separate experiments. In each test, the subjects using laptops had no access to the Internet, and were only permitted to use their laptops for taking class notes. Thus all possible laptop distractions were eliminated. In all three experiments, those students who handwrote their notes outperformed their counterparts who typed their notes on assessments administered between 30 minutes and one week after the lectures.
This study thus raises another chapter in the continuing debate regarding whether students should be permitted to use their laptops in class. Prior to the Princeton/UCLA study, the debate primarily centered around the distractive effects which laptops had on both laptop users who were engaged in activities unrelated to what was being discussed in class, and on their classmates who were sitting nearby and were distracted by the visuals and sounds emanating from the laptops. Such distractions included surfing the Internet, playing video games, and emailing others in the class.
This study reveals that even if these distractions are removed, students who use their laptops for note taking tend to simply type, verbatim, the words of their professor, without trying to understand the meaning of what their professor is actually saying. As a result, their comprehension and retention suffers.
In light of this study, I suggest in this Article that as legal educators, we need to reevaluate the prevalent policy of allowing students complete access to their laptops throughout every class. I explain why I believe attempts to monitor how students are using their laptops in class, such as professors walking up and down the class aisles to observe what their students are viewing on their computer screens, are ill advised and ineffective. I then suggest that student use of laptops should be permitted in class only if the professor is using them for a specific educational purpose for which the laptop is uniquely designed to serve. Otherwise, the use of laptops should be banned.
In response to those who have argued that most students would not favor such a policy, I offer surveys which I conducted in four of my first year classes, all of which indicate that while at the beginning of the course, a large segment of my students opposed my policy of banning all laptop use; that by the end of the course, that opposition had significantly decreased, while the number of students who ultimately favored the policy markedly increased.
I conclude that given the adverse effects of laptop distractions and note taking, we need to question whether our students are being served by our continuing to permit their use of laptops in our classes. And if, as I argue they often are not, then we need to ban or seriously limit their in class access to their laptops.
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