More Data on Classroom Laptop Use

Jeff Sovern of St. John’s University School of Law recently conducted a research study that observed student laptop use in 60 sessions of various law school courses.  Although the study contains some methodological limitations (which Professor Sovern fully acknowledges), it is another window into how laptops affect classroom dynamics.  The full article can be found here and Professor Sovern’s abstract is reproduced below:

This article reports on how law students use laptops, based on observations of 1072 laptop users (though there was considerable overlap among those users from one class to another) during 60 sessions of six law school courses. Some findings:

 •More than half the upper-year students seen using laptops employed them for non-class purposes more than half the time, raising serious questions about how much they learned from class. By contrast, first-semester Civil Procedure students used laptops for non-class purposes far less: only 4% used laptops for non-class purposes more than half the time while 44% were never distracted by laptops.

•Students in exam courses were more likely to tune out when classmates asked and professors responded to questions and less likely to tune out when a rule was discussed or textual material read in class.

 •For first-semester students, policy discussions generated the highest level of distraction while displaying a PowerPoint slide which was not later posted on the web elicited the lowest level.

 •With some exceptions, what was happening in the class did not affect whether upper-year students tuned out or paid attention.

• The format used to convey information – lecture, calling on students, or class discussion – seemed to make little difference to the level of attention.

 •Student attentiveness to the facts of cases is comparable to their overall attention levels.

The article speculates that student decisions on whether to pay attention are responses to the tension between incentives and temptation. While the temptation to tune out probably remains constant, ebbs and flows in incentives may cause students to resist or yield to that temptation. Because first-semester grades have more of an impact on job prospects, first-semester students have a greater incentive than upper-year students to attend to classes. Similarly, because students probably anticipate that rules are more likely to be tested on exams, students perceive that they have more of an incentive to pay attention when rules are discussed. Conversely, students may suspect that matters asked about by classmates are less likely to be tested on and so their grades are unlikely to be affected if they miss the question and answer, reducing the incentive to pay attention.

Because of methodological limits to the study, the article notes that its conclusions cannot be considered definitive, and so it urges others to conduct similar studies.

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5 Responses

  1. paean says:

    That’s putting it rather generously. Second- and third-year students are basically checked out and aren’t going to pay attention with or without laptops.

    Or it could reflect a situation where upperclass students, have already figured out what is required to do well on exams and that most of the classroom discussion can be safely ignored.

    As a student I greet laptop permissiveness with approval. I’m competing with my classmates for grades and a professor-imposed attention safety net is inappropriately rewarding students who cannot or will not pay attention by themselves. Professors are happy to remind us that we are adults when they are imposing obligations but are just as happy to infantilize students when it comes to classroom behavior. Students who have concentration problems are not going to become good attorneys.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    I need to read the paper, because I’m having trouble figuring out what the study establishes. If it is that students tune out at various points in class and tune in at others, that is going to be true regardless of laptops. Only the first point–about what students do when they tune out–seems to be laptop-specific.

  3. ippo punch says:

    As a slow hand-writer, laptops are a God send in class. I just don’t know why some professors hate them so much. A little Facebook in class never hurt anyone. And hey, at least they won’t have to worry about an emotional distress lawsuit like what happened to Prozac: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/04/14/prozac-ad-model-sues-because-she-doesnt-have-depression-irony-ensues/

  4. PrometheeFeu says:

    This is very interesting, but it does not really say anything about laptops since that is invariant in the study. My guess would be that laptops would raise the level of distraction as the pull of temptation is stronger than simple daydreaming/doodling, but I would guess that effect is small. The incentives in the class are probably a much stronger factor. I am not sure how you could measure the level of distraction of a student without a laptop objectively.

  5. Tim R. says:

    I’d be interested to know how they determined if laptop use was related to the class. I’ll often look up cases or statutes on the internet during class – especially if it’s a statute-heavy class like Civ Pro or a class without a textbook.

    Additionally, for some classes, a lot of the readings are posted online (or available there), so I’ll use that rather than lugging a textbook around with me.