My Problem With Laptops

quill.jpgProfessors often complain about students using laptops in class. Chief among the complaints is that students send e-mail and surf the web when they should be paying attention—and this is bad for the particular student and a distraction for others who can see this activity going on.

I’m not persuaded by that complaint. I can do more than one thing at once so I’m sure other people can too. Even before laptops students divided their attention between the professor and other activities—a newspaper, a crossword, reading a note. I also figure that if a student, especially in graduate school, isn’t paying attention then I’m not doing a very good job of teaching.

I also happen to like laptops.

So why this semester did I ban my first-year students in Constitutional Law from bringing laptops to class?

I came to the conclusion that serious and attentive students suffer when they use laptops in class. First year law students don’t know how to take notes effectively, particularly in a difficult course like Constitutional Law. Their strategy, therefore, is to record every single word uttered in class. Their hope is that even if they have no idea what anything means at the time, so long as they get it all down they can look it up later on and they’ll be OK.

Laptops, I found, turned the most diligent students into scribes.

I spoke—they typed. I spoke again—they typed some more.

But law schools train lawyers not court reporters. Learning to be a lawyer requires hands on experience: tussling with the cases, articulating arguments, reflecting on what others have said, offering quick reactions, presenting rebuttals. This is the whole point of attending law school rather than just reading about the law in a library. And you can’t do these things if you’re busy typing. There is a good reason lawyers are not the ones asked in the courtroom to produce the transcript of what has transpired.

I think my students suspect that because I am an historian of the early American Republic, my laptop ban is motivated by some kind of phobia of technology. It’s not. As an historian, I love all of the primary materials available now on the Internet—historical research has never been easier. If I thought there was value to having a written record of a class, I would happily encourage my students to pool their resources and hire a professional reporter to transcribe the conversation. But that’s not what law school is for.

There is a place for everything.

Pen and paper produce good lawyers.

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14 Responses

  1. Jason — I also think that note-taking on paper requires some amount of sorting, synthesis and analysis that begins the learning process whereas transcription does not. I know that I could not learn as well if I were taking notes on a laptop. I don’t know how. However, I am open to the possibility that people 15 years younger than me and about 10 technological eras away from me do know how to take notes on a computer. I can conceive of a scenario whereby someone raised on a computer and on boring, uniform type across a linear, electronic path can create meaningful notes. Not me, but I’m open to the possibility.

  2. And by the way, I loved Stanley Johansen. (did that comment just disappear?)

  3. Jason — Even with the old pen and paper, folks still write things down nearly verbatim. The problem isn’t with the tools, it’s with the notetakers. You can’t force students to change the way they learn simply by removing the computers — you need to explain to them why verbatim notetaking doesn’t work.

    I see a similar problem with student outlines. Students create these enormous outlines with everything and the kitchen sink in them. I advise them that it is the process of making the outline that is most helpful, not the final product, and the goal is to use the outline to learn the material. I therefore tell my students to do their own outlines (no pooling) and to keep them at no more than 10 to 12 pages total.

    Anyway, the problem is more fundamental than just the use of computers or the taking of notes. It is that 1L students often don’t know how about the most effective ways of studying and learning. I prefer to teach them this rather than take away their computers.

  4. Jason Mazzone says:


    I don’t think laptops are simply a substitute for pen and paper. Laptops fundamentally alter the process of note taking. Most people are unable to get down everything using pen and paper and so have to make choices about what is important enough to record. That requires active listening in a way that transcription does not.

    The question therefore is whether it’s easier to change behavior by (a) persuasion (your approach) or (b) structural impediments (my approach).

    My experience, while limited, is that structure–constraining note taking to pen and paper—is working, as measured by the quality of class discussion and the level of comprehension.

    I’d be interested to hear what others might have found.

  5. J.V. says:


    I am a student in the aforementioned Con Law I course, and as someone coming from a professional techie background, I was very skeptical of your no laptop policy. My attitude was, yes, people do goof off on their laptops while in class. So what? That’s to their detriment, and to the advantage of the more conscientous students.

    The pressure to take down more rather than less is unavoidable. How do I, a first-year student with no prior legal background, really know that this particular point won’t be the subject of an exam question? Why not take it down?

    But what I have found is that, assuming one is prepared for class, has done the reading, etc, the use of pen-and-paper for notes eases the pressure some people feel to transcribe everything and fosters class discussion. It makes it basically impossible to transcribe verbatim (unless someone happens to know shorthand), and forces one to carefully weigh the significance of what someone is saying. Perhaps it has to do with the way you teach the class, or just the nature of teaching Con Law, where a diversity of perspectives is critical to understanding what’s really happening. Yes, a good professor can provide those perspectives to some degree, but hearing it from fellow students gives these points of view an everyday relevance that is important. (IE, it’s not just Scalia that feels this way about an issue, but that guy in the 3rd row thinks the same thing too.) Point being, the laptop ban prevents the zoning-out some students do when either emailing, web browsing, or transcribing, and encourages discussion in a way that is conducive to the material at hand. (By contrast, I think a no-laptop policy in my Contracts class would be insane.)

    I think Solove has a point in that banning laptops by itself doesn’t directly lead to better notetaking. But frankly, teaching better notetaking is beyond the scope of your class, or almost any law school course. Imposing a structural impediment splits the difference by forcing people to think things through a little bit before writing something down, and invokes a thought process–how does this remark relate to this issue? Is it really that important? But even so, who is to say a laptop user can’t make those same distinctions? I think that they can, but usually don’t. (Student Services did offer sessions on outlining and exam taking, but nothing on notetaking, which I think would be a useful addition)

    But I don’t necessarily agree with your final conclusion–that pen and paper make good lawyers. I believe, and I wonder if you would agree, that it is entirely possible to do good, efficient notetaking on laptops–the problem is that because so many students grew up with keyboard in their hand, it’s easy and tempting to take down more rather than less. I don’t think the problem is laptops per se, but rather the temptation at having the ability to take down so much so quickly. Others might claim a different issue–that there is something fundamentally different, in terms of learning, neural pathways, long-term memory, etc, when you write something down as opposed to typing it out. On this point, I am still undecided.

    So in short, I think the no-laptop policy works in your class because it fosters more class discussion, which is important for the objectives of Con Law. The ban may or may not produce better notes and, quite frankly, even if it does, I don’t think that’s the the strongest reason in favor of the ban. Shouldn’t we be able to take notes however we wish? But, if you find that banning laptops leads to more fruitful discussion (which I agree that it does), then that entirely valid.

  6. Law Student '06 says:

    This is an interesting thread. I’d like to post an unconvential approach to this topic. I agree, in one sense, that taking notes without a laptop does force a student to think more about the material, since it is more difficult to write down everything.

    As a third year law student who has taken notes both on paper and with my laptop, I definitely agree that one is more prone to distractions on a laptop. However, I have found that my distraction level directly correlates to how good my professors are.

    For example, I had one class last year, in which I literally probably “goofed off” a handful of times (for example, Election Day last year, in which case my concentration would have been bad regardless). However, in my Administrative Law class, which was terribly awful every day, I probably read articles and did other things online more frequently than I paid attention to class.

    In some classes (such as the aforementioned Administrative Law class), the class discussion itself was so unhelpful that notes from the class were also unhelpful. To prepare for the final, I ended up teaching myself the material anyway, not even looking much at the notes that I did take.

    I suppose there may be some people who get so easily distracted, that a laptop would be bad in any situation. However, for me, I feel that laptops can be a much needed tool to get through an awfully boring class with an awful professor.

  7. Dave! says:

    While I certainly think your heart is in the right place, I think that banning laptops to save students from suffering from lack of note taking skills is overly paternalistic.

    Frankly, it’s the responsibility of your students to learn how to take notes properly. They will need to learn many skills on their own as they begin to practice law, they should start taking responsibility for their own education now. If you’re that concerned with their abilities, then ease off the Socratic method. I am willing to put hard money on the fact that more 1Ls are confused by adjusting to the Socratic method than they are note-taking skills.

    I have no doubt that many first year law students don’t know how to take notes properly. But you know, many of us do. And some of us are much more efficient at typing than writing. My penmanship is not the best and if I have to slow down to make it legible, sometimes I can’t record a thought fast enough and I lose it.

    Your policy wouldn’t be doing me any favors at all–it would be limiting to me–and I’m a *returning* student. I don’t take notes linearly, I outline. I’m often reorganizing my thoughts in ways that frankly, may only make sense to me. You’re essentially forcing *your* method on all of your students. I can only imagine how painful that would be for students who have never known a time when a computer wasn’t part of their lives.

    It’s certainly your prerogative to run your class the way you see fit. But for that one student you “reach” with your policy, I’d be willing to bet there is at least one, if not more, you are holding back.

  8. Will Baude says:

    My administrative law professor moved to ban laptops under this exact theory this semester (And offered to have a transcript of each class made available to those who wanted it). I and some others resisted.

    I take notes on the computer but they are nothing like tran-scripted notes. They are a very odd stream of thoughts and sidethoughts that help to organize my thinking.

    And they’re superior to paper notes, of which I have taken many, for two reasons. 1, I can read them, and cannot read much of my own handwriting once it is older than a few days. 2, I can *word-search* them, which is really irreplaceably valuable when the end of the semester comes and it is time to organize my notes some more, or even on the fly when trying to remember a crucial insight about a case.

  9. Mike says:

    I scored a “102” raw points (reduced to a 100 because that’s as high a final grade as possible to attain) in con law with Doug Kmiec, so I think I qualify as a “serious and attentive student[].” Your policy would have hurt my grade for at least two reasons.

    First, I’m mildly dyslexic. (Regular comment readers here, and regular C&F readers undoubtedly notice my many typos – well, that’s my reason.) My hand-writing is nearly impossible to read unless I stop and completely concentrate on what I’m writing. Con law should be a course on law, not hand-writing. The only way I’d be able to read the class’ high points would be if I paid so much attention to writing that I didn’t pay attention to you. (Some Catch-22!) Not a good result. (You might say: “Mike, get accommodations.” Well, no thanks. I’m not embarrassed about being dyslexic, but I’m also a private person who wouldn’t want people asking me why I was able to use a laptop. Your policy literally requires learning-disabled students to “out” themselves.)

    Second, during a lull in classroom discussion, I would regularly outline my notes. I would synthesize things, and omit irrelevant information. I would also practice issue framing. That is, I’d type the issue was presented to the Court, and then think how’d I’d argumentatively frame the issue. This practice helped me see all three sides of each case (the opinion, and the positions of the advocates on either side). I couldn’t do this if stuck with a yellow pad and ink pen.

    I hope you reconsider your policy. That your policy de facto requires learning-disabled students to “out” themselves should demonstrate the insensitively of your position.

  10. B.C. says:


    As another student in the aforementioned Con Law I class, I would like to contrast JV’s perspective w/ my own thoughts regarding the No Laptop Policy. I agree that many 1Ls are not effective note-takers … at first. And yes, I speak from personal experience: in the beginning of the semester, I had an absolutely awful tendency to transcribe the professor verbatim. But as time passed, I began to properly pare down my typed-written notes. Editing these notes, I have found, is just as effective as outlining, and it has been extremely helpful in studying for all my classes. For Con Law, on the other hand, I am left with a notebook half-filled with half-finished, illegible sentences. It goes without speaking that I cannot write nearly as quickly as I can type (or as quickly as anyone speaks). Hence, sometime in October, I ended up scrapping my notebook and instead listened to my classmates debate the case at hand — which, I concede, was beneficial. After all, law school is the appropriate petrie dish for us to develop as analytical thinkers and orators.

    However, as my memory has consistently failed me, I admit that I have retained very little information from each class. And the only notes I will use for studying for my final is that which I have taken already — when I read all the cases at home and took (extensive) notes on my laptop. Where does that leave me but in a worse position than had I used a laptop for this class? I don’t think I am not alone in this reasoning; I would venture to say that many students would agree with me.

    I truly believe that even with the laptops in class, you can still have a good class discussion. It’s a simple “if then” statement: if what is being discussed is interesting enough for the students to cease frivolous typing (or web browsing) and start raising hands, then great class discussions will inevitably ensue. Considering the quality of our discussions (and your teaching, no less), your class clearly does not need the No Laptop Policy in order to foster student participation.

    I don’t think that our use of laptops for notetaking detracts from the quality of our discussion — if anything, it speaks only of the students themselves. Writing out my notes does not slow me down enough to force me to think about what is being discussed; it slows me down to the point where I simply give up taking any notes at all.



  11. Gary Moore says:

    There is a famous Doonesbury cartoon from several years ago where the professor is talking in class and the students keep their heads down, writing every word he says.

    Disgusted by the fact that there is no discussion in class, the professor starts making outrageous statements. At the end, a student picks up his head and says something to the effect that “I never knew this class was so interesting”. The professor ends up just being more disgusted.

    The point is that the students in the cartoon were writing, not typing on a laptop. This is a problem that has occurred for years, long before laptops. Having taught classes as well as having been a student, its a combination of the class material, the professor and students who are willing to engage in discussion that make for a good class.

  12. Gary Moore says:

    Just wanted to amend one statement in my last posting. The last sentence should end with “that make for good class discussion”. My apologies on that.

  13. MT says:

    I’ve lost my ability to learn and take notes at the same time, if I ever had it. I wonder how many people really benefit from taking any notes at all.

  14. Liza says:

    I agree with B.C. I took notes for all of my classes for most of my first year, then switched to taking notes on a laptop. I found it much easier to organize my notes on a laptop. Using the outline function on Word allowed me to organize the professors’ lectures in an orderly manner.

    As for the idea that law school is about thinking on your feet and rebutting ideas, I did much more of that in my discussion classes in college than in large lecture halls at law school where the professors used the socratic method to grill one or two students per class. The problem is more with teaching methods used in law school classrooms than with the use of laptops.