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Don’t Ban Laptops in Law School Classrooms

Last week, I saw the article on the ABA Journal website where Suffolk law professor Steven Eisenstat argued that law schools should ban laptops in the classroom because writing notes by hand increased comprehension. He cited a study that suggested that students using laptops would type everything the professor said compared to students who took notes by hand and only had time to summarize the main points which improved comprehension. (In this study, laptop users didn’t have access to the internet or other distractions.)

I'm a monkey! by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m a monkey! by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

While I agree with Professor Eisenstat that law students shouldn’t be stenographers (or surf the internet excessively during class), there are many reasons to allow laptops in the classroom.  Laptops provide access to helpful resources in the classroom.

I admit that I am not a fan of the Socratic Method. It’s an inefficient way to teach and learn, especially in cases that are so old that part of the challenge is understanding the basic vocabulary. When I took Constitutional Law as a 1L, my professor set the bar high for us and incorporated aspects of the case that weren’t in the case book – like the surrounding historical context. I often had a split screen during his class: my class notes were on the left and the Wikipedia page about the case we were discussing was on the right.

(Footnote: I think we should do away with the Socratic Method in general and adopt a lecture + discussion model instead. A professor will let a student go off in the wrong direction for half the class before saying that everything we’d discussed for the last 30 minutes was completely wrong. How does that help comprehension?)

Two thousand seconds left in today's class by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Two thousand seconds left in today’s class by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Additionally, having a laptop in class also gives you access to your classmates who can message you if you didn’t quite catch what the professor just said or if you need quick clarification. I took Criminal Procedure from a professor who was very old – and I mean old. If he was late to class we would worry he was dead in his office and he did pass away the following semester. He did not project his voice well and he tended to meander when talking about cases. It was handy to message my friend across the room, “Has he gotten to the holding yet?”

Moreover, sometimes you need to be able to respond to emails swiftly. Some opportunities are first-come-first-served so if you don’t respond fast enough, you could miss out. I remember one time my classmate and I both got email invitations for on-campus interviews. Most of the time slots were when we were scheduled to be in class, but since we responded immediately, we were able to get the only 2 slots that didn’t conflict with our schedules.

Furthermore, law students are adults! They should be able to decide for themselves whether they’ll use their laptop in class. If a school wants to encourage students not to use laptops in class, that’s fine, but don’t ban them.

I also wonder if this study is similar enough to the law school experience for the results to be applicable. The study was conducted with undergraduate students and I doubt the lecture they were presented used the Socratic Method. When it comes to studying the law, I often didn’t fully understand the concepts presented in class until the end of the course when all the pieces snapped together when I created my outline to study for the final. That’s when I could pare down my notes and describe the key concepts and identify what the professor would likely care about on the final exam.

This is what happens when you require students to take notes with pen and paper – Three Years of Law School Doodles by H.L.I.T.

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