This has been a topic of discussion previously on the HB:
Thanks to the good offices of our Academic Dean, Dennis Johnson, I see that the latest news on this front is from The Chronicles of Higher Education 54.40 (June 13, 2008): A1, A18. The headline reads, “Law Professors Rule Laptops Out of Order in Class.” Reporter Andrea L. Foster quotes Don Herzog, professor in the University of Michigan Law School as saying, “Not only I was stunned by how much better the class was, the students volunteered that it was much better.”
What began as began as an experiment for Prof. Herzog has become a policy. According to Foster other profs are also trying out the “no-laptops” approach to teaching at Georgetown Law, Harvard Law and the University of Wisconsin Law school. The profs who support the ban argue that students tapping out their notes (or worse, shopping, playing games, or emailing) are not able to participate in the Socratic dialogue necessary to law-school education. The profs who support the use of laptops in the classroom argue that banning them now is like trying to put the horse back in the barn and cutting students off from important learning opportunities.
The cynic in me wants to answer the latter by saying, “Yes, like who is dating whom or what the latest updates are on facebook?”
This year in Medieval-Reformation Church History (CH602) I guess about 50% of the students voluntarily gave up their laptops. I didn’t impose a ban but I did try to persuade them to take notes by hand. As I’ve argued before, my main interest is in getting students to pay attention.
After grading the latest crop of bluebooks it’s clear to me that only about 10% of students pay close attention in class. About 10% of the class ignore me (so 10% nail it, 10% fail it and the rest are distributed across the middle) I suspect that a good number of them are distracted. I suspect that at least some of them are distracted by their computers. Others are still caught in the trap of trying to transcribe every word of the lecture/discussion. The anecdotal evidence from my experience thus far suggests that those students who’ve gone back (or begun) to taking notes by hand (preferably using a decent fountain pen from Steve Baugh our resident fountain pen guru—let the record show your honor that counsel brought back two fountain pens from the UK and tried to interest Dr Baugh in them many years ago at which time he was told, “Bah, humbug!”) testify that they now prefer to take notes by hand.
I haven’t established a correlation and I don’t know that I ever will but I am more convinced than ever that students need to pay attention, take judicious notes that will remind them of what was said. This business of making a complete transcription to be reviewed de novo at the end of the semester doesn’t work. It’s too much information to process (and memorize) in too little time. Regular reviewing is more effective.
Neither am I excited about study groups. Every year, despite my warnings, I get several answers that are virtually identical and often wrong. Why? I suspect that students succumb to the most confident and assured voice in the study group. Other students must defer to that voice, even if it’s wrong. What some students don’t seem to understand is that there are a variety of ways to answer the questions correctly and there are a variety of ways to answer the questions incorrectly but what is essential is to learn to listen, to learn to pay attention, and to learn to discern what is important.