May 3, 2006

Banning laptops in the law school classroom.

This article is firing up the old topic. Personally, I think classrooms are physically restrictive for students, and web access provides a nice counterbalancing freedom that I would think they'd hate to lose. I'm surprised how many lawprofs are leaning in the repressive direction. I think if you want to get tough about something, make class participation count in the grade and make it clear that the exam is going to cover things that are presented only in class. Then trust students with their autonomy. They are going to be autonomous soon enough and affecting the lives of real people. I don't see the sense of paternalism at this point.

56 comments:

Ken Stalter said...

I'm wrapping up my first year of law school. I find that I prefer classes that ban laptops. The argument that the students should be free to make their own choices doesn't tell the full story. Those who choose to surf the web, play games and look at pictures during class impose costs on the other students. Everyone sitting behind the surfer is distracted. I also find that the class room discussions are more engaging and involve more students when there are no laptops.

Jacques Cuze said...

How do you feel about attractive nuisance law suits?

Adam said...

I like having a laptop with web access. If fact I can sometimes better participate because I have a laptop. Sometimes a topic will surface in class that wasn't planned for in the syllabus but is tangentially related in some way. The problem is that I might not know about the conversation. A quick google, Lexis, Westlaw, or wikipedia search brings me up to speed and I am ready to participate in ways I could never had before.

stealthlawprof said...

Ken's point is a real concern. The distraction issue is exacerbated if the professor uses a seating chart (which often happens in first year classes) because the students behind the surfer cannot avoid the problem.

A ban seems unduly paternalistic, but the quality of discussion does seem to suffer, partly from surfers and partly from psuedo-court reporters, who are so busy transcribing the class they seem not engaged in its content at all.

Jacques Cuze said...

It's kind of fun to take a look at the reader ahead of class, and then screw around with the wikipedia during class and see how many people you can screw up.

Ann Althouse said...

Ken: Ever hear of peer pressure? Why are you relying on the teachers to be the enforcer? Why don't students convey disapproval toward their peers who are being offensive? We live in a society here! Peer pressure is what works. I'm relying on you.

Ann Althouse said...

Adam: Yeah, I like being able to ask students to find something on the spur of the moment. It's cool when someone can google up an answer. Computers can sap energy, but they can also provide it. The trick is to stir up the positive energy.

Ann Althouse said...

Stealth: I use a seating chart, but the students pick their seats. And there are always free seats in the front row. If you don't want to have to see anyone's computer, sit in the front row. Easy solution!

Ann Althouse said...

Does the discussion really suffer, or are we just blaming laptops for whatever problems we have? It seems to me students have avoided eye contact and had attention lapses and taken insufficiently conise notes for as long as there have been classrooms. This is the lot of the student. Must we oppress them even more by taking away something they love.

jeff said...

Sheesh, if I hadn't had my laptop (w/solitare) during some of my Earth Science requireds (which I aced), I would have been bored stiff and more than likely a little disruptive.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Well, I hope they make the right decision on this, which is to keep laptops in the classrooms.

I've heard law professors tell us not to take so many notes. The explanation always seems to be that "if you're typing down everything, you're not thinking." I don't understand how the professors can presume to know how we think. If they could somehow spend just ten minutes in my head while I'm taking notes, they would have to immediately concede that typing down everything causes me to think more, not less. It forces me to stay engaged with the twists and turns of the arguments. When you take sparse notes (which is all you can do without a computer), you can easily be lured into false confidence: "I'm getting the basic gist of this--I don't need to catch every little nuance." You're probably not glued to your seat following every fine point of a Socratic dialogue. That's why the most legendarily Socratic professor at my school urges students to take down every word that's said in class.

One of the great things about law school classes is that you get to listen to professors speaking extemporaneously about the law in sharp, carefully chosen language. Writing down what the professor is saying, sentence by sentence, can be an invaluable method for developing your own skill at legal writing. I would not have been able to do that if I had been stuck with just a pen and paper in class.

There are some students who do very well writing on dead tree and taking relatively few notes, and of course that's great for them. But that's not what most law students choose to do. I wish professors would give us the benefit of the doubt by presuming that we know what learning styles work best for us.

One caveat: Internet access is blocked in our classrooms, so I don't have experience with that issue. But if the real complaint is that students are abusing the Internet access that's offered by the school, banning computer technology altogether is a bizarrely draconian way to solve that problem. If the problem is really just students surfing the web, then cut off Internet access.

JohnF said...

I suspect that some professors find it insulting to have to lecture and participate in questioning with some students while others are essentially partying in the class. I sense they are saying, you are either here or you're not, but make the choice.

Of course, when I was in law school we didn't have laptops. We "took notes" on "paper," which posed some of the problems faced by that stenographer who had no idea what was going on in the deposition she was transcribing. I remember fellow students, who were actively taking notes, being called on and basically saying, "Huh?" So that issue hasn't really changed.

But what has changed is playing in the classroom. In the old days it was hard even to do the crossword, because it was hard to keep it invisible--if you were writing in you lap, rather than on the counter in front of you, it was obvious something illicit was going on. And if you wrote on the counter, everyone could see what you were doing.

With the laptop, surfing and playing are invisible to the teacher, but she nevertheless knows that the class is not entirely there.

The trouble is that the laptop is a good note taking tool. So the teacher who doesn't want kids playing in class would have to be able to separate the uses. I think the frustrated teachers don't know how to do that. Thus, the ban...

jinnmabe said...

I think if you want to get tough about something, make class participation count in the grade and make it clear that the exam is going to cover things that are presented only in class.

I agree completely. Why are we suddenly back in kindergarten where people have to be forced to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it, every hour of every day? Ok, my aversion to the ABA attendance policy crept in there a bit, but it applies to this too.

I have to disagree with Ken. I'm a third year law student (graduating next weekend) and I think the costs are minimal to other students. Who's forcing them to look? I don't know about the seating in your school, but here the rows are different heights, and the screens on the row in front of you are lower and far enough away that if you are too engrossed in what's on another screen, it's your own fault. Like I said, maybe it's tougher to avoid in your school. Even so, I think you're selling your ability to concentrate short.

Does the discussion really suffer, or are we just blaming laptops for whatever problems we have? I agree completely. stealthlawprof, it doesn't surprise me to hear comments like yours from a professor. Here's how it sounds to a student: "if only my students were a captive audience, with only ME separating them from utter and extreme boredom, THEN they'd appreciate me! Then, we'd ENGAGE!" If I'm not listening to you, maybe it's not my fault. Again, don't undersell the ability of grown-ups to ignore chaff (whether anime on the computer in front of them or their professor's rambling) and concentrate on what they're interested in. ken said I also find that the class room discussions are more engaging and involve more students when there are no laptops. See, I find the class room discussions are more engaging when the professors aren't so boring or off-topic that students retreat to their laptops to keep from committing seppuku.

Policy-wise, it's a bad idea for a law school to ban them in class, unless they get the Cartel, uh, I mean, the ABA to join the fight and use accreditation as a club to get all law schools to follow suit. Otherwise, you'll be The-Law-School-That-Doesn't-Allow-Computers . I think that'd hurt recruiting in our ever-more-digital world.

Joseph Hovsep said...

I was in law school from 2000-2003, at which point most people used laptops for taking notes in class but we didn't have web access. My inclination is that, overall, web access would be more good than bad.

Although I sympathize with Stealth's comment about students seeming too busy transcribing the class to be engaged in its content, I think that dynamic is there whether the transcription is being done on a laptop or with a pencil and paper.

However, it seems like there might be some kind of slippery slope concern with web access... if some people have web access to fill them in on a topic they aren't up to speed on, then others might feel like they need web access to maintain a competitive advantage in class. I haven't experienced it personally, but I can foresee students relying on the web during class to a distracting and counterproductive degree. I think one of the best justifications for the Socratic Method is that it closely parallels the kind of preparation that lawyers have to do for motion term or even just answering a senior partner's questions. But those real life situations don't allow you web access.

CB said...

Another thing the professors might try is not being totally boring and self-indulgent. Whenever I'm on the internet in class it's because the professor is explaining some crackpot theory about how judges should follow law review articles rather than Supreme Court precedent, or regaling (sp?) us with some courtroom war story, or killing time by making some poor student recite every tiny factual detail of a case from 1900.

jinnmabe said...

Wanted to add a few things after reading john and JAC. It's odd that administrators require you to be in class, whether you're getting anything out of it or not. Now, they want to take a step to ensure that you pay attention, again, regardless of whether it's worth it or not. Instead of the individual student determining what is important or not (at the substantial risk of finding out he's wrong come final exam time) he has the "rules" making that decision for him. john said "she nevertheless knows that the class is not entirely there." so what? the class is never entirely there. This feels so much like a spiteful law professor thing. I'd like to know if schools are getting complaints from students about this (instead of just professors' complaints).

JLR said...

It appears to be within the professor's prerogative to establish a classroom environment that he/she finds most fruitful.

To use AO Hirschman's terms, there is an exit-voice dynamic here. If the course-with-no-laptops is an elective, then those who must use laptops can choose not to take the class. If the course-with-no-laptops is mandatory, then they can (hopefully) use their voice to note how much they need the laptop.

Most likely, if it is a course-with-no-laptops, the course will be designed so it can be effectively executed with pen and notebook (a la mathematics courses that don't allow calculators for part/all of some/all exams).

But is such a ban the best way to implement change?

As Prof Althouse notes, it would seem that the best way to get the majority of students to pay attention in class is to actually make what is taught in class be graded in some way (either via class participation or by having something unique to lectures be on the exams).

There is a concern however about competitive advantage (as Joseph Hovsep points out). It would seem that allowing web access may enable one to bypass the heart of the Socratic Method.

[Also, if a professor finds students to be gambling online instead of working (as mentioned by a chem professor in the MSNBC article), I don't see why that professor shouldn't take action.]

jinnmabe said...

It would seem that allowing web access may enable one to bypass the heart of the Socratic Method. Which would pretty much cause the collapse of Western Civilization.

sorry, sorry, just not a fan of the Socratic method.

FXKLM said...

My preferred solution (which is extremely unpopular among students) is to put mirrors at the back of the classroom. That would allow students to use their Internet connections to goof off a little, but would hopefully keep them from being too blatant or distracting about it.

Vee said...

I'm finishing my second year of law school, and I think laptops are a nuissance when coupled with internet access. They don't bother me in relatively small classes, but they're distracting in big lecture halls. There are puzzle-type games flashing and exploding, IM messages and pictures popping up, sports highlight videos playing... no professor is so captivating that this stuff isn't distracting. And it would all be fixed if internet access was blocked.

Ann, I don't think peer pressure is a solution when pen and paper students are outnumbered 10-1. Shall I interrupt class and say "excuse me, could the first three rows please put your computers to productive use or turn them off?"

And the seating chart is a problem in the big classes if you don't get there early enough to stake out a front-row seat.

Reggie said...

Great topic. My experience is as a student who took a few notes in the margin of my textbook.

First, laptops are fine, but internet access is a huge nuisance. And peer pressure? Come on Ann, I can't think of any way to be labeled a gunner faster than to complain about other students' internet use in class.

Second, the most interesting thing is how the students used the internet access. I'd say half are emailing or IMing. The other half are surfing the web. All the guys are on ESPN.com and the girls are almost always shopping for shoes, jewelry, or dresses. I never once saw a law blog on a comptuer in class.

I think the mirror idea is the best solution.

Legal Quandary said...

I had one prof who just laid down the law with us day 1, and was willing to enforce it. Laptops were fine, but no internet in his class.

BUT he also held up his part of the deal and engaged us. Even if he hadn't made the no internet rule, his was the kind of class I would have paid attention in anyway. (And it wasn't b/c the subject was all that fascinating - Admin Law.)

I think fewer students would slack if more profs acted like THEY gave a damn.

Ann Althouse said...

"I never once saw a law blog on a comptuer in class."

Ha, ha. This makes it seem as though I've adopted my position because I want students in other teachers' classes to be reading my blog! (But that would be cool...)

Vee: So get there early! And, in my experience, there is NO rush for the front row seats. If you're late in a stuffed-full class, it might be what you have to take whether you like it or not. I find it hard to believe that anyone who wants a front row seat has trouble getting it!

John Jenkins said...

Everyone sitting behind the surfer is distracted.

Someone else looking at something on a student's laptop isn't a distraction unless he lets it be.

A ban seems unduly paternalistic, but the quality of discussion does seem to suffer, partly from surfers and partly from psuedo-court reporters, who are so busy transcribing the class they seem not engaged in its content at all.

Law school classroom discussions are stilted and boring. Listening to the professor read the same notes he's used for 30 years and ask the same questions he's asked for the same 30 years (for which there are a half-dozen transcripts floating around the law school) is not going to be engaging for anyone.

If the discussion is fruitful and interesting, people will pay attention to it of their own accord, and if they don't, that's why there's separation in grading.

I sense they are saying, you are either here or you're not, but make the choice.

Then don't have attendance policies, so people can study on their own without wasting their time listening to someone drone on and someone else make a clueless response or ask an idiotic question.

Of course, as a practical matter, I don't care because I will never take another note in a law school class again, yay graduation!

Dave! said...

Well said. Thank you.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I spaced out or was otherwise distacted in classes all my life, before the invention of laptops. As long as students are quiet and non-disruptive they should be able to do what they want. If they don't want to learn, so be it. And laptops are handy fact checkers.

What often prevented this behavior was when the teacher called on people randomly. It is embarrassing when this happens and you don't know what the hell is going on. You will think twice about putting yourself in that situation again. You will engage, or you will stop going to class. Everybody wins.

At the law school level this shouldn't be an issue, but I'm not surprised that it is. Most people I know love learning, but hate school because it's hard and law school is very hard. And most people don't go to law school because they love the law - the greatest invention of Man - but because they want to make money.

MMF said...

Well, if professors actually DID count class prep and contributions that would be great, but in my experience they "reserve the right to do so". In reality your anonymous exam is graded (and what seems like months later)that same grade is posted as your course grade.

Danny said...

It seems like the best solution would be for the professor to state at the beginning of the semester, 'There will be no instant messaging or surfing the web during class'. Then the professor needs only to walk the ailes from time to time throughout the year while lecturing, casually chastising any students who are breaking the rule. Do it in a way that makes the student feel embarassed and ashamed of their actions. Call on this student repeatedly and make them feel the wrath of breaking a bond of trust.

Or if you spot a centrally-located student surfing the web, pretend not to notice for a few minutes and then ask him a particularly specific question. When he's bumbling for an answer make sure to lightly chide him for his distractions, which will have the whole class wondering 'How does she always know?!?!'

Joe Baby said...

One of our classrooms has a camera at the back, controllable by the professor at the workstation in front of the room, and the camera can pan/zoom to see the screens of approx. 50% of the room.

There's only one prof who has used it as such, but he's a notorious ass.

Wade_Garrett said...

In my experience, there's not much of a relation between the actual classes one attends in law school and the final exam. In every class, there are people who get good grades and don't come to more than a couple of classes over the course of the semester. Most exams are based on the reading, with no midterm, no participation grade, no group assignments, etc. Exams are graded anonymously. If you do a really good job on the reading, and take notes on the reading, and ask an student who took it the previous year for help with the tricky parts, you can do very well on exams -- some people at the top of the class rankings here at the UW law school rarely go to class.

Wade_Garrett said...

For the people who do go to class, there seems to be little correlation between their participation and their grades. This is not the law school's fault, from everything I've heard they adopted the anonymous grading system, no points for class participation system so that the students who either do not like talking in class, or who feel uncomfortable talking in class, do not see their grades suffer. That policy is absolutely understandable.

The flip-side, of course, is that it gives students barely any incentive to participate in class, to put their hands up, or even to be intellectually engaged in the dicussion. Furthermore, some classes just DON'T have interesting discussions. Civil Procedure, for instance, is one of the most important courses one takes in law school, but there is little to discuss. Con Law, Contracts, Crim Procedure,and some others have great discussions, but many law school courses, especially business law-related courses, don't have much at all to discuss. Hence, you get people going onto e-mail and the internet during class. If they didn't have laptops, they'd probably just be doodling instead.

Bruce Hayden said...

I did law school a bit before laptops, so can't comment directly, but I don't think that peer pressure works all that well. After all, if you can't overcome a little peer pressure, then how can you expect to survive opposing counsel yelling at you? Trying to paint you as the most vile attorney he has ever been opposite of in court?

I suppose that law school now is kindler and gentler, but my memory of 1L was that all the 1L profs had taken "Paper Chase" to heart, and their goal was to either intimidate their students, or turn them into attorneys who could stand up to them, and, ultimately, the world.

I am not a fan of mandatory attendance. It is demeaning to treat adults that way, and if they think they can learn as well outside of class, then, fine, there are plenty who do want to come to class. This was esp. hard for me, since I hadn't had mandatory attendance through my undergraduate education, nor in grad school in either business or computer science. On the other hand, I was one of those who learned best by challenging my profs, and so did go to most of my classes. (And that is why I loved law school, because I never got my grades impacted for it, like I did in business school).

stealthlawprof said...

I have not banned laptops and cannot imagine doing so. While I acknowledge the problems, a ban on computers would be worse.

The problem with transcribing on the computer as opposed to pen-and-paper is that transcribing is possible with the computer. It isn't with pen-and-paper (unless one has incredible shorthand skills -- a lost art). The fast typists are actually in the greatest danger of being able to transcribe and not engage. Anyone that has to think about what to type is processing the information -- just like the old note takers do.

Giving the students the option to choose their seats helps, so long as the students recognize the problem, and I suppose more and more students will. Nonetheless, I hear first year students complain about the distraction as if it is a new phenomenon to them. (For the record, I do not use a seating chart, so my students can move wherever they want.)

For those who jumped to the conclusion that my classes must be awful if I worry about the quality of the discussion, I would suggest the opposite is true. The people who don't worry are the ones who get stale.

Of course, attendance policies are paternalistic. So is the "Socratic dialogue". (Is it my responsibility to terrorize students into being marginally prepared for my class so they will not be embarassed when I call on them? I don't think it is.)

I'm not sure law schools should abandon all "paternalistic" policies. Law students pay serious money for the faculty to guide them through a three year educational experience. The underlying premise is that we can do something for students that they likely cannot do on their own. (If that is not true, then we should have correspondence schools or "reading the law" a la Abraham Lincoln.) How far should we go in enforcing our judgment of what is needed to acquire that education? Alternatively, how weak is our product if we do not state clearly what we think students must do to obtain a quality legal education (not merely a frameable piece of paper)?

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that taking classroom participation into account in your law school grades is helpful in why you are in law school in the first place - to become lawyers. The attorneys who are afraid to speak out, are intimidated by profs, etc., are likely to get run over by many of the real live attorneys out there who use intimidation as just one of their tools of the trade.

Ultimate_Lawyer said...

I am adamantly opposed to VOLUNTARY class participation as a component of grades in LARGE law school classes. It seems to put a premium on verbal masturbation, which privileges a few individuals, regardless of the quality of what they say. Moreover, it tends to result in students being graded on personality rather than performance. Some students are either shy or extremely nervous, and it seems ridiculous to penalize students for this. One student's personality might be to raise her hand when there's an awkward silence, whereas another's personality might be nervousness. This is no way to grade one's knowledge of a subject, since it is wholly unrelated to knowledge, preparation, and ability.

On the other, hand, I do support professors randomly calling on students regularly. From my experience, it seems to be an effective method of getting most students to cease their web-serfing ways in class. It also requires the student to be engaged (in order to render the most diligent attempt at not subjecting herself to embarrassment), and in this manner it enhances the learning experience. At UW, Professor Palay successfully does this. In my class last year of approximately 60 students, he would call on approximatley 1/6-1/4 of the students each class. Predictably, very few studetns IMed in his class.

John Althouse Cohen raises some excellent points regarding the virtues of laptops as a note-taking tool. Sometimes transcribing a professor's entire line of reasoning to a particular conclusion can be quite helpful as a future study tool. Moreover, I think my note-taking, grades, and classroom experience would suffer if I had to write my notes. I have awful hand-writing and have to stare at the page to ensure that I'm not straying to another line, all while focusing on what was said as opposed to what is being said, whereas I don't need to look at my keyboard when typing notes, and thus can continue to observe the professor and listen to what he's currently saying.

Anyhoo, grading based on class participation is evil and leads to absurd results in large classes. Randomly calling on students, propounding a policy that IM-ing and displaying distracting images on one's screen, and ridiculing students who create such distractions seems to comport better to the goals of enhancing the learning experience. Banning laptops merely serves to assuage the damage to the egos of professors who can't bear the fact that students believe he or she is boring.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am not sure if what is practiced in law school is truly the Socratic method. Nevertheless, I did find it useful in training me to refine my legal arguments. But that is just me - I have always learned best under extreme duress, and so chose to put myself in that situation as much as I could in law school.

Ultimate_Lawyer said...

Bruce, I think the self is malleable based on the situation. I think many students who are nervous or freeze in classes of 90 law students will not be nervous or freeze when presented with a few adversaries in a negotiation, or in front of a judge at a trial.

scottha said...

Ann,

When I was in college, 1966-1972 calculators didn't even exist or were only available at a price we couldn't afford. As a computer science major, I've used computers continuously since 1967; in all their forms. I still use a pen and notebook to record moments of interest in my day - but now highly restrained due to being deposed on occasion. Yes, I've read Isaac Asimov's brilliant story of the loss of the ability to perform mathmatics with pencil and paper.

Looking back at my college notebooks, I can't imagine how I'd be able to capture the drawings/text of the lectures on a laptop, let alone absorb the material the prof wanted us to pay attention to.

As an information capture methodology, I'm not in favor of laptops - use them for writing papers but not for ingest - too distracting. Pay attention to what you are being fed - it provokes thought.

Ann Althouse said...

" And peer pressure? Come on Ann, I can't think of any way to be labeled a gunner faster than to complain about other students' internet use in class..."

Ha! So obviously, I'm right! Peer pressure is woking like hell on you as it keeps you from doing anything that would make other students think you're too serious of a student. Well, you've made your choice then, haven't you? You participate in the peer pressure that works against being a serious student, but then you worry about all the conspicuous unseriousness that takes place because no one dares to convey the attitude that students should be taking it seriously. And then you want Teacher to come to the rescue! Ha! You've made your choice, so now it is your responsibility to deal with the distracting environment you yourself are fomenting. My contribution is to make the classroom challenging enough that not taking it seriously affects your GPA.

I guess the option of sitting in the front row is out, right? Makes you look like a gunner!

Me, I always tried to sit in the front row when I was a law student. I thought the backs of people's heads were distracting. And I took lots of notes, not because I was a mindless stenographer, but to keep my mind from wandering.

Ann Althouse said...

MMF "Well, if professors actually DID count class prep and contributions that would be great, but in my experience they "reserve the right to do so". In reality your anonymous exam is graded (and what seems like months later)that same grade is posted as your course grade."

I absolutely do count class participation. The exam is graded anonymously and entered into the computer, I then click to lock in those grades and see the name, and I then put in the participation grades and lock in the final grade. When I'm doing the anonymous grades, I set them at a level that accounts for the grades I'm going to add. That means that a person who failed to participate will end up with a grade a step lower than he would have had on the written exam alone. And, by the way, I go almost entirely with volunteers in class, and students do participate.

Ann Althouse said...

Danny said..."It seems like the best solution would be for the professor to state at the beginning of the semester, 'There will be no instant messaging or surfing the web during class'. Then the professor needs only to walk the ailes from time to time throughout the year while lecturing, casually chastising any students who are breaking the rule. Do it in a way that makes the student feel embarassed and ashamed of their actions. Call on this student repeatedly and make them feel the wrath of breaking a bond of trust."

Oh, I'm supposed to be a big school marm, walking around and shaming everyone? It's not grade school! And I don't even care if they instant message. It's less disruptive than whispering. The only problem -- and it's a big risk -- is if you start laughing, when nothing about what is happening in class is provoking laughter from other students. If you are just one person laughing, you better believe I will call on you, ask you what's funny, and when you can't explain yourself, you will have to answer the next question. Why am I tough about this? Because now you're distracting me! So if you can't control your face, you'd better not engage in extraneous activities that might make you laugh!

Ann Althouse said...

Joe Baby said..."One of our classrooms has a camera at the back, controllable by the professor at the workstation in front of the room, and the camera can pan/zoom to see the screens of approx. 50% of the room."

I wonder if the teachers pontificate about government surveillance in that room. You must pay attention to me while I extol the rights of the individual!

LoafingOaf said...

Terry said: In my experience, there's not much of a relation between the actual classes one attends in law school and the final exam. In every class, there are people who get good grades and don't come to more than a couple of classes over the course of the semester.

Wow, at my law school they were pretty strict about attendance in most classes. Generally, if you missed more than 4 in a semester you couldn't sit for the exam. (Things were a little looser after the first year, but I only had one professor where you could get away with not showing up on a regular basis.)

As far as the laptop controversy, it's just another example of how a lot of law professors need to chill out.

I did have one professor who had us take our exams on laptops, and I have to say I totally HATED that. But probably because I wasn't used to it. I was all stressed out that I'd save my answers wrong or something.

Ann Althouse said...

Terry: "In my experience, there's not much of a relation between the actual classes one attends in law school and the final exam. In every class, there are people who get good grades and don't come to more than a couple of classes over the course of the semester. Most exams are based on the reading, with no midterm, no participation grade, no group assignments, etc. Exams are graded anonymously. If you do a really good job on the reading, and take notes on the reading, and ask an student who took it the previous year for help with the tricky parts, you can do very well on exams -- some people at the top of the class rankings here at the UW law school rarely go to class."

Terry, I think it's the teacher's job to structure things so that doesn't work. I'd like to think the students you describe are afraid to take my classes. The number 1 thing to do is to have a seating chart and to reward participation. Another thing is to make the exam very much about what was covered in class that semester, especially things that were not covered in previous semesters.

But it will always be the case that some students are better at writing good answers to questions, and this will help them cover some other shortcomings.

Ann Althouse said...

Terry: "Civil Procedure, for instance, is one of the most important courses one takes in law school, but there is little to discuss. "

Are you talking about CivPro2? (A course I teach.) There are tons of interesting issues to talk about in my Civpro2 class.

LoafingOaf said...

That means that a person who failed to participate will end up with a grade a step lower than he would have had on the written exam alone. And, by the way, I go almost entirely with volunteers in class, and students do participate.

Is this based on quantity of participation or quality? Because I can recall a few students in some of my classes who never shut up and that could be pretty annoying.

Ann Althouse said...

Loafing Oaf: To make voluntary participation work, especially in a large class, you have to disqualify students who have already spoken. For example, you can say no one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once. You could renew that rule every day or, in a large class, every week. At some point there will be a few people who haven't participated yet, and you just have to call on them, but most students, seeing that will happen soon enough, find a spot where they can participate. I agree that it's crucial to keep the class from being dominated by a small group of enthusiastic speakers.

Wade_Garrett said...

Ann - I was referring to Civ Pro I; I ought to have been more specific there. From what I understand (I haven't taken Civ Pro II yet) there's a lot more to discuss in it than there is in Civ Pro I.

I like what my bankruptcy, tax, and trusts and estates professors did with their classes this year. They taught using a ton of practice questions, which gave them something to call on students about. Otherwise, those classes are so heavily rule-based that there would be less to discuss than in the more academic classes like Con law. That way, everybody in the class was involved, not every class, but often enough to keep their heads in the game. I really liked it.

John(classic) said...

Ann said:
"To make voluntary participation work, especially in a large class, you have to disqualify students who have already spoken. For example, you can say no one speaks twice until everyone has spoken once."


(in a Madeline Kahn voice)
Vill you voluntarily participate or must we shove the waterboard under again?

MMF said...

I wish more profs were as demanding of their students as Ann tries to be.
The failure to engage students is so widespread on my campus that even when students are called on, the shrug and "Sorry, I'm not prepared" resopnse is common, and accepted. What difference if your only grade is based on the anonymous exam?

Ann Althouse said...

John (classic): Indeed! Voluntary participation is not a softhearted scheme. It's demanding. Autonomy is difficult -- one of the reasons why it's better.

Maxine Weiss said...

In California, you can take the Bar without ever setting foot in a law school.

Maybe that's the solution.

Oooops. Sorry Ann.

Peace, Maxine

John Jenkins said...

wish more profs were as demanding of their students as Ann tries to be.

I wish they had been too. Sadly, they aren't, so I was fortunate to have my laptop.

Maxine Weiss said...

Professors are there to provide entertainment. Students learn on their own, or not. The Professor is there to put on a show.

I have a theory.

Professors/lecturers are all, actually, failed, stage actors. Their just on the stage of a different sort: academia. But you're still performing.

It's all performance art.

I get the attention of those students, real quick.

Guilt has it's uses.

I'd go on a crying jag or two. Tell them I don't have the emotional stability to withstand their divided attention. I simply cannot abide it! And, with that I'd simply fall to the floor in a nervous breakdown. Have a daily meltdown, if that's what it takes to get their attention.

And, if that doesn't work, use bribery. Bake cookies.

A startling confession. A shocking revelatiion. Daily....if that's what it takes. Bare your soul. They'll get their nose out of their laptops, I assure you.

And, think of all the extra traffice you'll get on your blog!

Peace, Maxine

aaron said...

It's been my experience that classes with a participation component in the grade are awful. Instructors tend to be way too timid in doing quality control.

rwdome said...

If we are concerned about being unduly paternalistic, we should not have a policy requiring students to own computers in the first place. If students read a newspaper or spoke quietly on the phone during class, they would be asked to stop. Surfing the Internet and checking emails is the exact same thing. This is an absolute no brained and the fluffy reasons offered to justify laptop use are unrealistic and insulting to instructors that are actually trying to engage with their students.