Do You Want to Engage Students More in Class? Consider Prohibiting Laptops.

Pace Law Professor Darren Rosenblum published an op-ed in the New York Times describing his experiences with and without laptops in his classroom.

He wrote, “When I started teaching, I assumed my ‘fun’ class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students.  One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back.  The screens seemed to block our classroom connection.”

He then described what probably all instructors know these days, that many students are distracted by their online world and don’t pay attention in class.  He reported observing a colleague’s class, where he could see that many students were shopping online or surfing Facebook.  His article cites research consistent with these concerns.

After banning the laptops, he found that, “With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not.  Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”

I prohibited laptops in my classes and found that students were much more engaged.  Banning laptops also reduced distraction by nearby classmates as well as my own distraction watching student clack away, obviously not related to the class discussion.  When I mentioned my policy at a faculty meeting, several colleagues enthusiastically endorsed this idea based on their own positive experiences.

About 25% of syllabi posted on the DRLE website either prohibit or restrict use of laptops.

If you prohibit laptops, some students may resist, coming up with all sorts of cockamamie reasons why using laptops really promote their learning.  Although there can be some merit to these pleas, I think we all knew that they mostly wanted the freedom to mentally check out of class without detection.  Fortunately, most students accepted this policy without complaint, especially if it was presented decisively.  Indeed, I think that some students actually were relieved to be protected from this addictive form of distraction.  It probably also helps if a critical mass of colleagues at your school have the same policy so that it doesn’t seem as if you are just a single mean old Luddite when all your colleagues allow laptops.

If you are going to ban laptops, you should also prohibit use of cell phones except in emergency.  You probably have had the experience of seeing students appear to be fascinated by their laps as they check their phones beneath their desks.  I told students that they should let me know if they had a particular reason why they needed to check their phones.  For example, one student’s wife was expecting to deliver a baby and he wanted to know if he needed to rush to the hospital.

Here’s the language I used in my syllabus (including the following link): “You may not use laptop computers in class.  After many years of allowing students to use laptops in class, I decided to prohibit them because they distract students too much.  You may not use smartphones or other electronic devices in class except if you may have to deal with an urgent matter (such as a medical situation of a relative).  If you anticipate needing to deal with an urgent matter, please let me know at the beginning of class.”

It also helps if you provide students with some of the material of your presentations so that they don’t need to madly transcribe all your words of wisdom.  Even before I banned laptops, I posted on TWEN outlines of the class material for the day, which I think that also helped students focus on the class discussion.  Part of the trick is providing enough detail so that students have confidence that your notes provide the basic information they need but not providing so much that they feel they can get all they need just by reading your notes without paying attention in class.

Have you banned (or restricted) laptop and/or cell phone use in your class?  If so, what changes, if any, did you observe?

4 thoughts on “Do You Want to Engage Students More in Class? Consider Prohibiting Laptops.”

  1. As John knows, I instituted a weekly “laptop-free day” in all my classes when I arrived at Mizzou ten (!) years ago. I was told it was a risky move for an untenured professor, since my teaching evaluations might suffer (I don’t think anyone else at Mizzou had a laptop-free policy at that time), but I had strong pedagogical reasons for taking this approach. As a result of my laptop-free days, a number of former students gave up laptop use in all of their other class voluntarily, and a number of my Mizzou colleagues have now banned the use of laptops. I still only require one laptop-free class per week, since I believe that some students use their laptops wisely, but it has been an interesting experience. I always get a few complaints on my teaching evaluations, but I also get about the same number of kudos, which suggests everything evens out from the student perspective.

  2. Being a congenital worrier, I was one of the people who worried about Stacie’s laptop plan. Her approach demonstrates that there are lots of ways to manage this issue and it’s worth considering how you can best accomplish your teaching goals. Of course, if it ain’t broke – and you think that a current arrangement permitting laptops works well – don’t fix it.

    Re !, considering how amazingly prolific and otherwise productive she is, it seems like she has been with us forever.

  3. I struggle to balance my interests in democratic classrooms* with my responsibility to support every student’s learning.

    I open most every course with an exercise in norms: students reflect on effective learning experiences, identify which classroom behaviors most contributed to those, then develop a consensus-based list of shared expectations for our time together. (Many readers will recognize parallels with ‘partnering charters’ here.)

    I typically use this exercise to introduce procedural justice, and occasionally students will raise concepts such as power or decision-making or group dynamics. And then I share my principles/approaches to teaching, to model transparency (and humility, and fallibility, as I note a few tensions among those).

    “Laptop [or smartphone] use” has come up a few times, and I’ve enjoyed the ensuing deliberations among students. One class agreed that, to avoid distracting other students, laptop users would sit in the back row. And quite memorably another class engaged me in a negotiation about periodic breaks to check their phones.

    I’ve integrated this “technology/communication break” into much of my work, including facilitations, mediations, and trainings–but not yet my courses. I’d be interested to hear whether/how any other Indisputably readers have.

    Lastly, I appreciate John’s observation that “most students accepted this policy without complaint, especially if it was presented decisively”… it may be a worthwhile challenge for me to reconcile my preference for group-generated norms with the benefits of a clear, imposed laptop policy.

    *In case you’ve not come across it, I highly recommend “Teaching Democracy by Being Democratic,” a collection of thoughtful essays edited by Becker and Couto. Alongside works by Indisputably regulars Schneider, MacFarlane, and Cohen, it motivated me to write on the ways Montessori, Dewey, and Freire have shaped my dispute resolution courses.

  4. I had a similar experience as you, Tim.

    When I started teaching negotiation, I did an exercise on the first day of class to demonstrate interest-based negotiation and set positive, concrete expectations for the course. I asked the class to brainstorm a list of students’ interests in the course as well as the instructor’s interests. (Asking about the instructor’s interests was useful because it prompted them to think about others’ perspectives and I always added things to the list that they didn’t think of.) After compiling these lists of interests and noting that they mostly overlapped, I asked them to identify one interest and we brainstormed options for satisfying that interest. This is where the trouble began.

    Some of my students were jaded 3Ls, who had already mentally checked out of law school before they even got to my class and they were used to using laptops in class (presumably to goof off much of the time). Some had a strong desire to continue using laptops and they articulated many alleged interests in doing so – hence my reference to cockamamie reasons. So we negotiated about this and the first two times I did this, I provisionally agreed to allow them to use laptops but only for class purposes and with the understanding that I could revoke their “right” to use laptops if they didn’t comply with the agreement. This was a good demonstration of tailoring agreements to fit people’s interests, right? Wrong!

    This put me in the awkward position of having to police their use of laptops. Sometimes it was obvious when students weren’t focusing on class but other times it wasn’t. So this policing role was a distraction for me. I ended up revoking permission to use laptops both times I made this agreement. The second time, I revoked permission after only a few classes. Before doing so, I had given warnings to offenders, but this technology is so damn seductive that they couldn’t help themselves – even some of my best and most motivated students. I didn’t like revoking permission as it “punished” students who complied with the agreement and it made me the bad guy.

    After that, I made the laptop ban non-negotiable. There was virtually no pushback because students didn’t expect that it could be otherwise. And I noticed a dramatic increase in student engagement in the course. I think that this is particularly important for many DR courses as class interaction is the heart of the learning. I think it is particularly tempting for some students to goof off in these courses which they think of as easy puff courses because the material is merely “common sense” and they don’t have to memorize a lot of detailed legal rules – aka “real law.”

    At the end of the day, I was not (as) democratic you, Tim. I certainly tried to be attentive to students’ desires and I solicited their preferences them about various matters. However, I felt ultimately responsible for managing courses as well as I could (as I’m sure you do too, Tim), and I reserved most of the decision-making for myself. The student populations and cultures in our courses differed and I wonder how much that affects the dynamics.

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