Laptops in class: How distracting are they?

A new study shows that law students are tuning out at remarkable rates, raising serious questions about what, exactly, they're learning.

They say education is the only thing people pay for that they want less of. Unfortunately, technology is helping students get the lesser education they want.

We’ve all heard about students using their laptops to surf the web in class instead of listening to lectures. But how big a problem is it really?

Bigger than you think. According to the limited study I just completed, the majority of upper-year law students tune into less than half of each class, raising serious doubts about what, exactly, they’re learning in school.

Last year I noticed a student in another professor’s class surfing the web on her laptop while simultaneously texting on her phone. So this fall, I stationed observers at the back of the room during six large law school classes. Ultimately, the observers recorded detailed observations of 60 class sessions.

Just 17 minutes

They spotted the first student texting 17 minutes into her law school career. Of the upper-year students, the observers could see using laptops, 58 percent used them for non-class purposes at least half the time. Altogether, 87 percent of the upper-year students used laptops for non-class purposes more than five minutes per class. Announcing that students should not surf the Web seemingly made no difference; even as a professor proclaimed such a prohibition, students continued visiting the Internet.

How much students were distracted seemed to depend on the uneasy tension between temptation and incentive. First-year students, whose grades are more likely to have an impact on career prospects, used laptops far less for non-class purposes than upper-year students. Students were also more attentive during discussions of rules, which students undoubtedly expect to be the subject of law-school exams. Conversely, things students might expect not to be tested on – such as questions asked by other students – reduced attention levels in courses with a final exam.

The cure for technology distractions is sometimes more technology: Putting up a slide revived students’ attention at least long enough to take down what is on the screen, though that seems not to be true for students whose professors post slides on the class website.

Does this mean professors should ban laptops? When the incentive to pay attention is low – as may be true, for example, for students whose grades are unlikely to affect job prospects – a ban might be prudent, for much the same reasons that dieters should not keep candy around: Sometimes people yield to temptation.

Paternalism vs. responsibility

To be sure, barring laptops is paternalistic. Still, law professors also have a responsibility to their students’ future clients. Would you want a doctor who had played solitaire while your illness was covered in class? Law schools must certify that their graduates seeking admission to the bar attended classes. Perhaps we should also certify that the students did not spend those classes on Facebook.

But we professors should realize that banning laptops eliminates only one temptation and does not change the incentives students face. More study is needed to see if what my observers saw holds up elsewhere, so we can understand better what causes students to vote with their fingers to ignore us, and perhaps to guide us in changing the incentives students face or even how we spend class time.

In the meantime, I have told my two children in college not to use their laptops in class. Now if only I could leave my Blackberry in my pocket during meetings.

Jeff Sovern is a professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law and the author of “Law Student Laptop Use During Class for Non-Class Purposes: Temptation v. Incentives.”

Get the best of Monitor opinion. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter here.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.