Law Students

Are Laptops Too Tempting? Most 2Ls and 3Ls Doodle for More than Half the Class, Study Finds

Law students in upper-year courses are being distracted—a lot—by their laptops in class, a new study has found.

St. John’s University law professor Jeff Sovern sent observers into six classrooms and found that 58 percent of the upper-year students using laptops spent at least half the class using the devices for outside purposes. Another 29 percent were distracted more than five minutes but less than half the time per class. “Those numbers raise serious questions about how much students are learning in class,” Sovern writes in a paper posted at SSRN.

First-semester civil procedure students, on the other hand, were much more devoted to their class materials. Only 4 percent used laptops for nonclass purposes more than half the time, while 44 percent were never distracted by laptops. Sovern points out that the 1Ls have an incentive to pay attention because first-semester grades have more of an impact on job prospects and law review eligibility.

Sovern decided to study laptop use after he peeked in a classroom and noticed a student texting on her cell phone and surfing the Internet during class. He sent observers to the back of six law school classrooms in the fall of 2010, including his own classes on civil procedure and introduction to law, a pass-fail course based on a paper rather than an exam.

The observers watched 1,072 laptop users during 60 class sessions. Students weren’t told why the observers were there, although at least two students figured it out after overhearing conversations.

Sovern summarized his findings in an e-mail to the ABA Journal. They include:

• Students in exam courses were more likely to tune out when classmates asked questions and less likely to tune out when a rule was discussed or textual material was read in class.

• First-semester students were most likely to be distracted during policy discussions. They were least likely when the professor displayed a PowerPoint slide.

• With some exceptions, what was happening in the class did not affect whether upper-year students tuned out or paid attention.

• The format used to convey information—lecture, calling on students, or class discussion—seemed to make little difference to the level of attention.

Sovern notes that his study strengthens arguments for a classroom ban on laptops, at least for upper-year students. His inclination, he says, it to allow laptop use in his first-semester classes, but not in his upper-year classes.

“Eliminating laptops may affect student behavior by eliminating one temptation,” he writes in his SSRN paper. “Allowing students to have laptops is like placing beer in front of alcoholics.”

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