Students, Laptops in the Class, and Impact on Grades

March 4th, 2012

As a follow-up to my previous post about Kim Novak Morse’s dissertation about laptop usage in the class, the NLJ has this piece breaking down some of the data.

“All the debate between professors and students about laptop use in the classroom and whether to ban them was getting pretty hostile,” she said. ” I thought, ‘Before we ban the laptops, let’s get all the facts.’ ”

Morse and six research assistants spent one semester during 2010 monitoring how students attending five law classes used their computers, and how different teaching styles affected their use. They deployed software to keep tabs on what students did with their computers during class. (The students were informed that they were being observed for classroom participation, but did not know the researchers were focusing on their use of laptops).

It was widely assumed that 3Ls would be the worst offenders, Morse said — that an element of senioritis was at play. In fact, the 2Ls took the crown, spending 42 percent of their time off task. The figure for 1Ls was 35 percent and for 3Ls it was a relatively modest 28 percent.

Morse acknowledged that those figures might seem high to some, but she had a different take.

“I think it’s more of a positive thing,” she said. “I think a lot of professors believe that if there are no eyeballs on you and all your students are looking at their screens, that no one is paying attention. But we found that at any given time, 82 percent of 3Ls are on task.” Similarly, at any moment, more than half of 2Ls were not misusing their laptops and 69 percent of 1Ls were on task.

Here is the most interesting part–she found no correlation between laptop misuse and performance in class (though specifically, she looks at the grade in the class, not classroom participation, which is the immediate observation Profs balk at):

For one thing, she found no correlation between laptop misuse and performance in the course; while students may miss some important information, they make up for it through reading, study groups or related activities.

Similarly, students with higher scores on the Law School Admission Test spent the most time off-task. That may be because the higher-scoring students read up on course material beforehand and listen only to the most important parts of the lectures, Morse said.

Some professors view themselves as the sage on the stage–without their detailed planning and exemplary lectures, students cannot possibly learn and do well. I think this view is wrong in just about all cases. Some–not all–smart students could probably ace an exam without ever coming to class. There are some special professors who do something that self-study cannot, but those (in my experiences) are far and few between. Sure going to class makes it easier, but some people learn better on their own schedules, outside of class. I felt like I did most of my learning at home when I read. Class was just a nice review, but was seldom essential. Professors can see (in the short-run) eyes not paying attention to them, but they cannot see what is actually being learned. Also, this means students can (and do ) multitask.

This is why I wish to put my own material on the student’s computer in the form of live chats, blog posts, and videos. Take advantage of their short attention spans and teach them on their own time.

I just sent Karen an email.

I think if more professors recognized that their lectures aren’t that critical, their views about diminished attention in class (due to laptop usage) and diminished attendance (I am opposed to mandatory attendance rules) may change.