Taking Notes Without a Computer: How Laptops Distract From Classroom Learning

By SHERRY F. COLB

Wednesday, Sep. 06, 2006
Over the last few years, teaching has changed for me. In the past, I could see students' faces, engaged and interested in the material we covered, and occasionally -- perhaps more occasionally than I would care to admit - I felt I could command their undivided attention. It was a privilege to have a captive audience, and the electricity of the classroom motivated me to do my best to explain difficult concepts, while simultaneously offering stories and jokes for comic relief. Teaching felt like a cooperative enterprise between me and my students.

Recently, however, teaching had become a different sort of activity. The metamorphosis was subtle at first, so I did not take immediate note of it. But by degrees, I found people less attentive, more likely to respond "what?" or "can you repeat that?" when I called on them to answer a question, and less able to handle complex ideas than in the past. Students seemed more frustrated when we encountered difficult material, and I - as a result - came to feel frustrated as well.

At first, I attributed the change to my own failings. I assumed that I was becoming less interesting as I aged, or - more charitably - too demanding of my class, having come to take for granted what used to be the exciting novelty of teaching. If I was no longer as satisfied in the classroom as I used to be, I imagined, the fault lay squarely at my own feet.

In an effort to address my failings, I talked to colleagues at Rutgers and at other universities. I soon learned that I was not alone. Perhaps I was becoming a boring, old curmudgeon, but I was doing so in very good company. Then a Newark Star Ledger reporter asked if he could sit in on one of my criminal procedure classes.

The reporter explained that he was writing a story about web usage in the classroom and wondered if he could include my course in his study. I agreed to let him sit in for a day. In exchange, he promised to tell me after class how many of my own students were surfing. It had not occurred to me that people were cruising the Internet during class, so I was curious -- though also confident -- about what I would likely learn.

Blame It On the Web

At the end of the class, the reporter approached the podium and told me that I had a low rate of web-surfing, compared to what he had witnessed in other classes. Patting myself on the back, I asked "How low?" The answer: "About forty percent."

What? Had I heard right? Forty?! Almost half of my class was busy with other things while I was up in front of them teaching my heart out? I still recall our topic that day: We were discussing the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorists.

What could be interesting students more than that? As it turned out, according to the Star Ledger reporter, online shopping and instant-messaging friends were more interesting than that. But I should be happy, the reporter assured me - 60% of my students were not surfing!

The reporter's observations opened my eyes. I began to notice that people were often "elsewhere" while I conducted my class. Students sitting next to a "surfer" would aid me in my detective work, because their eyes would dart to their neighbor's screen.

In time, I became less kind when a student asked a question or made a point that had been asked or made earlier in the same session. "Yes, that is a good question/point," I would now say, "but Mr. Doe said the same thing earlier."

How Inattention Disrupts Active Listening: The Price Students Pay

Why should anyone care about my growing displeasure in the classroom? Isn't this my problem -- one that mirrors the problems of old people over the centuries who must learn to adjust to new technology and social norms? Perhaps it is. But that raises the question whether this particular technology and these social norms have a place in the classroom. Students apparently believed that they were learning as much as they needed to learn, even as they attended to several other tasks at the same time. But they were mistaken.

I have never liked talking with people who are multi-tasking. The typical line when a person objects to the multi-tasking interlocutor - and I have used this line myself - is to say "I'm listening. What I'm doing doesn't take any thought. Go ahead and say what you were going to say." I have offered this assurance in the past, when addressing envelopes or folding laundry while talking, and I believed it to be true at the time, but I am dubious now.

If I give my undivided attention to the person who is talking to me, I am much more likely to hear and fully understand what that person is saying. That is what people mean when they say of someone that he or she is a "good listener."

When I was in college, I volunteered at a campus hotline that fielded calls from 10PM to 3AM each night. People called with various complaints, some as serious as contemplating suicide, and others as seemingly trivial as wanting to talk to a neutral person about an argument with a friend. In training for peer counseling, we learned to "reflect back" what a person said - repeating the import of the caller's statements in our own - the listeners' - words.

I might say to a caller, for example, "It sounds like you feel betrayed by your friend's flirtation with your boyfriend." The repetition, my training emphasized, should not be verbatim, and it might include observations about the caller's tone of voice as well the substance of what he or she has said. The goal was to convey to the caller that we were paying close attention to his or her words. And if we got it wrong, the caller could correct us, by saying, for example, "No, I'm not angry. I'm just sad."

The reflection-back process - which struck many of us counselors as artificial, and even amusing, when we first encountered it - proved surprisingly challenging. It meant that we could not do anything else - indeed, could not let our thoughts stray, even for a moment - while listening to the caller, because we might miss something important and would then be unable to reflect back accurately what the caller had just said. The technique, moreover, turned out to be quite effective: Callers became comfortable talking with us about personal and even embarrassing things. And I learned a great deal from listening attentively to what my anonymous classmates had to say. I was always very tired after a hotline conversation (and not just because we went home at three o'clock in the morning).

I am not suggesting that the classroom is like either a hotline conversation or a chat between good friends. It would be most disruptive, for instance, if all of my 124 criminal procedure students raised their hands throughout my lecture to repeat back what I'd just said. But if an individual student is to master complex material, he or she should be paying close attention to the lecture and be capable - if asked - to repeat what the professor has said, in his or her own words. Surfing the web is entirely inconsistent with the level of attention that this would require.

Why Taking Notes by Hand Improves Learning

Some students will respond to this statement that "I write down every word you say, because I type so quickly, and therefore, I don't need to give you any more attention than I already do." But this response illustrates yet another problem with the use of laptops in the classroom - it facilitates transcription of every word, but that task is itself inconsistent with thinking about what a professor is saying while she is saying it.

When you take notes by hand, you are forced to digest what has been said and write down only a fraction of it. You are forced, in other words, to think while the class is in progress. It is what distinguishes a live lecture from a recorded one, after all. Listening means that you can understand the material, not just take it down like a stenographer. It also means that you can ask pertinent questions, answer professors' inquiries well, and listen intelligently to what classmates have to say.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I have instituted a virtual ban on laptops in my classroom this semester (virtual, because two students are allowed to use laptops on the condition that they share their notes with the rest of the class). This is the first time I have adopted such a policy, and many students - at least before the semester began - expressed unhappiness about it.

These students are used to taking notes on a laptop computer, and they believe that they do their best learning that way. They are, however, likely mistaken, in my opinion. I have already noticed a higher level of reasoning, after only two weeks of class under the virtual laptop ban, and I am optimistic that student performance throughout the semester will improve as well.

If you want a magic bullet for how to get more out of your law school class, here it is: Put the laptop computer away, and take out a pen. You might actually learn something.


Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark, where she teaches Criminal Procedure, Criminal Law, Evidence, and Mental Health Law. Her other columns may be found in the archive of her work on this site.

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