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August 25, 2008

Shouldn't we just grade class participation rather than ban laptops?

Through this new post at his home blog, Eugene Volokh continues a thoughtful discussion of his new experimental one-laptop policy (details here).  I found this account of his goals helpful and interesting:

In my view, the main impetus for the non-laptop policies has not been paternalism towards students who choose to tune out....  Rather, the concern is about the impact of laptops on others — both (1) the distraction to other students when someone is surfing the Web or (even if Internet access is turned off) is playing solitaire, and, probably more importantly, (2) the perceived decrease in class discussion stemming from laptop use, and the hoped-for increase in the number of participants and the quality of participation when people stop using the laptops.

Now I'm not sure whether class discussion improves as a result of no-laptop policies. I've heard favorable reports from others, but the reason I'm calling this an experiment is precisely because I don't know for sure whether the results will be positive (though I've heard enough to suggest that the results are unlikely to be highly negative).  But ... we're trying to improve class discussion, a discussion through which each student's participation benefits the other students as well as the participant.

Among many notable comments is this one making a provocative (and accurate?) assertion about what law students really care about:

Most law students, I think, would say that their priorities are (in this order): (a) receiving their degree, preferably backed by good grades and awards; (b) maintaining a personal life that is not tied to school; and (c) engaging in intellectual conversation in a limited set of courses.  But even for those students who enjoy the intellectual side, surely most only enjoy it in certain select courses, and not in every class they are required (or choose) to take.

These thoughts lead me back to an idea I have long supported: making class participation an integral and significant part of law school grading systems.  Laptops or no laptops, I think students would be very involved in (and very prepared for) class discussion if they were certain that, say, 35% of their final grade was directly impacted by their classroom performance.  (Moreover, since an ability to talk about legal ideas effectively when placed on the spot is more relevant to most legal jobs than an ability to write a quick answer to a contrived essay question, having grades turn significantly on in-class performance makes some sense when grades are largely designed to be a signal to the legal marketplace.)

I know there are various reasons why grading in-class might not produce the ideal classroom environment.  But if improved class discussion is what Eugene and others are seeking, wouldn't it make a lot more sense just to give students a direct and tangible incentive to improve class discussion rather than to ban classroom use of a particular technology?

Some recent related posts:

Posted by DAB

August 25, 2008 in Technology -- in the classroom | Permalink


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Your lips to Gd's ears, Doug. In my online (mental disability law) courses (for those who skipped my earlier posts, there are weekly 75 minute chat rooms, 2 full day live sessions, and asynchronous online postings), class participation is 25% (in bricks-and-mortars classes, it's the usual up/down 1/3 only).

The class participation in the online classes is astoundingly good.. sometimes breathtakingly good (as it was last nite, in the first Survey of Mental Disability Law class of the semester). If only this were de rigeur, not an exception...

Posted by: Michael Perlin | Aug 26, 2008 5:22:23 PM

I do both, in both first-year and upper-level courses, and it seems to work pretty well so far. The key, I think, is actually recording participation after each class, which I don't find so hard but does require a bit of discipline and effort.

Posted by: Jason Solomon | Aug 27, 2008 9:23:37 AM

While Professor Volokh disclaims paternalism as a prime motivation for his laptop ban, the first ground he cites -- distraction to other students -- is by definition paternalistic. If distracted students, to the extent they actually exist, want a laptop ban or other professorial intervention, they'd ask for it. Among all the laptop or Internet bans that have been instituted to date, the overwhelming majority appear to be initiated exclusively by law professors rather than law students. This suggests to me that the distraction argument is a straw man standing in for a completely different and considerably less persuasive set of motivations.

For a fuller discussion of this issue from the student perspective, see http://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=39812&start=19.

Posted by: TTT-LS | Sep 1, 2008 12:40:02 AM

But ... we're trying to improve class discussion, a discussion through which each student's participation benefits the other students as well as the participant.

Posted by: rolex watches | Aug 6, 2012 5:27:24 AM

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