Monday, February 27, 2012

New teaching scholarship: "Before you Ban: Empirical Data on Student Laptop Use"

The synopsis below was sent to me by the author, Professor Kim Novak Morse of Saint Louis University School of Law. According to Professor Morse, this study is part of her Ph.D. dissertation. The author can be contacted at

Laptops and law students go hand in hand in the classroom nowadays. I would not be alone when I say, I find myself having a pang of annoyance toward laptop users since their laptop commitment strikes me as disrespectful. Pedagogically speaking, teaching to heavy laptop users frustrates the typical visual cues faculty rely on that demonstrate students grasp of the information being taught. In effect, teaching to classroom laptop users eerily comes close to teaching to an empty classroom (or so it seems).

Beyond frustration, however, more and more faculty are turning toward banning laptops in the classroom citing, at minimum, that classroom discussion is completely stymied, or worse, students are failing to learn.

The outright banning of laptops seemed hasty to me since most of the reasons for doing so were anecdotal, or based on student-self reporting of misuse.  In order to get an objective picture of off-task laptop behavior, I initiated an empirical study. For the entire Fall 2010 semester, in an IRB-approved observational-study, six of my research assistants and I observed five different law classes where students used laptops (total population size of 95).

In the study, we observed two first-year courses, one second-year course, and two third-year courses at one law school. The research assistants sat throughout the classroom and manually timed, with special software, how often students went on or off-task.

Four research questions drove the study:

1. What is the actual extent of laptop misuse in class?

2. Does off-task behavior correlate to final course grade?

3. What classroom conditions promote off-task behavior?

4. What classroom conditions redirect laptop users’ attention away from off-task behavior?

The results from the study reveal that indeed students are off task in class; however, it is not as extensive as we thought, nor is it the population of students we thought it was (of course, this depends on whether you are an optimist or pessimist). Second-year students were off task the most time, at 42% of the entire semester. First-years were off task approximately 35% of the time for the semester while third-years spent approximately 28% of their class time off task. Regarding how many individual students were ON-task at a given instant, roughly 82% of third-years, 69% of first years, and 50% of second-years were NOT misusing their laptops (chart 1).


              Interestingly, students who had higher LSATs were off-task more than students with lower LSATs (chart 2 & 3). In fact, higher LSAT students reported that they often are off-task in classrooms and only redirect their attention back to the lecture when they need clarification on topics.


           While the numbers indicate that students are off-task, my second research question sought to answer whether more off-task behavior might correlate to lower final course grade. Through statistical analysis, the results indicate that there is no correlation between high off-task behavior and lower final course grade (chart 4). Nor is there a correlation between low off-task behavior and higher final course grade. Such results support the idea that students learn outside of class as well as in class and, though they may miss ideas in class due to off-task behavior, they often learn or supplement it through readings, study groups, clinics, etc.


 The study is further instructive to legal educators since it also identifies some of the conditions that promote off-task behavior:

1)    Student laptop users tend to go off-task when X-(anything) occurs for 4 minutes or more...

2)    When professor is engaged in Socratic method with one student, there is a an increase in off-task behavior by other students.

3)    When a classmate engages with professor, there is an increase in off-task behavior by other students. 

4)    When professor is monotone, or, overly uses one linguistic intonation style, students tend to increase off-task behavior.

5)    Approximately 40 minutes into class, off-task behavior increases.

6)    When professor calls on students in expected order, off-task behavior increases.

Just as students went off-task when certain conditions existed in the classrooms, my study also captured when students re-directed their attention away from off-task behavior. Faculty can employ the following strategies:

1)    “Announcing-the-Good-Stuff” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when professor provides big-point-summaries, rule formations, definitions, and conclusions. 

“Ultimately, courts look at X...”;  “The upshot is...”       

 2)    Using the “Rupture Strategy”: Students decrease off-task behavior when directed to an item in a book, chalkboard, digital presentation, in-class task, etc.

“Look at page X...”;   “On the chalkboard you see...”; 

“On the screen, notice X...”, “Write a brief X...”

3)    “Changing-up-the-Voice” Strategy: Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor prefaces content with signal phrases like:  

“This would be a good exam question...”

“ I want to flag for you...” , “The critical idea here is...”

Or, by using linguistic mannerisms like intonation, especially rising intonation found in questions:

“And, how would you know   X     ?”;  “Because........?”

4)    “Problem-Posing” Strategy: Students redirect attention when the professor asks a problem-solving question to the class (less so than targeting one student).

“How might we determine X...?”

“If we alter X, what might Y?”

5)“Keep-the-Show-Moving” Strategy:

Students redirect attention away from off-task behavior when the professor manages “the duration of any X” so it doesn’t exceed 4-5 minutes. For example, the professor   1) may present info (5 min or less) switch 2) ask a question to the class (5 min or less)  switch 3) direct students to book (5 min or less) switch 4) ask an individual a question and have student respond (5 min or less). switch, etc.  6)“Moving-into-student’s-space” Strategy: Students redirect attention when professor moves toward off-task individuals (but surprisingly only for a short time).

          Some faculty may feel it is just simpler to ban laptops than employ some of the “workaround strategies” offered above. Before doing so, however, I would urge faculty to recall that the study indicates that the majority (82%, 69% & 50%) of the students are not misusing their laptops. In fact, students are listening-- counter to the common assumption that everyone is monkeying around.

Article originally posted 2/25/2012 on Best Practices in Legal Education Blog by Center of  Excellence in Law Teaching at Albany Law School.


February 27, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tower of Books

Personally, I prefer Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song. However, I also like the Tower of Books at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. Every year, there are more out-of-date law books. I’m glad some people have found a way to use them. Here’s a photo as well as a photo of a tower of law books at the bookstore at the Savannah College of Art and Design.


February 27, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Research Works Act Dead (For Now)

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that the Research Works Act (“legislation to bar public-access requirement on federal research”) is dead. 

“The science-publishing giant Elsevier pulled its support on Monday from the controversial Research Works Act, hours before the bill's co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives declared the legislation dead.”

You can find the bill text, HR 3699, on Thomas here.

You can read Elsevier’s statement here.


February 27, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thinking Outside The Box I

Much of what we teach in law school is legal protocols--systematic methods to approach a legal problem.  However, thinking outside the box is important, too.  A lawyer who thinks outside the box comes up with creative solutions to clients' problems and advances the law.  Examples include Brandeis with his Brandeis brief, applying strict liability to products liability, and using equal protection to advance the civil rights movement through the law.

Can you solve this classic problem in thinking outside the box?

A bus gets caught in a tunnel because the bus is slightly taller than the tunnel. The bus driver tries to back out, but is unsuccessful; the forward momentum of the bus has caused it to become really stuck. A tow truck also cannot get the bus out. There is a way to get the bus unstuck. What is the solution?

I have put the answer in the comments.

(Scott Fruehwald)

February 27, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

One story of how law school loan debt can ruin a life

Here's an interview with a law school scam-blogger by Long Island's Cable News Channel 12 that puts a human face on the consequences of overwhelming student loan debt.  JDPainterguy is a pseudonym for John Koch, a graduate of Touro Law School who borrowed $69k in 1996 to finance his legal education. After failing the NY bar three times, he couldn't find a job that paid enough to service his student loan debt and also pay his other bills.  As a result, he defaulted on his student loans and the added stress caused his marriage to fall apart.  Because of the default penalties he incurred, his total debt has now ballooned to more than $304k. He tells the Channel 12 reporter that although he's currently enrolled in an income-based repayment program, interest still adds more than $2k to his balance each month. Mr. Koch estimates that he'll owe more than $1 million by the time he reaches "retirement" age, 23 years from now.


February 26, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

New scholarship: "Alternative Justifications for Academic Support III: An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Academic Support on Perceived Autonomy Support and Humanizing Law Schools"

By Professors Louis N. Schulze Jr. (New England) and Adam Ding (Northeastern) and available here on SSRN.  Professor Schulze says this is the final article in his “Alternative Justifications” trilogy, and it details the findings of a two-year empirical study on the impact of ASP on law students. The hypothesis of the study is that as students' participation in ASP increases, students' perception of "autonomy support" and "humanizing" grows as well. 

From the abstract:

This article details the findings of a two-year empirical study on the impact of a law school academic support program (ASP) on law students. The hypothesis of the study was that as students' participation in a well-resourced, open-access ASP increases, students' perception of "autonomy support" and "humanizing" grows as well. The study concludes, based upon statistically significant data, that law school ASPs impact students in positive ways and therefore are worth the investment. This article is the third in a series designed to show that law school academic support measures positively impact students' well-being and lead to a more robust educational experience.


February 26, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Law School System Is Broken"

From the National Jurist Magazine (via the TaxProf Blog):

It's a troubling trend. The total amount of debt that has been used to pay for legal education has risen to $3.6 billion, up from less than $2 billion just ten years prior. And if the current trends continue, that figure could reach $7 billion by 2020.

It's not a problem that has gone unnoticed. Legal education observers are worried, recent graduates are frantic and law schools are looking at their options. ...

[T]here is no easy or simple answer to the problem. ... The reason for the debt is easier to understand: law school tuition continues to outpace inflation. It increased by 74% from 1998 to 2008.

Why does tuition continue to grow? Most agree it is related to the number of law professors walking around law school campuses nowadays. Faculty salaries make up a majority of a law school's budget. And law schools increased their faculty size by 40% from 1998 to 2008, according to a National Jurist report. That meant almost 5,000 law professors were added in 10 years, with the average student-to-faculty ratio dropping from 18.5-to-1 in 1998 to 14.9-to-1.

And why did law schools expand their faculties so rapidly? Law has become more complex and specialized. Law schools today offer far more course than ever before, and specializations. But critics point out that the race to do better in the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings has also fueled the growth.

Read the full article here (free registration required).


February 26, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Five Tell-Tale Signs You’re Becoming a Teacher Leader

Here are the tell-tale signs from Education Week Teacher. Although the article is for the  K-12 audience, it applies to us as well. I think there are many teacher-leaders among us who do not realize their potential to aid others in becoming better teachers.

Sign #1: You wish you had an impact beyond your classroom.
Sign #2: Colleagues often ask you for advice.
Sign #3: You "think big" about problems.
Sign #4: You want to take new teachers under your wing.
Sign #5: You always want to know more!


February 26, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)