Pace Law Professor Darren Rosenblum published an op-ed in the New York Times describing his experiences with and without laptops in his classroom.

He wrote, “When I started teaching, I assumed my ‘fun’ class, sexuality and the law, full of contemporary controversy, would prove gripping to the students.  One day, I provoked them with a point against marriage equality, and the response was a slew of laptops staring back.  The screens seemed to block our classroom connection.”

He then described what probably all instructors know these days, that many students are distracted by their online world and don’t pay attention in class.  He reported observing a colleague’s class, where he could see that many students were shopping online or surfing Facebook.  His article cites research consistent with these concerns.

After banning the laptops, he found that, “With constant eye contact, I could see and feel when they understood me, and when they did not.  Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”

I prohibited laptops in my classes and found that students were much more engaged.  Banning laptops also reduced distraction by nearby classmates as well as my own distraction watching student clack away, obviously not related to the class discussion.  When I mentioned my policy at a faculty meeting, several colleagues enthusiastically endorsed this idea based on their own positive experiences.

About 25% of syllabi posted on the DRLE website either prohibit or restrict use of laptops.

If you prohibit laptops, some students may resist, coming up with all sorts of cockamamie reasons why using laptops really promote their learning.  Although there can be some merit to these pleas, I think we all knew that they mostly wanted the freedom to mentally check out of class without detection.  Fortunately, most students accepted this policy without complaint, especially if it was presented decisively.  Indeed, I think that some students actually were relieved to be protected from this addictive form of distraction.  It probably also helps if a critical mass of colleagues at your school have the same policy so that it doesn’t seem as if you are just a single mean old Luddite when all your colleagues allow laptops.

If you are going to ban laptops, you should also prohibit use of cell phones except in emergency.  You probably have had the experience of seeing students appear to be fascinated by their laps as they check their phones beneath their desks.  I told students that they should let me know if they had a particular reason why they needed to check their phones.  For example, one student’s wife was expecting to deliver a baby and he wanted to know if he needed to rush to the hospital.

Here’s the language I used in my syllabus (including the following link): “You may not use laptop computers in class.  After many years of allowing students to use laptops in class, I decided to prohibit them because they distract students too much.  You may not use smartphones or other electronic devices in class except if you may have to deal with an urgent matter (such as a medical situation of a relative).  If you anticipate needing to deal with an urgent matter, please let me know at the beginning of class.”

It also helps if you provide students with some of the material of your presentations so that they don’t need to madly transcribe all your words of wisdom.  Even before I banned laptops, I posted on TWEN outlines of the class material for the day, which I think that also helped students focus on the class discussion.  Part of the trick is providing enough detail so that students have confidence that your notes provide the basic information they need but not providing so much that they feel they can get all they need just by reading your notes without paying attention in class.

Have you banned (or restricted) laptop and/or cell phone use in your class?  If so, what changes, if any, did you observe?

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org