Should students be banned from using laptops in class?

University of Memphis law professor June Entman recently took a step that deeply freaked out her first-year law students: She banned laptops in her class. As the Memphis Commercial Appeal — there’s a newspaper called “The Commercial Appeal”?? — reports:

“My main concern was they were focusing on trying to transcribe every word that was I saying, rather than thinking and analyzing,” Entman said. “The computers interfere with making eye contact. You’ve got this picket fence between you and the students.”

Entman’s students have had three classes without laptops. Cory Winsett, a first-year law student, said his participation in class has dropped because he’s too busy writing notes on the lecture. And his notes are less organized and hard to read when he gets home. “If we continue without laptops, I’m out of here. I’m gone; I won’t be able to keep up,” Winsett said.

I can understand why the students are so unsettled: One’s technology deeply affects one’s cognitive style, a topic I’ve blogged about before. Mostly, this story seems to focus on the fact that having a wifi-enabled laptop allows students to ignore the lecture — by chatting, downloading music, updating their MySpace account, whatever. While obviously that’s a concern, I’d argue that it also provides some healthy competition for the professors; too many of them read off brittle, yellowing, decades-old lecture notes and never engage their classes. They’re losing the Darwinian battle for attention for good reasons, and it’s time to cull the herd. (I’m not just flapping my gums: Whenever I speak to a college-age audience, I prep very hard to make sure I win their attention, since I know I’m going up against World of Warcraft.)

But really, it’s worth asking: How do different note-taking techniques affect your thinking? The U of M professor worries that her students are so focused on taking her words down verbatim that they aren’t listening to her. That’s a realistic concern. As a journalist, I take notes on a computer at 80-100 WPM (when I’m interviewing someone on the phone), on a notepad at probably 20-40 WPM (when I’m in the field), or simply in my memory (when I’m observing something where I’m using both my hands and can’t take notes even if I want to). I also use a tape recorder and transcriber when I need to capture every single word.

In each case I come away with a rather different experience of what I’ve seen and heard. A transcription is perfect fidelity, which can be wonderful if I have a long time to revisit the interview and muse over what someone has told me. But sometimes the full transcript almost crowds out my thinking with too much detail: I have trouble recapturing what was most interesting and electric about what my interviewee said. When I’m using a notepad, on the other hand, I tend to only record the highlights of a conversation — the stuff that hits me with particular force. So while it loses lots of detail, it can sometimes do a better job of helping me distill a interview to its true core. Typing on a computer falls somewhere in between.

As for relying on pure memory? That’s an even more interesting technology. Back in 1989, a student I knew at the University of Toronto interviewed Northrop Frye about his new book, Words With Power. The student showed up with a tape recorder but no notebook, and the tape recorder went on the fritz at the beginning of the interview. After he fussed with it for about 10 minutes, Frye gently suggested, why don’t you just forget about taking notes and just listen? So he did, and they chatted for an hour or two, and he went back and wrote down his impressions of the conversation. As I recall — ironically, I’m pulling this story from memory — there were no direct quotes in the writer’s article (because he wasn’t able to record any, of course), yet the piece did a superb job of synthesizing what Frye had said.

Some newspaper reporters back in the 40s used to go out to interview people without any note pad at all. They’d just talk to them, absorb what they heard, then go back to their desks and pound out a story. Granted, given that newspapers theoretically rely on precision and accuracy as the source for their authority, this method is pretty sketchy. But it probably produced some interesting pieces!

Here’s a crazy idea: How about having a professor assign her students into note-taking groups of three. One will listen to the lecture and take notes on a laptop; another will use a pen and notepad; a third will just sit there and listen and think. Then they pool their notes and impressions afterwards. This would never fly, of course, because if you got stuck with a couple of lousy note-takers on the day you’re assigned to sit and listen, you might get burned. But maybe not. Maybe the three of you would produce an entirely new and richer record of what had been said — and, more importantly, what you’d understood.

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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