The law school classroom can be difficult for students to successfully maneuver these days. Students trying to understand and retain the information their professor is conveying in the classroom can often be interrupted as they are bombarded by other distractions. If you are a student who finds yourself easily distracted, your future ability to learn, grow your own mind, and think for yourself could be severely affected. What’s a student to do? Being mindful of some of the many things that distract you in order to begin to deal with them is the first step.
First, let’s take phones and other electronic devices and their distraction level. Students I speak to often view their need to connect with others as a necessity. Notice, I didn’t say significant others, which is people I connect with on my own devices. I appears that for some students, three minutes is too long to go without checking a phone. Students view their online connections as comforting, I’m told. But, those phones and computers are not only a distraction from the lecture or class activity for the student checking their phone, but for other students in the class as well. In classrooms, the distracted are a distraction: Studies show that when students are in class multitasking on laptops, everyone around them learns less. Distraction is contagious. Engagement becomes difficult. Engagement however is an extremely important part of a law school education.
One solution that professors may discuss with you, and that students could suggest to their professors and others on the first day of class, is to try a device-free class with a break for checking messages and emails. When other students are not tempted by their phones and computers, all the students in that class may feel more in control of their own attention. If a computer or phone is out and being used, everyone sees control slip away. On the surface, we all see our phones as instruments for giving us greater control, not less, but do they really do that?
A lot is at stake in the law school classroom, and even if phones are eliminated, other things take away our attention too. Other distractions such as boredom or being annoyed with the person the professor is calling on who didn’t read the material can lead your attention away from the important conversations that are taking place. But, those classroom conversations and interactions are very important. When we consciously decide where we will focus our attention then we’ve decided not only what we will learn, but we also show others what we value. Dropping out of a classroom conversation can begin with a moment of boredom or annoyance or because a friend reaches out to you. Once you find yourself pulled into a state of distraction at any level, even the best class can’t compete.
Choosing to tune out from a class conversation or from studying for an exam in order to tune into a device or even into boredom is training your brain to multitask as your default approach. Once you choose hyper attention or multitasking as your preferred way of coping, it could lead to your inability to focus, even when you want to. Just as middle-school children don’t acquire the skills for conversation because they lack practice, university students lose the capacity to sit in a class and follow a complex argument when they aren’t engaged with the material and the discussion because of distractions or boredom. And that goes for law students too!
Here’s an example. Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law School allowed her students to take notes on laptops, as they had done as undergraduates. But, once Professor Steiker saw that students taking notes with computers suffered from more than inattention, she changed her mind about this type of note taking. She came to the conclusion that her students were taking transcripts of the class, and she doesn’t view that as engagement. Professor Steiker’s goal is for any note-taking to help students integrate the themes of her class. She believes that note-taking trains her students to organize a subject in a personal way. It cultivates an art of listening and thinking that is important to future lawyers. Notes that capture the themes of the class help students remember their participation and integrate it into their thinking. Professor Steiker allows no technology in any of her classes. In a device-free class, she says, “the students seem less annoyed when you call on them.” She’s optimistic, convinced that taking notes by hand is forcing her students to be better listeners.
You can also think about it this way. When students collaborate with each other or with the professor in a conversation about the material, a type of intellectual serendipity takes place. It may happen when someone tells a story or a joke or even when someone daydreams and comes back with an idea that goes in a new direction. Many of our best ideas are born this way, through conversations that take a turn. You really don’t know when you or your professor and another student are going to have that important conversation in class or in a study group. This means you’ll have to show up for many conversations that feel inefficient or boring, just so you can be there for the conversation that changes your mind or leads you to a new discovery.
In education, learning is the focus, and multitasking is not helpful to the learning process. So when a student chooses unitasking, she’s made a choice. That choice is to stay focused. If she notices a moment of boredom, it means she needs to actively re-engage. Use a moment of boredom as an opportunity for new thinking and creative engagement with the material. If you go to the web, that moment will be short-circuited because a life lived online makes deep attention harder to call on. This happens because the brain is plastic — it is constantly in flux over a lifetime — so it “rewires” itself depending on how our attention is allocated. That plastic brain can be reprogrammed to work on deep attention. Students who decide that deep attention is a value can cultivate it. Go Cultivate!