Photo by Johan Larsson (flickr/ creative commons)

Deep Down, Law Students Learn Like Cavemen, New Article Says

Millennials in law school are really just cavemen with smart phones.

Or, more precisely, humans’ brain function and style of learning haven’t changed much over the last 50,000 years, not even for those so-called “digital natives” who have never known a world without computers and the Internet.

This seems to be the prevailing theme of law professor James B. Levy’s new paper, Teaching the Digital Caveman: Rethinking the Use of Classroom Technology in Law School,” published online May 8 and due for release in the upcoming fall 2015 edition of the Chapman Law Review.

Law schools, like other types of schools, have been eager to incorporate Internet use, laptops and Powerpoint presentations into the classroom under the assumption that these tools are somehow required for keeping young people engaged in learning.

But if their use isn’t managed carefully to promote quality education, they can create major distractions that prevent law students from practicing the key skills of thinking critically and focusing attention on a single task at hand, Levy writes.

“The history of classroom technology shows that pressure to innovate combined with intuition and assumptions about students is often a toxic mixture,” writes Levy, an associate professor at the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University. “Unlike classroom experiments of the past, there is substantial evidence that digital technologies can make things worse by lowering learning outcomes.”

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors benefited from having brains that are easily distracted from one task to recognize a potential new food source or to notice a potential predator nearby, Levy observes.

For law students taking notes on an Internet-connected laptop, the human tendency to be distracted is not so helpful. In fact, Levy argues students benefit from taking notes with pen and paper, pointing to studies that show typing notes on a computer tends toward verbatim transcription, without much cognitive processing of the message.

Classroom policies on laptop usage have been a hot topic of debate among law professors, Levy says, noting the decision by some Harvard Law professors to outright ban laptops in the classroom.

“Learning science makes the decision easy. Unless the professor is having students use their laptops as part of an in-class exercise or is otherwise actively managing their use, they should be closed or turned off,” he writes.

Levy also draws on our ancient history to argue that the haptic – or physical touch – aspects of learning with books, pen and paper help students’ brains to form stronger connections to the course material than they would through visual learning alone. This, he said, might be partly due to lingering connections between haptic and language centers in the human brain, left over from a time when our ancestors communicated via hand gestures rather than speech.

“Technology and media are always changing but the fundamentals of teaching students to be good critical thinkers have not changed much at all,” Levy writes in conclusion. “Whether writing an appellate brief, synthesizing a line [of] cases or solving a complex problem for a client it will always demand an ability to shut out distractions and focus deeply on that task at hand.”