Laptops in the classroom

Laptops in the Classroom: Do They Help or Hinder Learning?

The scent of a new school year is in the air. Freshmen are arriving on campus, activity fairs are popping up, and professors are frantically planning their syllabi. Even though these events are familiar college standards, other things about the college experience have changed over the years. One of the key changes is the deep use of technology in the classroom, which has been accompanied by a steady stream of laptops in the classroom.

On the one hand, it might seem like laptops have improved the classroom experience. Everything is in one spot, you can back up your notes, typing doesn’t hurt your hands as much, and you could argue that you use less paper[1]  …but also a bunch more electricityBut do you learn more?

Both students and teachers can benefit from a bunch of new psychology research on the troubles caused by technology in the classroom. The message is pretty clear across a bunch of studies and student participants: learning suffers when laptops are allowed in the classroom.

Evidence that Laptops in the Classroom Hurt Learning

laptops04Perhaps the best evidence comes from a recent experiment that tracked the performance of more than 700 students in Economics courses. By nature of the school, students were assigned to sections of the course, which is important because it means that students didn’t get to pick their section or clump into groups that were already high or low performers.

Then, some sections of the course banned laptop use and others allowed free use of outside technology, and importantly, which sections instituted the ban was decided totally at random.[2]  It’s also worth noting that the analysis controlled for the specific instructors of each section just to be sure that they weren’t the cause of any learning differences.

The key was to look at the students’ final exam scores, and the difference was clear. In classrooms that had banned laptop use, final exam scores were higher than in classrooms that permitted laptop use.[3]  Just to make sure I’m giving you the full story, it wasn’t just a comparison between “laptops banned” and “laptops allowed.” There was a third condition in this study that was like a “laptops are sort of allowed.” In that condition, students could bring their tablets to class, but the tablets had to stay flat on their desks. The results showed that this didn’t solve any problems–the students still did worse than the students in the “banned laptop” classrooms. This effect was even true after controlling for things like initial GPA and ACT scores.

Another study echoes these findings. This study simply asked students to report how much they used their laptops in class over the course of a semester. The results showed that the more students said they used their laptops, the worse they did in the class.

Laptops Are Distracting…to You

We’ve seen now that laptop use is associated with lower academic performance, and the next question is: why? One obvious answer is just that technology is distracting.

laptops05I’ve observed a bunch of college classes, and sitting in the back, the reality of laptops in the classroom becomes painfully clear. Students weren’t dedicated to taking notes on their machines. I saw plenty of browsers opened to email, online shopping sites, social media, and even videos with the sound off. And it’s not just me who’s noticed. One study found that students “have non course-related software applications open and active about 42% of the time.”

Using your laptop to take notes in class and also to answer email and browse the web is an obvious case of multitasking, which people tend to be way worse at than they realize. One study set up a college classroom environment, and participants were supposed to listen to a 45-minute lecture on meteorology. Some of the students, though, were also given a list of other tasks to complete on the Internet (e.g., checking Facebook) while also paying attention to the lecture.

At the end of the lecture, everyone took a test on the material covered by the professor. The group of students who multitasked during the lecture scored 11% lower on the comprehension test, compared to students who weren’t instructed to multitask.

Laptops Are Distracting…to People Near You

laptops03Now, you might be thinking that not all students multitask when they bring their laptops to class. Sure, but the scary thing is that laptop use can distract the students who are nearby as wellSo even the students who are diligently trying to take notes by hand in their notebooks are at a disadvantage in an environment that permits laptop use.

As a follow-up to the study I just mentioned, the researchers again created a classroom environment and asked the participants to take notes on paper. The classroom was designed so that a few other students (who were actually in on the experiment) had their laptops with them, and they used those laptops to multitask during the lecture.

After class, the students took a test on the material covered in the lecture, and students who were seated near laptop users did worse on the test than students who couldn’t see any of the laptop users. So it’s not just that students are distracted by their own multitasking, but laptop use creates a distracting environment for others, too.

Another study asked students to write down “any aspects of the classroom experience or the behavior of their fellow students that they found distracting or that prevented them from paying attention to lectures.” People wrote things like “other people talking” and “hallway noise,” but the single most reported thing–64% of all responses–was laptop use by other students in the class.

Taking Notes by Hand is Objectively Better

Distraction is certainly a problem, but it’s not the only one. Also think about how people take notes on a laptop vs. on paper. One reason why people like to take notes on a computer is because it’s easier. You can type more quickly and get more of the words down on the page. This might actually be a big negative, though.

laptops in the classroomTo get a quick glimpse, consider one study that compared the exam scores of students who chose to take notes on paper all semester to the scores of students who chose to take notes on their laptops. More than 1600 students taking a college biology class were included in the analysis.

When you look at the students’ performance on class exams, the students who took notes on paper showed a performance boost, and the students who took notes on their laptops took a hit to their grade. Looked at another way, there was a higher percentage of paper note-takes who got As than the laptop users.

As I hinted at above, one reason why laptop-based notes can hurt is because people are inclined to type every word the instructor says. In fact, one set of studies took a closer look at what kinds of notes people took. Laptop users were more likely to write down the instructor’s lecture word for word than paper note-takers were. This is actually a really difficult habit to undo. When they tried to tell students not to take notes verbatim, the laptop users continued to do so.

Of course, this is only a problem if it’s a problem. And it’s a problem. Taking verbatim notes makes it hard to really learn and understand the material. One of the studies showed that even when they gave students a chance to review their thorough notes, laptop users still did worse on an exam than the students who originally took their notes on paper.

Leave Your Laptop at Home

The evidence is pretty clear:  using laptops to take notes led to decreases in educational outcomes. Obviously this doesn’t mean you should run outside and burn your laptop. There are plenty of good uses for your laptop (like writing a blog!). The real key, though, is that you should avoid using your laptop as a way to take notes in class. They’re distracting to you, they’re distracting to the people around you, and they reinforce bad note-taking habits that get in the way of truly learning the information.

It’s also worth noting that these studies took a variety of approaches and used a variety of students, topics, and environments. Some of the studies relied on correlational evidence, which you should be wary of. After all, maybe it’s just that students who are already high achievers are the ones who choose to leave their laptops at home. But remember that a bunch of these studies also used experiments that randomly assigned people to use laptops or not, sit near laptops or not, and attend classes that banned laptops or not. These results are clearer evidence that laptops in the classroom cause problems.

More anecdotally, I’ve noticed that some of my best students have always been committed to taking notes by hand without a laptop or even note-taking guides. Those personal experiences and the emerging evidence have convinced me that leaving technology at home is the way to encourage actual, true learning. Do students prefer to have their laptops handy? Probably. But let’s focus on the long-term benefits.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  …but also a bunch more electricity
2.  It’s also worth noting that the analysis controlled for the specific instructors of each section just to be sure that they weren’t the cause of any learning differences.
3.  Just to make sure I’m giving you the full story, it wasn’t just a comparison between “laptops banned” and “laptops allowed.” There was a third condition in this study that was like a “laptops are sort of allowed.” In that condition, students could bring their tablets to class, but the tablets had to stay flat on their desks. The results showed that this didn’t solve any problems–the students still did worse than the students in the “banned laptop” classrooms.

2 thoughts on “Laptops in the Classroom: Do They Help or Hinder Learning?

Leave a Comment