Laptops in the Classroom

More About the Effects of Using Your Laptop in Class

This year, I’ve prohibited the use of laptops in my classes. My classes have become digital ghost towns [1]  Except for the cell phones hidden under desks that students think I can’t see. with only pen and paper to take notes. It’s been great. Students have been engaged, and performance has been strong.

I made the choice after writing a blog post about the many studies showing that laptop usage in class is associated with poorer learning.

It flies against some common assumptions, though. When polled, many faculty at one particular liberal arts college believed technology helped students learn. 57% of professors thought in-class laptop use increased learning, and 17% thought they didn’t make a difference.

To see the evidence for the harms of laptop use, check out that blog post I mentioned. But a recently published study noticed a few small problems with those other studies and sought to address those issues with new data.

The Problem With Past Studies

Laptop in Class

Many of the studies on this topic have been correlational. In other words, they show simple relationships between students’ existing behavior and their performance in school. These studies tend to show that the more students said they used their laptops, the worse they did in the class.

This evidence might be exactly what we think, but you have to be careful when you interpret results like this. It might mean that using laptops was the reason why these students did more poorly. But it’s just as possible that it means that the type of student who uses a laptop in class is the same type of student who doesn’t do as well. In other words, the laptop doesn’t cause the problem itself.

To address the problem of unclear correlations, other studies apply experimental methods. By randomly making some students use a laptop in class and randomly prohibit other students from using their laptops, it controls for the problem. In this type of study, if there are differences between the group of students who had to use laptops and the group of students who weren’t allowed to, the only explanation is that computer use caused the difference.

One recent study applied this method and randomly chose a set of classrooms in which to institute a laptop ban. The results showed that in classrooms that had banned laptop use, final exam scores were higher than in classrooms that permitted laptop use. The thing is, because the study changed laptop use class by class, it’s not clear why there was a difference in test scores. Is it because using a laptop directly harms the laptop user him or herself? Or is it because changing the whole class creates a different learning experience?

Laptop BanA Clever New Solution

A newly published study aimed to control for the issues with the existing studies, and they used a clever way to do so.

This new study looked at the actual grades earned by 5,571 students at a private liberal arts college between 2013 – 2015. More importantly, they looked at teachers’ unique laptop policies.

About 20% of instructors required laptops in their classes, and about 4% prohibited them. The remaining 67% allowed laptops, but left that decision up to the students. The logic was that a student’s individual choice to use a laptop in the “laptop optional” classes would depend on whether that student had another class that day with either a “laptops required” or “laptops prohibited” policy. This was indeed the case.

Students who had a laptop required class on their schedule were 20% more likely to use a laptop in a class where it was optional. Likewise, students who had a laptop prohibited class on their schedule were almost 50% less likely to use a laptop in a class where it was optional.

This is all just a clever way to make sure that whether or not and individual student uses a laptop in certain classes is determined by largely random factors.

Laptops in Class Lowered GPA

laptops03To see if semi-randomly-determined laptop use actually affected students’ grades, researchers focused on students’ GPA in laptops-optional classes.[2]  On average, students in these classes were likely to use their computers. A survey of 229 students showed that 73% of them used their laptops in their laptops-optional classes.

First, having at least one laptop-required class on a given day (increasing the chances that they’d use their computers in other classes that day) was associated with lower GPAs in the laptops-optional classes they had that day.

Similarly, having at least one laptop-prohibited class on a given day (making them less likely to use their laptop in other classes) was associated with higher GPAs in the laptops-optional classes they had that day.

It’s worth noting that these effects were still strong when researchers controlled for other factors like gender, race, age, baseline GPA, number of classes taken that day, and the difficulty of classes on their schedules. There’s also some evidence that the harms of computer usage were a little stronger for men and low-performing students.

Adding More Evidence to the Pile

So there we go…even more objective evidence that using laptops in the classroom hinders learning. This study also addresses two potential problems with previous studies. First, since it relies on external factors that guide some students to use laptops more than others, it improves upon the correlational studies. That is, it’s not just that the same students who are going to do poorly anyway are the students who choose to use their laptops.

Second, this study focused on individual people in a classroom instead of looking at classrooms where everyone uses laptops or nobody does. This means that the benefits of ditching your laptop aren’t solely because teachers teach differently in computer-free classes or that something about being in one type of environment or the other is solely to blame.

Of course, it’s not perfect either. It isn’t a perfectly randomized experiment. Instead, it’s what researchers call a “quasi-experiment.” There are elements of randomization (e.g., each student’s schedule and the policies of their other teachers), but it’s not perfectly random. You might still argue that whether or not people choose to use her computer in class is ultimately their choice, even if part of that decision is based on the other classes they have that day.

Nevertheless, it adds to the growing collection of studies that document the problems with using laptops in a classroom. Evidence from many types of studies converge on this important point. So if you’re a student, let this be a sign! And if you’re a teacher, you should think about how this impacts the policies in your own class.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Except for the cell phones hidden under desks that students think I can’t see.
2.  On average, students in these classes were likely to use their computers. A survey of 229 students showed that 73% of them used their laptops in their laptops-optional classes.

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