Are You Ready to Apply Unequivocal Research Findings That Students’ Use of Laptops in Class Reduces Learning?

University of Michigan Education Professor Susan Dynarski wrote a compelling article in the New York Times, Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

She cites research finding that when students use laptops in class, they not only reduce their own learning, but they also reduce the learning of nearby students.

The whole article is worth reading.  Here are some excerpts:

“[A] growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures.  They also tend to earn worse grades.  The research is unequivocal:  Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.

. . .

“In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture.  Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

. . .

“The strongest argument against allowing [students to choose whether to use a laptop in class] is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them.  In a series of lab experiments, researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada tested the effect of laptops on students who weren’t using them. Some students were told to perform small tasks on their laptops unrelated to the lecture, like looking up movie times.  As expected, these students retained less of the lecture material.  But what is really interesting is that the learning of students seated near the laptop users was also negatively affected.

. . .

“I ban electronics in my own classes.  I do make one major exception.  Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class.  This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability.  That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test.  Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.”

Given the “unequivocal” findings described in the article, you may want to generally ban laptops in your classes.  While you are at it, you might also prohibit use of cell phones, which may be even more distracting.  Students are likely to readily accept restrictions on their use of electronic devices in class if this is a normal practice of a substantial proportion of faculty in the school.  If you are ready to start restricting use of electronics in your classes, you might encourage like-minded colleagues at your school to do so too.

In my classes, I made exceptions if students told me in advance that they had a specific reason they needed to check their cell phones (such as one student whose wife was about to give birth).  I also allowed students to use electronics to refer to role-play instructions during simulations so that they didn’t have to print them out.  Students should get accommodations for disabilities through the normal procedures.

8 thoughts on “Are You Ready to Apply Unequivocal Research Findings That Students’ Use of Laptops in Class Reduces Learning?”

  1. Thanks for sharing John. I agree that laptops can be distracting and serve as poor note taking devices, but as legal educators in the 21st century, we have a responsibility to expose students (and ourselves) to emerging technology. Technology is changing the delivery of legal services and our students must increase their comfort with using technology in a professional environment. Since 2014, I have required students to bring a laptop (or any other device capable of connecting to the internet) to class. I do this because throughout class, I have them work on exercises (such as a self-reflection, polling, or group activities) that rely on technology to more effectively capture and visualize their responses. When we aren’t working on one of these activities, I cite the same research you shared here and ask them to put the device away.

    Of course, I am not teaching them coding, and as a legal educator in dispute resolution I spend considerable time on the value of face-to-face communication. But that doesn’t negate the use of technology. In fact, I want them to see how technology can enhance our face-to-face communication and interactions by modeling and exploring its use in the classroom. We use google forms to complete self-reflections and view collated data. We use to capture real-time comments and discussion while watching live/video demonstrations. We use wearable cameras to capture video during simulations. We use polleverywhere to complete formative assessments and focus conversations. Technology doesn’t have to be a distraction or decrease student understanding of the subject, in fact it has the capability to greatly increase student engagement with the professor, each other, and the material if thoughtfully incorporated into the curriculum.

    I’ve been working on putting together a website for Northwestern Law faculty on integrating technology in the classroom. Feel free to check it out here:

    Hope its helpful and would love to hear any feedback

  2. I believe that there is merit to both styles of education, both with and without technology. While educators found a way to teach their students adequately in the days before computers, the potential that allowing technology into the classroom brings is undeniable. However, given the fact that these electronic devices can tend to distract students at times, and that some professors often do not want to be bothered to learn the mechanics of the technology when they carry out their profession, I do not think there should be requirements leveled at the administrative level either way regarding the use of technology in the classroom. This decision is likely best left in the hands of the instructor of a given course, so long as the professor is equipped by the administration with the tools they need to teach the class in the manner that they select.

    Further, as a student at Marquette University Law School, I have taken courses that have both restricted electronics, and also required the use of electronics. The imposition of the necessity to use technology in the classroom when a student feels that they do not typically learn best that way does seem like the best way to teach those students. However, restricting electronics is one particular way to minimize distraction in the classroom, but the enforcement of that restriction may take the attention of the class as a whole away from where it should be, the subject matter of the course.

    In my personal opinion, allowing students to use electronics, but not restricting or requiring them unilaterally is the best course to follow. But ultimately, that decision should lie with the professor of the course, the classroom leader who the students should have an interest in following, given classroom roles and their implications that the professor has something to teach the students, and the students can learn from the professor. Further, if the professor decides to require electronics of a certain application on a mobile device, ensuring that everyone in the class can participate in their preferred style of teaching the class is something that professors should do before the term begins. Thanks.

  3. I have tried both methods of taking notes for classes. In my experience most teachers DO allow for students to take notes on their laptops. Some do not. On the first day of class, some of my professors have even mentioned the results of the above research cited, that students that take notes by hand often retain the information better than their peers that type, but ultimately the professor left it up to the students to decide for themselves.

    In my first semester of law school I took all notes by hand even though all my teachers did allow us to use laptops. I did well that semester but felt I could do better. I found that when it came time to study or to find something I was specifically looking for in my notes, the handwritten notes were difficult to decipher, partly because my own “chicken scratch.” So the next semester I experimented and tried typing in all my classes. I honestly can say that by the end of the semester I felt more nervous about my finals than I had the previous semester. I felt that I had not mastered the material as well.

    Now when it came time to study though, the notes on the laptop were invaluable. If I wanted to check and see if I had a specific case name or concept in my notes or outline, all I had to do was hit (Ctrl+F) and all my results would flash before my eyes. I also took advantage of the new friendships that I had made and was able to study in groups. Both of these led to me doing much better than I had anticipated and better overall than my previous semester.

    I understand that there is a misrepresentation in my comparison, as many students that hand-write their notes, take them home and transcribe them into a word program each night. However, I was not a student that felt I had the time to do this, but many students do make this leap, and are better for it.

    Regarding the distraction of other students, I can personally attest to this. Whenever a student in front of my eye-line begins checking Facebook or checking their fantasy football lineup, it definitely distracts me long enough to lose my train of thought with the lecture and I begin daydreaming. Students with MacBooks can even sync their iMessage app to their iPhones and text without the assistance of their phone during class. This is most common unintended use of laptops that I witness daily in class. My personal strategy to combat this is that I generally try to sit as close to the front as possible in each class. That way there are very few people to distract my attention in front of me and there’s less temptation for me to be a distraction to my fellow students behind me. Obviously not everyone can use this strategy as there are only so many “front seats.”

    In conclusion, some students learn to take notes more effectively in different ways, but the harm done to fellow students by distracting them is a real problem when in “auditorium classrooms” and must be addressed In some manner.

  4. Alyson, I’m not at all surprised that you are so creative in the ways you use technology in your courses to enhance student learning. I am sure that well-designed activities can be beneficial. (Indeed, that’s what we would expect from Northwestern’s assistant dean of law and technology – how cool is that?)

    As you note, when students aren’t doing your technology-related activities, use of electronic devices can impair students’ learning, including that of other students. So it’s not an all-or-nothing deal – faculty can permit use in some situations and not in others. As I mentioned, I permitted students to use laptops to refer to role-play instructions during simulations, a process that worked well.

    When I started my negotiation course, I invited students to negotiate with me about aspects of the course. Students argued that using laptops would help them take notes, which I think was a bunch of hooey as they really wanted an opportunity to ignore class discussion in a course with no final exam. As someone with horrible handwriting, I sympathize with the desire to take comprehensible notes, but I don’t think that was their main motivation. In two semesters, I agreed to permit them to use laptops if it didn’t distract them, but they couldn’t live up to their end of the deal because this stuff is unbelievably distracting. So I wised up and stopped negotiating with them – and had no real pushback from banning laptops after that.

    Two of my colleagues mentioned that they had banned laptops in their classes and some students thanked them, presumably because the policy eliminated distractions and enabled them to focus more on class discussion.

    An easy way to address students’ desires to have good notes is to distribute powerpoints or outlines right after class so that students can pay more attention and don’t have to act as scriveners. I think that this is a good idea in any case and it reduces the problems if faculty prohibit laptop use.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments by Joseph Esposito and John Atkisson.

  5. This is a very timely piece considering all the advancements in technology. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who informed me that the high school her brother and sister attend have gone completely “paper-less.” Students access their books and take notes using a school issued tablet. Of course, the caveat is that the school has completely stripped the tablet of any internet capabilities. It would certainly be interesting to see whether those students’ standardized state test scores increase or decrease.

    I think the article effectively captured two of the biggest problems when students use laptops in class: (1) the distraction it can create with not only themselves, but with students around them; and (2) students become court reporters typing whatever the professor says without processing the information. I believe that these setbacks are well within the control of the student. The student can have the discipline and respect to not surf the web instead of taking notes and paying attention. Moreover, the student can use their pre-class notes and add key points the professor discusses into those notes, rather than scribing what the professor says word for word.

    Finally, while we do see this massive shift of students using computers in class, I believe it is in the student’s best interest to get comfortable taking notes using pen and paper. While the article was dedicated primarily to laptop use in the classroom, there was a brief mention that laptops hurt productivity in meetings as well. Therefore, students looking towards entering a professional career should be comfortable processing information, and then taking notes on the key points and topics discussed in class, and eventually, in the boardroom.

  6. In general, I agree with the spirit of this article but the data it links to does not fully support its broad claim. Laptops can be a major distraction to students unable to maintain focus on the lecture in front of them. They can be detrimental in even the most compelling of lectures as well. It is hard to focus at times on the words of an instructor when someone can be playing muted sports highlights from last night’s game in the front row.

    The main issue with a blanket ban without consideration of the subject though is that some classes are not designed to be done purely with pen and paper. Computers fulfill a worth place in the learning environment as they will be taking up a large part of the working environment when students graduate. The information that can be retained through interactive learning that is made to be assisted by laptops rather than merely retained by them may have the potential to help students who have grown up in a post-internet world learn about how to get to information better than simply having it memorized.

    If a professor in one of my classes brings up an obscure noted case during lecture and I have a laptop I can quickly google the case and make a note of a precedent that might be able to help me if the topic interests me. If there is a dispute on the history of a case that the book has excerpted in favor of shortening the load it can be quickly ascertained.

    The study contained within the article raises a counterpoint as well. While the comprehension itself was lower between students who took longhand notes and those who use laptops, the verbatim overlap was significantly higher for students using laptops. In subjects that may require exact wording or specific terms of art in order for students to receive full credit this could be important.

    In fact, in order to get the study to find that laptop notes and longhand notes had any differences in test performance, instructors in the study had to tell students to not take notes like they would in class. If the results linked to in the full article are read fully, the first run of the experiment showed that there was no significant difference between either method as higher word count, which was found more in laptop users, inversely effected a participants score while lower verbatim overlap, which was found more in longhand note takers, also had an inverse effect.

    If anything the study showed that students who wish to stay focused have no negative impact. The tough part is designing a lecture that can keep them engaged.

  7. I too teach negotiations and having been doing so for 15 years. Eight years ago I asked my class if they were willing to join me in an experiment: Would they be willing to test the impact of the prohibition of note taking — whether by computer or pen — on their ability to listen and retain? I explained my rational. I mediate, and only once did a party’s lawyer bring a computer into a mediation and hardly ever did any lawyer take notes. They listened hard, tested for understanding often, and summarized whenever a decision was reached, getting sign-off from all before proceeding further — all the while holding to the “rule”: nothing is decided until everything is decided.

    The class was game with one request. Each class one person would take computerized notes. I would edit them and then send them out so all would have a history of the class. At the end of the semester the class reported back. To a person they agreed their listening skills had improved, not only in class, but in their lives. To this day computers stay closed in my class, save for the recorder’s. It works.

  8. That’s a great story, Ava. (Hi!) It demonstrates that class can work so much better if students are not expected to be notetakers, recording all our pearls of wisdom (and potential exam threats). If they are freed from that burden, they can pay attention so much better. And that dispenses with the major claimed rationale for using laptops.

    Thanks also for your comment, Jenna.

    I agree that laptops can enhance learning in situations designed to take advantage of their capabilities.

    I want to comment on a situation you mentioned that might take place in more traditional lecture or discussion courses. You wrote that if a professor refers to an obscure case, you can quickly google the case in class.

    This idea is problematic to me for several reasons. First, I suspect that very few students use laptops this way during lectures. Even when students do look up a case or other relevant material during lecture, this distracts them from the lecture – and risks distracting nearby students. Unless the material is very easily located and digested, this could take quite a bit of time, especially if the student is “distracted” by the professor lecturing or having a discussion with other students. In most situations, students don’t really need the information in the moment and could do as well or better by looking it up after class. So I think that the benefit of looking things during class is probably exaggerated in frequency and value, and is offset by any reduction of learning it causes.

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