Laptops in the classroom

Like most professors I know, I’ve been frustrated by laptops in the classroom for quite a while.  As somebody who hates to write by hand, I appreciate the fact that many students strongly prefer to type.  But it is quite obvious that they are a huge distraction, even for good students that use them– and certainly for any student near a classmate using a laptop for FB, etc.  My current policy has been to require laptop users to sit in the first two rows.  Why?  In my experience you are much less likely to ignore me and be wrapped up in your computer screen if there is close physical proximity.  Seems to work reasonably well, from what I can tell.

That said, the latest research has me strongly considering banning them entirely.  Some pretty solid research suggests that– hate it or not– you just learn better writing by hand than typing into a computer.  Basically, you have to process the material more in your brain.  Here’s Vox:

It’s not just because internet-connected laptops are sodistracting. It’s because even if students aren’t distracted, the act of taking notes on a computer actually seems to interfere with their ability to remember information.

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the psychologists who conducted the new research, believe it’s because students on laptops usually just mindlesslytype everything a professor says. Those taking notes by hand, though, have to actively listen and decide what’s important — because they generally can’t write fast enough to get everything down — which ultimately helps them learn…

When done with pen and paper, that act involves active listening, trying to figure out what information is most important, and putting it down. When done on a laptop, it generally involves robotically taking in spoken words and converting them into typed text…

This new research suggests that even when students aren’t doing anything else, taking notes on a laptop hinders their ability to learn. This is something of a surprise.

What isn’t a surprise, though, is that real-life students that use laptops seldom focus on the lecture.

You probably know this if you’ve looked across a lecture hall recently. But in case you want confirmation from professionals, research on both undergrads andlaw students has shown that those who use laptops have something unrelated to class up on their screens around 40 percent of the time. Ultimately, theyperform more poorly in classes and rate themselves as less satisfied with their college educations.

And I also read this take from a Computer Science professor in the New Yorker:

I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school. When I created my “electronic etiquette policy” (as I call it in my syllabus), I was acting on a gut feeling based on personal experience. I’d always figured that, for the kinds of computer-science and math classes that I generally teach, which can have a significant theoretical component, any advantage that might be gained by having a machine at the ready, or available for the primary goal of taking notes, was negligible at best. We still haven’t made it easy to type notation-laden sentences, so the potential benefits were low. Meanwhile, the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

Over time, a wealth of studies on students’ use of computers in the classroom has accumulated to support this intuition.

I’m not 100% made up on this, but strongly leaning towards moving this way in the Fall.  My current summer class has only 8 students, but none of them uses a laptop, and I must say, I really like it.

Alas, on the downside, without laptops, my students’ handwriting will probably be more difficult for them than ever.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Laptops in the classroom

  1. jeffbc94 says:

    I tend to agree with this, both as a regular presenter in the front of the room, and as a current student. I use my laptop in class, and I’m prone to check my work email or social media when the class discussion moves away from anything of relevance for me.
    People always comment when I encourage them to tweet during my conference sessions. But there’s a difference between “tweet about this material” and “just skim your Facebook page and don’t listen to what I’m talking about.” I want the former, not the latter!
    I like the caveat of using the first two rows, I’m sure proximity deters the temptation of distraction.

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