Put the laptop down

From my perspective, the evidence for the negative impact of laptops in the classroom has already been sufficiently compelling that I banned them years ago (though, I make sure to explain to my students why).  A recent piece in NYT summarizes the latest research on the matter, and the case is only more compelling.  In fact, a colleague whose class I recently reviewed (and suggested he needed to ban laptops), is now convinced.  There’s a lot of solid research on the matter now:

But 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 that choice 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 think there are probably narrow, specific, uses where laptops can enhance a classroom.  But as for a general purpose tool for note-taking, they clearly need to go.

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

2 Responses to Put the laptop down

  1. David Greene says:

    But Ipads are fine, right? :p

  2. Nicole K. says:

    As long as I can still access electronic textbooks and assigned readings via a tablet or ereader, I’m completely fine with eliminating laptops for taking notes. It is distracting when the person in front of you is perusing Facebook while you are trying to pay attention to the lecture. Since I purchase 99% of my required textbooks electronically and have been doing so for years, a complete ban on devices used for this purpose would be something I’d be pretty upset about.

    In my experience, I’ve been able to get permission to use a device to access electronic copies of books and readings, provided that is all I use the device for, most of the time. At NCSU, this usually only required asking the professor’s permission. When I had to do a semester at Wake Tech, they were not so flexible, even when I offered to sit in the front row so they could see that I only used the tablet as a textbook. Since I was unwilling to purchase a second copy of books I had already paid for, I either had to share with people around me or go without. Since I almost always actually read assigned readings in advance, it didn’t cause significant problems for me. But it was extremely frustrating to have access to the textbook but not be allowed to use it simply because it was on a device rather than paper.

    This was a real problem when I was taking Spanish and couldn’t use the textbook during class. Fortunately, after a few weeks the professor realized I wasn’t there to waste anyone’s time or be a distraction – she also realized I simply was not going to buy a second textbook as she suggested – and she finally let me use my electronic textbook. There were no problems and no complaints from anyone in the class related to this use.

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