Should Laptops Be Banned in the Classroom?

The New York Times had a story this week that reported:

“…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. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms...”

As a result of such findings, the author of the article, Susan Dynarski, a college professor, has banned all electronics from her classroom.

If you think that seems extreme, and that students, especially college students, should have the freedom to choose how they take notes, Dynarski provides evidence that the learning of students seated near laptop users was also negatively affected.

This is the second time I have seen a newspaper write a story about this issue; last year the Wall Street Journal also cited research (the same research noted in the Times article in some cases) that handwriting could make you smarter.

As a teacher who does allow his students to use laptops to take notes in class, I’d like to present an alternative perspective.

My sense is that the author of the Times article, and the experimental studies cited, all used a traditional lecture approach in the classroom. In such cases, yes, it seems like taking notes by hand may be more effective than taking notes on a laptop.

But what if the students had access to the lecture notes/outline prior to class, and could bring those notes to class, either in printed form, or on their laptops?

I think in such situations, students don’t have to worry about trying to write everything down, but just fill in their own notes where they feel it is necessary. I believe in such situations, laptops are just as effective as taking notes by hand, since it does require thinking about what to add to the supplied notes, and not just trying to type everything.

I’ve written before about my use of PowerPoint in the classroom, more as a way to keep me on task and ensure that I cover what I want to cover. If I need to write on the board to further explain a concept, I can do that as well. I provide my students with all of my PowerPoint slides in advance of class, and I’ve noticed that many (perhaps the majority) of students print out the slides, and then take notes in the margin of those slides. Other students use their computer to add notes to the slides, and some students take notes from scratch. From what I’ve observed, many of the students who do not bring any notes to class spend most of their time trying to copy down exactly what is on the slide, and often don’t catch what I am saying that is not on the slides. I tell them that they can print out the slides before class, but for some reason these students seem to prefer not to do so.

While I have not conducted any experiments to see which approach is best (it wouldn’t feel right to me to allow laptops in one class and not another, especially if I think laptops are useful, and perhaps some of the students do as well), I have not noticed any dramatic differences in performance among students who take notes by laptop versus by hand.

I’ve also noticed a hybrid approach to taking notes, one that combines both technology and handwriting. One of the students in the math class I am taking brings her Microsoft Surface to class, and using the pen that comes with the laptop, takes all of her notes on her Surface. I admit it would be quite hard, if not impossible to take notes in a Math class by typing on a keyboard, and I take all of my own notes by hand. But the Surface seems like a viable (and tempting) alternative to combining the benefits of technology with the benefits of handwriting.

I’m not a fan of outright bans or ultimatums in the classroom. I think the best approach to the note-taking dilemma is to share the research with students (having them read the research could be beneficial in and of itself), and then let them choose what they think will work best for them. And if the approach they first tried doesn’t give them the results they were hoping for, they always have the freedom to try something different.

And as far as laptops being distracting in the classroom, I agree. My solution is to try and make my classroom as engaging as possible so that students would rather pay attention than go surfing the web. But I realize that I am not always successful at that, and I ask students who think they may have trouble resisting such a temptation to sit in the back of the classroom so that their behavior does not impact as many students compared to if they sat in the front of the classroom.

As far as what I think I would do if I were a college student today, assuming that my teacher made his or her lecture notes available before class, I would print the notes out for class and supplement those notes by hand. If I brought a laptop to class I don’t think I would be able to avoid the lure of ESPN, Facebook, and Twitter.

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