Do Laptop Computers Inhibit Learning?

I don’t see a lot of stories from north of Minnesota’s border catch fire in my social media circles, but this one showed up on my Facebook page and Bethel’s faculty listserv last Friday:

Laptops have replaced pen and paper for many post-secondary students but a Canadian study suggests using computers during lectures could be hurting their grades and lowering their classmates’ marks.

The study (whose results were actually published earlier this year in Computers & Education) had two experiments, both having postsecondary students listen to a lecture, then take a multiple-choice quiz. In the first, all used laptops to take notes but “half were also asked to complete a series of unrelated tasks on their computers when they felt they could spare some time”; in the second, some students took notes with pencil and paper while the rest used laptops. The results:

"Note taking, old and new"
Licensed by Creative Commons (blmurch)

Faria Sana, who co-authored the study with fellow doctoral student Tina Weston, said she expected lower test marks for students who were asked to multitask during the experiment, or were seated near other students using laptops. But the distraction effect was stronger than she hypothesized.

“We really tried to make it pretty close to what actually happens in the lectures, we found that lo and behold, the students who multitasked performed much worse on the final test and those who were seated around peers who were multitasking also performed much worse on the final test,” said Sana.

“So you might not be multitasking but if you have a clear view of someone else who is multitasking, your performance is still going to be impaired.”

I have little real expertise to share here, and I feel like my summer experience teaching online has probably warped my views on teaching in a digital age (both what’s exciting about and how it’s the devil). But a few hasty observations…

Sana and Winston’s findings square with my experience in Bethel’s course GES130 Christianity and Western Culture (CWC), a team-taught, one-semester Western Civ/church history survey (with substantial theology and philosophy components woven in) that, when taught face-to-face, features twice-weekly lectures in sections of up to 140 students. While the percentage of students using laptops was never that great (10-15%?), we could all see what one of us called a “cone of distraction” radiating out from the screen of any multi-tasking laptop-owner. And we suspected that the student checking Facebook on their computer (or texting on their iPhone) wasn’t all that effective a note-taker either. So we simply established a policy that no laptops (or smartphones or tablets) would be permitted in lecture, inserting it in the syllabus and talking about it the first week of class.

Our experience has been interesting: while I’m not sure that we could control for all the variables to conduct a comparative analysis of our assessment data from before and after that policy was put in place, our subjective sense is that students are vastly more engaged with lecture when they don’t use a laptop or aren’t tempted to watch someone else use theirs. (Perhaps more surprising: past an initial raised eyebrow or two, we haven’t had any pushback from students — nor any negative comments about the policy in course evaluations… Mine at least. We’ll see if that changes as more of our students come from schools where using such devices in class is routine.)

Teaching with a laptop
Licensed by Creative Commons (Astrid Lomholt)

Now, all that said… Our ban is not obviously not an ideal solution, on at least a couple counts.

First, it’s not a policy I extend to 300-400 level History courses (and perhaps not even to 200-level gen ed courses like my forthcoming survey of World War II). While the “unrelated tasks” assigned to one group in the first experiment included “online searches for information,” I have no desire to discourage students from engaging in such searches. But then cultivating the ability to ask and answer questions strikes me as a far more important goal for a liberal arts education than information acquisition. (And even to the extent that the latter is the objective, the information will probably be stickier if the student played a more active role in acquiring it.) I’m on record here as being a staunch defender of the lecture, but not because it’s a cost-efficient way of delivering data to large numbers of students.

And ideally, we’d find a way to let students share what they’ve found in such searches with the rest of the class (e.g., by switching among my computer and students what’s projected on a screen), since learning to communicate and collaborate are also crucial objectives for us.

Bethel Gen Ed Pillars
Two of the four pillars of the Bethel general education curriculum. (CWC is in the bottom-right.)

But I feel like I can leave that space in upper-division courses because I trust those students to use the technology in that way — and can verify more easily that they’re doing so when there are only 10-15 in a smaller classroom (vs. 140 in a lecture hall). Developmentally, they’re more mature, and they’ve had 1-3 years of college in which to better understand how they learn and what impedes it. Moreover, History is the kind of major that tends to self-select intellectually curious students who expect their autonomy to be directly proportional to my expectations.

However, a class like CWC has a much more diverse array of students. And in a general education curriculum that is intentionally developmental, it is meant to build up both knowledge and skills that are foundational to succeeding coursework. If not in CWC, then somewhere else in gen ed, students should learn how to use laptops, tablets, etc. to enrich their education, rather than simply being told what is and isn’t acceptable.

For fellow teachers and professors: Does your experience align with the findings of the Canadian researchers’ study? Do you have any policy on the use of laptops, tablets, and other devices in your classes? Does it vary by level and type of course? Do you try to teach how students can best use such technology? (Is that a skill addressed in your school or college’s curriculum?)


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