Why Laptops Don't Belong in the Classroom

CC BY 2.0. Marco Arment

It seems that old-fashioned paper notebooks and pens are most conducive to learning.

Heading back to college this fall? You might want to leave the laptop in your dorm room. Some intriguing research has found that taking notes on a laptop can impede a student’s ability to retain information. It appears that typing fast – once hailed as a wonderful tool for gathering copious notes – gets in the way of processing and retaining lecture material.

In an article for Harvard Graduate School of Education, Susan Dynarski explains how note-taking serves two purposes – (1) the physical storage of lecture content for review later, and (2) the cognitive encoding of that content. As students’ typing skills have improved over the years, they are able to transcribe rapidly a professor’s spoken words into sentences.

Dynarski describes experiments conducted at Princeton and the University of California, where students were assigned either laptops or pens and paper for taking notes:

“Because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, in this experiment, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than summaries of the lectures.”

Even when the laptop students were told to summarize and condense the lecture on their computers, the results did not change.

Another issue with laptops in the classroom is distraction. It’s hard to resist the siren call of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, either as the direct user or as someone sitting nearby. Experiments conducted by McMaster and York Universities had some students multitask, i.e. check movie times online, while others were directed to stay fully focused on what professors were saying.

“The multitasking students learned less than those focused on the lecture, scoring about 11 percent lower on a test. What is more surprising: the learning of students near the multitaskers also suffered. Students who could see the screen of a multitasker’s laptop (but were not multitasking themselves) scored 17 percent lower on comprehension than those who had no distracting view.” (Emphasis theirs)

A similar experiment at West Point (U.S. Military Academy) divided an introductory economics class into three categories – electronics allowed, electronics not allowed, and tablets face-up on the table where professors could see them. Not surprisingly, those students with electronics scored significantly worse than those without them.

I found this interesting because, as a university student for five years, I flip-flopped between using a laptop and a paper notebook. Initially I experienced exactly what the first study describes -- such high volume of notes on my computer that it was difficult to sort through them. While writing by hand in my later years, I was forced to focus intensely on the lecturer and think about what I wanted to write down. It reduced study time at the end of the day, because I tended to retain the lecture material much better.

It’s no wonder that a growing number of professors, Dynarski included, are banning electronics in their university-level classrooms. Returning to the realm of handwritten notes may seem out of place in our tech-happy world, but it’s a valuable reminder that there is not always a technological solution to every problem. Sometimes it’s about returning to the past and simplifying the way things are done.