Banning the laptop? Revisiting the issue.

With it being the start of the semester, many colleagues are revisiting the topic of banning laptops in classrooms as they construct their new syllabi.  I ran a post last year discussing research conducted on students who used laptops to take notes in comparison to students who took notes by hand.  The study mainly looked at how laptops could create distractions not only for laptop users but also for those seated nearby.  Students seated near distracted laptop users performed almost as poorly as the students who used the laptops themselves.  Both performed significantly worse than those isolated students who took notes via paper and pencil.  In my original post, I offered several suggestions to avoid an all-out ban of laptops but I feel that many instructors may still be resistant.

In a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor outlined her rationale for banning laptops from her classroom.  Besides referencing the previous study, the professor also included some recent research that examined students’ learning after taking notes via laptops and with paper and pencil.  In this three-part study, there were no distractions or multitasking aspects.  In the study, some students took notes by typing while others took notes by writing.  In the first part of the study, students who took notes by hand performed significantly better on conceptual exams than the students who took notes with laptops.  The authors concluded that the laptop note taking resulted in “shallower processing” because students often tried to type lectures verbatim.  After seeing these results, the researchers tried to account for this tendency in the second phase of the study and asked students to type notes in their own words.  With this intervention, the researchers found that the laptops users’ factual recall was more in line with the paper and pencil note takers.  The laptop note takers, however, still struggled with conceptual application and higher order questions.  In the third phase of the study, the researchers had some laptops users and some paper and pencil note takers study from their notes prior to taking the exam.  Here, the paper and pencil note takers continued to outshine the laptop users.  The results were clear.  Taking notes by longhand positively impacted student learning while taking notes by typing on a laptop negatively impacted student learning.

While this may provide further evidence for my laptop banning colleagues, I am still hesitating to ban the laptop from my classroom.  Rather than set up a technology free zone, I explain the cognitive research on technology use and try to convince students to make informed decisions about their learning. I even include a statement in my syllabi that outlines student expectations regarding technology use and how students should use technology for creative applications connected to class content.  As an avid iPad user, I share my journey from using my tablet to take notes with my Bluetooth keyboard.  After coming across the note taking research this past summer, I stopped using the keyboard and now take hand written notes (albeit with a stylus on my iPad).  As an educator, I believe it’s my job to impact my students’ lives beyond the walls of my classroom.  By teaching the issue, my hope is that students will begin to make data driven decisions, not just with laptop use but also with other critical aspects in their lives.

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5 thoughts on “Banning the laptop? Revisiting the issue.

  1. Hey Ollie,

    I had a classmate in college who used a mind mapping s/w to take notes. I wonder if this kind of computer-based note-taking might be more conducive to the kind of conceptual learning that is observed to be happening in the pencil and paper users. In other words, I am wondering, is it the kind of notes that students are taking rather than the technologies (because pencil and paper is still a technology) that is making the difference here?

    Hope you are well!
    Eric Kyle, College of Saint Mary, Omaha

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