Using laptops for notes

This page is for students and faculty weighing the pros and cons of using laptop computers to take notes during lectures.

Student playing video game during lecture

Student playing video game during lecture. Photograph by Andrew Van Wart (used with permission).

If you’re a student, the question you should ask yourself is, “Will using a laptop help me understand the lecture material better?” If you’re a typical, tech-savvy teen who just loves his/her new laptop, the answer is likely to be, “Of course taking notes on a laptop will help. How could it not!?” Another way to answer that question is to read the results of experiment that test the performance of students who were randomly assigned to take notes with a laptop or with a pen. Here’s one paper. Here’s another. Here’s the common answer: those assigned a laptop did worse on tests. You might think, “Oh, I’d be different — I know how to use laptops better than the students in that study.” You might, but you might also be delusional. I can’t help you decide which scenario applies. My 2 cents is that in courses where quick sketches are a critical way to summarize key points of lecture (chemistry, biology, physics, math, psychology, etc.), the detriment of using a laptop will increase dramatically. You might eventually do well in the course (A-), but chances are you would have done better using a pen.

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably asked yourself, “should I ban laptops from my classroom?” The common way to answer this is to remember that students in college are adults and if they want to use laptops instead of a pens, that’s up to them. Similarly, if they want to sleep during your lectures, knit, or just sit quietly without taking notes at all, that’s up to them. So on that basis you shouldn’t ban laptops even if you know that use of laptops to take notes decreases their understanding of lectures. You should, however, inform that to get the most out of the course they should attend lecture, stay conscious, and use pen and paper. You really, really should assign one of the above articles so that laptop users know the effects on test scores. Most students probably have no idea.

If you’re a teacher, you should also ask yourself the more important question, “Do students using laptops distract other students?” The answer to that is, “yes”. When I lectured, I would often notice that the students next to and behind laptoppers would frequently stare intently at the screens. That interest could have been because they were interested in what the laptoppers were typing (fine, but still distracting). But when I sat in the room to hear my colleagues lecture, I could see that the students were transfixed by the activity in the multiple windows that were usually open on laptop screens. I know it’s not a real shock, but most students toggled between notes (Microsoft Word) and windows containing an internet browser, email, and some sort of chat function. It was not rare to see students watching short videos while they were typing notes. In essence, students with laptops were multitasking, juggling multiple things at once and clearly enjoying how rich the experience was. Fellow students nearby are just unable to look away. If my experience doesn’t persuade you that these distractions are profoundly bad, here’s some experimental evidence showing how test scores of nearby students drop.

So the question becomes, “should I ban laptops from my lectures to protect students from being distracted?” It might be valuable to consider some other scenarios where distraction can decrease learning. One is allowing students to sleep during class. They are adults, so who cares? The teacher should care because the head-jerking, snoring, and drooling are all highly distracting to other students who are trying to pay attention to the lecture. Or consider a student who student who is an open-mouth gum chewercompulsive pen clicker, or just chronically late arriving (hugely disruptive to others’ learning): should you allow that student to distract everyone nearby, or would you ask them to quit it? If you want to maximize learning, part of your job as a teacher is to minimize distractions that prevent learning, and I think laptops easily fall into the “distraction” category.

If faculty fear the campus-wide backlash from an outright ban (and they do), one solution is to ask that laptop users sit in the back of the classroom. In my experience laptop users tend to sit near the front in a large group, so the social trauma of reforming their social pack at the back of the room might be negligible. I think it would be important to provide to these students the scientific literature on why this request is made. If you explain that test performance of nearby student drops, laptop users are likely to embrace your request. Or if you are averse to sending laptops to the back, at the very least inform everyone else in the class that sitting within view of their screens can hurt test performance.

Literature

Cole, D. 2007. Laptops vs learning. Washington Post April 7. link

Dynarski, S. 2017. Laptops are great. But not during a lecture or a meeting. New York Times Nov 22. link

Fried, C.B. 2008. In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education 50:906-914. link

Hembrooke, H., and G. Gay. 2003. The laptop and the lecture: the effects of multitasking on learning environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15:46-64. link

Sheynkin, Y., et al. 2004. Increase in scrotal temperature in laptop computer users. Human Reproduction 20:452-455. link

Thagard, P. 2010. Banning laptops in classrooms. Psychology Today Blog. July 9, 2010. link

Timmer, J. 2009. In-class laptop use sparks backlash, possibly lower grades. Nobel Intent blog @ Ars Technica, March 16. link

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