Using laptops for notes

For the student

Photograph by Andrew Van Wart

Ask permission. Some teachers do not allow computers under any circumstances. Others would really prefer that students not use them. Still others might not have thought about their policy but might decide upon reflection that laptops are not appropriate for the mood they would like to cultivate in class. If students don’t ask and just use the laptop, the professor might reasonably be annoyed. If he or she seems to be glaring at you while you’re typing away, this might be why. Or they might be glaring at you for some unrelated reason (chewing gum with your mouth open, clicking your pen compulsively, drooling).

If you are permitted to use laptops/tablets, try to sit next to other students who are using them. Keyboard noise and finger motion can be really annoying to anyone not using a computer to take notes, but probably won’t bother other typers. Same goes with compulsive pen clickers: sit together to avoid scorn.

Sit in the back of the classroom. Fellow students who do not have electronic gizmos will be absolutely fascinated with what is on your screen and will get distracted watching you take notes, even if the professor is giving a great lecture. If you occasionally check email, chat, or surf the internet, even the most focused student will get sucked into what you are doing. Their learning will suffer, and they will come to despise you, especially after the final exam when it is clear the damage you have caused. This advice is similar to advice about sleeping in class — if you plan on napping during lecture, just do it in the back so that others won’t be mesmerized by your head jerks and snoring.

Be advised that notes taken on computers generally suck, so be sure to study with students who take notes the traditional way. In particular, you’ll want to see how those traditional note-takers supplement text with graphics and also how they connect ideas from different parts of the lectures with lines and circles. Those students generally have a much better visual sense of the lecture material than those who just type words.

If you like to email, chat, surf the web during lecture, please be aware that your “multitasking” will substantially decrease your performance on assessments. Really.  People who think they are good at multitasking are simply people who  derive enjoyment from doing multiple things at once, even if all those tasks are done poorly. Those people are the ones that get in accidents at stop lights because they’re texting.  You don’t want to be one of those people, do you?

Send an email to your teacher during class.  “Hi Mr Smith!  Just wanted to let you know that I’m sittin’ in class right now and am totally enthralled.  I look forward to this class every day.  Keep up the good work.”

Guys: if you put the laptop on your lap, please also be aware that the increased temperature can reduce your fertility. The effect is not so strong that you can count laptop use as a contraceptive, but it’s something to think about. You might also think about the effect of elevated temperature on spontaneous mutation rate for gametes.

For the teacher

When teachers aren’t entertaining or informative, students will supplement with doodling, napping, or whatever — timeless, innate defenses against boredom. Surfing on the internet is just a new way to fight boredom. If they still do it despite you being awesome, it’s their loss. It’s their money.

Some lecturers build internet activities into their lectures, to take advantage of students’ laptops and desire to use them. I’ve heard scattered good things about doing this, though I have concerns about activities that exclude students who cannot afford laptops. Announcing to class, “Poor kids, please sit next to a rich kid who has a laptop,” seems wrong to me.

Some schools have carefully designed their wireless systems so that a teacher can disable access for a particular room. I.e., there will be a kill switch at the front of the room. Other schools block internet access for students during times they are scheduled to be in class. I have only heard of one place that does this but it’s an intriguing idea. Students don’t need internet to type notes, unless they are using something web-based.

If you’re open-minded and democratic, start the year with an anonymous survey you administer online (via Moodle, Blackboard, etc.), then base your policy on the answers. Some sample questions are below:

  1. Do your parents allow you to surf on your phone during dinner? If no, why not?
  2. Do you think taking notes on a laptop will improve your performance on assessment more than taking notes with pen and paper? Why?
  3. Would you be distracted by somebody next to you surfing the internet?


Literature on the topic:

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

…and for many more sites on this topic, run this search.

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