Should laptops be banned in classrooms?

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
Photograph by Andrew Van Wart (used with permission).

Laptops cause lower grades

Most students who use laptops to take notes during lecture are fully convinced that doing so will help them do better in class. Randomized, controlled experiments, however, show the opposite is true (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014, Hembrooke and Gay 2013). The usual explanation behind the drop in performance is that students are distracted by multitasking — students believe that they can effectively absorb lecture material while also keeping an eye on the emails, texts, etc. Students don’t perceive that they are paying less and less attention to the teacher. It’s also the case that some lecture material is fundamentally visual and students simply cannot transcribe that into text even if they could type 1000 words a minute.

Should laptops be banned?

The popular way to answer this question is to acknowledge that students in college are adults. If they want to skip lecture, read a magazine, or use laptops instead of pen and paper, who cares? It’s their money.

But a teacher should also consider whether the use of laptops might distract other students. One source of distraction is visual — students sitting behind laptop users are often transfixed by what the student is doing. Not surprisingly, Sana et al. (2012) found that test scores of students near laptop users was reduced. Another distraction to students nearby is the noise — some people find keyboard clatter and mouse clicks just as annoying as listening to somebody chew gum or compulsively click a pen. One study revealed that 20% of undergraduates suffer from misophonia, and there is evidence that people with autism are especially prone to finding repetitive noises annoying.

The distraction caused by laptops is probably akin to students arriving late to class every several minutes. Each time the door squeaks open, slams shut, and the arriving student settles into a chair, students in the room are distracted. The commotion might not be as disruptive as a power outage or a wardrobe malfunction, but it’s likely measurable. I mention this scenario because teachers often have rules about lateness. E.g., “be on time or don’t come.” It’s likely the effect of laptops is on par with that disruption, so if you value pedagogy you should at least set up some rules about laptop use.

Teachers should also consider that certain types of students might not even take the course if they know that laptops are banned. For example, some students might feel acutely uncomfortable in a particular discipline and being stripped of an emotional support laptop would make the course too miserable to bear. That feeling is especially likely if they were educated in one of the many districts that went “full laptop” in a push to bring struggling students up to state standards — these districts pushed the idea to parents and students that laptops will give them special powers in the face of hard material.

But more broadly, many teenagers are addicted to devices at a physiological level and it’s hard for adults of a particular age to appreciate how distracting withdrawal can be. Smartphones are OxyContin, laptops are methadone.

Ask laptoppers to sit at back

One rule I favor is to ask laptop users to sit at the back of the classroom. If they are all in the back then nearby students will not be distracted by the screens, plus the keyboard clatter will be farther away. In my experience, laptop users all sit together anyway, so assembling in the back won’t tear apart social cliques.

Like tardiness rules, teachers should include the laptop guidelines on the syllabus so that students know where to sit on the first day. And on the first day of class, explain it. Tell the students that using a laptop to take notes will likely lower their grade (which is totally fine, because they are adults) as well as the grades of students sitting near them. I think the majority of students would understand.

Laptops reduce fertility

Teachers should also explain to male students that the heat produced by laptops might cause a drop in sperm count. Just like skinny jeans. And skinny jeans and laptop use together would be a terrible idea. But hey, they’re adults.

Some literature on using laptops

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

If you need more, run this search.