Are You Ready to Apply Unequivocal Research Findings That Students’ Use of Laptops in Class Reduces Learning?

University of Michigan Education Professor Susan Dynarski wrote a compelling article in the New York Times, Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

She cites research finding that when students use laptops in class, they not only reduce their own learning, but they also reduce the learning of nearby students.

The whole article is worth reading.  Here are some excerpts:

“[A] growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures.  They also tend to earn worse grades.  The research is unequivocal:  Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.

. . .

“In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture.  Those who had used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

. . .

“The strongest argument against allowing [students to choose whether to use a laptop in class] is that one student’s use of a laptop harms the learning of students around them.  In a series of lab experiments, researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada tested the effect of laptops on students who weren’t using them. Some students were told to perform small tasks on their laptops unrelated to the lecture, like looking up movie times.  As expected, these students retained less of the lecture material.  But what is really interesting is that the learning of students seated near the laptop users was also negatively affected.

. . .

“I ban electronics in my own classes.  I do make one major exception.  Students with learning disabilities may use electronics in order to participate in class.  This does reveal that any student using electronics has a learning disability.  That is a loss of privacy for those students, which also occurs when they are given more time to complete a test.  Those negatives must be weighed against the learning losses of other students when laptops are used in class.”

Given the “unequivocal” findings described in the article, you may want to generally ban laptops in your classes.  While you are at it, you might also prohibit use of cell phones, which may be even more distracting.  Students are likely to readily accept restrictions on their use of electronic devices in class if this is a normal practice of a substantial proportion of faculty in the school.  If you are ready to start restricting use of electronics in your classes, you might encourage like-minded colleagues at your school to do so too.

In my classes, I made exceptions if students told me in advance that they had a specific reason they needed to check their cell phones (such as one student whose wife was about to give birth).  I also allowed students to use electronics to refer to role-play instructions during simulations so that they didn’t have to print them out.  Students should get accommodations for disabilities through the normal procedures.

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