Laptops in Class

Recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education there has been a vigorous discussion about laptops in class. Frequently instructors also consult with us about them too — can I ban them? should I? Are there ways that laptops can help my students?

There are three ways of thinking about student laptop use in class. Two of them take for granted that students using laptops are distracted from class itself. One side argues that professors should ban laptops because we are responsible for making sure our students get as much out of class as they possibly can.  The other side argues that students have to be treated as already responsible adults; if they want to come to class and cyber slack that is their choice and they ought to be allowed to make it. The third way is that instructors have to be thoughtful about how and when students use laptops to make sure that students using laptops are actually more engaged in class.

Recent studies show that in fact student use of laptops lowers test scores (probably not a big surprise). For example, while students believe they can effectively multitask, this study from 2012 in Computers and Human Behavior is one of many to show that using Facebook and texting in class lowers student learning and their grades overall.

Studies also show that students who take notes on laptops tend to simply transcribe the lecture rather than organize and understand it. According to this Chronicle of Higher Education essay, students improve their grades when they take handwritten notes.  Here’s a description of a similar study in Scientific American.  You may also want to read the whole Muller and Oppenheimer study “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard.”

Worse still, this 2012 study in Computers and Education shows that students who use their laptop in class get lower grades and they also lower the grades of the students around them.

For instructors who want to allow students to use laptops, this essay from Inside Higher Education suggests instructors ought to treat students like responsible adults but that they also should educate students about the choices they make.

Of course, the third way suggests that there are ways to get students to use laptops in class that actually do enhance course content. Studies of these courses have found that using laptops thoughtfully improves student engagement. For more about those studies and different ways of using laptops in class, this white paper from the University of Michigan’s Center for Teaching and Learning is a great place to start.

I have struggled with this decision myself.  While I usually ban laptops from my small seminars (I feel like discussion suffers when the students aren’t looking at each other) last fall I taught in the collaborative classroom.  I could get students to use their laptops to do lots of great stuff in class and so I did allow them.  As I circulated around the students, they were mostly using their laptops for classwork.  But not always.  So I need to keep thinking about the policy I might set.

We do at CTL provide some sample syllabus statements.  Whatever you end up doing, it is important to make that policy explicit to students.


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