“This year, I resolve to ban laptops from my classroom”

Columbia professor Tal Gross in the Washington Post:

Since most students can type very quickly, laptops encourage them to copy down nearly everything said in the classroom. But when students stare at the screen of their laptops, something is lost. The students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation.

This is not just vague worrying on my part. There’s now good research on the topic. Take, for instance, a recent study by two psychologists, Pam Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA. Mueller and Oppenheimer asked 67 undergraduates to watch videos of lectures. Half the students were randomly assigned to watch the lectures while taking notes on a laptop, while the other students were asked to watch the lectures while taking notes with paper and pen. Afterward, the students were all given an exam. The students who took notes longhand scored much higher on conceptual questions than did the students who used a laptop.

The full post is worth reading.

A couple of years ago, I had the same idea as Gross did. I also thought, “Students know this too. I bet if I raise the issue and let them vote on laptop use, they’ll wisely commit themselves to a laptop ban.”

The results? Laptops 85, Laptop ban 0.

Make that a win for “Chris’s naivete” and a loss for commitment devices.

I’m not teaching this semester, so my big decision will wait for the fall: Am I a democrat or benevolent autocrat? I have yet to decide.

Hat tips to Anna Nazarov and Claire Adida.

65 thoughts on ““This year, I resolve to ban laptops from my classroom”

  1. when i was a law student here is what my laptop did during lectures 1. Recorded the Audio of you speaking. 2. Synced that to my notes as i was typing – so if I looked back at my notes and did not understand a part I could go back and listen to you at that point. 3. Gave me keywords you repeated I could highlight in revision. This is 2015 if you think you have some amazing wisdom that you can convey in 1 hour better than a book when I only have a piece of paper not all those tools to understand it – you are an embarrassment to your profession.

  2. Everyone learns differently – laptops can be very useful tools to people with learning disabilities or who just need an extra hand. Heck even students with ADD will listen more if they are able to multitask, strangely enough. Unless you want to hand out some tactile toys to your class, adult learning specialists know that it’s really hard for ANYONE to sit and listen attentively, without letting their mind wander. I think students are all adults and they can be responsible for their own learning. If someone wants to waste their time playing computer games during a lecture, that’s their problem. Don’t penalize the other students who would benefit from computer use because some students are bad. Bad students will always exist, laptop or not. You can *make* them appreciate their learning if they don’t! You can, however, give them bad marks.

  3. Three other considerations:
    – Some of the research discussed in the article suggests that laptop use was distracting to other students and disrupted their performance. If so, someone else’s multitasking has a negative externality. I’m skeptical, but if someone showed this to be true and significant, that would be decisive for me.
    – Professors do prefer to teach to people who are paying attention. There’s a wide menu of classes to take, and so as long as there’s options you can imagine this being the teacher’s discretion and it’s your choice to attend. Not applicable to required courses I suppose, except at the discretion of the department.
    – Exceptions of all sorts are made for students with disabilities and this could be one of them.

  4. But I am not sure this research is valid.. how many people need to take exams immediately after a class? What if you need to look at notes at the end of semester after you’ve covered many other topics as well? In this context, it may be easier to read to a very thorough and detailed set of notes — rather than your longhand notes which are not as detailed.

  5. Ban the laptop (benevolently or otherwise), tell students no note taking during class, give them 5-10 minutes at the end to jot down the important things they take away from the class.

  6. Good additions Chris
    -Interesting point about distracting others (maybe rules about where people with laptops can sit?)
    -I understand that profs want people to pay attention, it makes sense. But you do have some ways of ensuring this, for example, by adding a mark for participation. By making your lectures engaging. If everyone is checked out on a laptop and doing other things, I think that speaks on a professor’s ability to interest their audience. There are definitely courses where I wouldn’t have brought a laptop, because it was a small class size with a lot of discussion, less lecturing, and a participation mark. The course itself can be constructed in a way that makes laptops not as important.
    -Not every student has a “recognized” disability or would want to admit to it. If you only allow laptops for students with disabilities, that signals out a learning disability quite easily and might be embarrassing.

  7. I’ve banned all electronics. (With generous exceptions for those with a learning need but they have to go through a program administrator. And a phone-on-vibrate exception if your wife/sister is 39 weeks pregnant.) There is a huge negative externality of electronics which is the affect of inattention or in-and-out attention on the dynamic in the classroom. During one of the few cases I taught, I noticed a flagging energy at several points in spite if my best efforts. A case teaching coach who was observing later said it wasn’t me – many students had been surreptitiously using screens. I provide paper handouts with 2/3 to 3/4 of the info pre-recorded and large blank spaces to write examples, work through equations or draw graphs together. It won’t endear me to the Sierra Club but it seems to keep the students’ attention.

  8. I assume your aim is to maximize learning. If so, identifying and taking steps to help learners stay engaged during the time they are together with each other and you is a worthy aim. I agree with other commenters that there is little reason to believe that banning laptops will help. A more promising strategy is to avoid spending class room time on lectures – and reallocate that time to discussion and interactive/group work. The easiest way to do this is to videotape your lectures (ideally, broken down into digestible chunks) and require them to be viewed before class. Perhaps this is what Alex Tabbarok is alluding to – with his “keep the laptops, ban the classrooms” comment.

  9. Am I a democrat or benevolent autocrat?

    In this domain I long ago decided on “benevolent autocrat,” and I’m not going back.

    Part of what students are doing is in essence a Dan Ariely-style per-committment to do the things they’d otherwise like to do on their own but lack the will to implement.

  10. Haven’t we established that lecture itself is nigh upon the worst way to spend classroom time . . . ?

  11. Chris,
    I bet there’s somebody at Columbia using this already. Pretty much solves the problem of the devices being a distraction from learning. Problem = prep time for courses looks like it would go through the roof.
    We’re thinking about this at my college. Will let you know if anything happens.

  12. Ban them. I did and the quality of my classes improved drastically. While some students do benefit greatly from being able to take notes more quickly and use them responsibly, I found that over the course of every semester their use starts to spread like a plague throughout my class turning my students into a complacent hoard of Facebook-addled zombies. As a compromise, I now post my full powerpoints online immediately after the period ends so that any students unable to jot down every note is still able to go back and get those details. This helps to keep students more focused on grasping the concepts and big ideas since they know they can always go back and review the minutiae later.

  13. Students are conditioned by their teachers to copy everything down even at the expense of not being able to follow the presentation. This occurs because students quickly discover that most instructors make their exams from the same set of notes they use to present. Just make available exact copies of your notes and diagrams, scribbles included, and most students will pay a lot more attention to learning instead of copying.

  14. I wish classrooms were a place of conversation. They are simple place for regurgitation. The teacher says what they learned and then regurgitate it to the students who regurgitate it. New thought has not been found in a class room in decades if not centuries. the only true creative place in the university system any more is the laboratories. As for laptops in the classroom frankly what does it matter. It is a generational thing. I think faster and write faster than you speak. I think and type faster than you speak so let me type so I can actually think and include my thoughts in questions in the notes I am taking. – 3 Times a student no longer a follower.