Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades – The Globe and Mail

Below is an article summarizing a study that measured the potential negative effects of bringing a laptop to lectures, i.e. you end up with lower grades.  The study confirms what many professors informally observe, and what has been measured in other studies, such as a couple described in this document from Stanford’s website.

For note-taking in engineering classes, laptops are almost useless.  Pen and paper may be old-fashioned, but it’s still the quickest and easiest medium for quick sketches, free body diagrams, derivations of equations full of Greek symbols, etc.  We recommend (and some professors insist) that you leave the laptops at home or in your bag.

I see very few, if any, laptops in the lectures for the fourth-year (senior) courses I teach.  Since fourth-year students are the ones who successfully got through the first three years, that’s probably a good hint for first year students.

The Canadian Press

Laptops have replaced pen and paper for many postsecondary students but a Canadian study suggests using computers during lectures could be hurting their grades and lowering their classmates’ marks. For the study, published earlier this year in the journal Computers & Education, research subjects in two experiments were asked to attend a university-level lecture and then complete a multiple-choice quiz based on what they learned.

In the first experiment, which was designed to gauge how multitasking affects learning, all the participants used laptops to take notes during a lecture on meteorology. But half were also asked to complete a series of unrelated tasks on their computers when they felt they could spare some time. Those tasks – which included online searches for information – were meant to mimic what distracted students might do during class. In the second experiment, some students were given pencils and paper to take notes during a lecture while others worked on laptops. Researchers wanted to observe if the students taking notes the old-fashioned way would be distracted by having computer screens around them. Faria Sana, who co-authored the study with fellow doctoral student Tina Weston, said she expected lower test marks for students who were asked to multitask during the experiment.

“We really tried to make it pretty close to what actually happens in the lectures, we found that lo and behold, the students who multitasked performed much worse on the final test and those who were seated around peers who were multitasking also performed much worse on the final test,” said Sana.

“So you might not be multitasking but if you have a clear view of someone else who is multitasking, your performance is still going to be impaired.”

The students in the first experiment who were asked to multitask averaged 11 per cent lower on their quiz. The students in the second experiment who were surrounded by laptops scored 17 per cent lower.

“We really didn’t think the effects would be this huge,” Sana said. “It can change your grade from a B+ to a B-.”

Sana also noted that the students who participated in the experiments said they didn’t really expect their marks to suffer much from computer use in the classroom.

“At the end we gave a survey to all the students and what we found was that these peers who were seated around multitaskers had no idea they were being distracted, they didn’t think the laptops were causing a distraction but based on the scores of their final test, they actually were,” she said.

Seeing dozens of laptops in a classroom is now common, Sana said, as is spying some students on social networks, playing games or watching movies instead of paying attention.

While Sana and Weston are not calling for a ban on laptop use in classes, they do hope students consider that goofing off on their computers can affect their peers seating around them.

“A lot of students spend quite a big chunk of time in class doing things that are not related to the academic environment or aren’t directly related to the course or the lecture,” Sana said.

“We’re hoping that based on these results, students will take responsibility for their actions.”

via Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades – The Globe and Mail.

6 thoughts on “Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades – The Globe and Mail

  1. Very helpful research indeed. I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 for note taking purposes this coming fall (going into software engineering at Waterloo). I wanted to test the product to ensure that it really worked well before implementing it. To do so, I bought it before the start of my final grade 12 term. I used it to take notes for physics and chemistry for two months. Going into my final term, I had 97% and 95% respectively. After using the device, I saw my productivity and efficiency drop significantly. It was not because I was getting distracted. Rather, it was due to the fact that many of the note taking apps were very cumbersome. For instance, I needed to go through a menu to simply erase something. While I was busy fiddling with the menu, I was losing out on valuable information. I ended up dropping to a 93% for chemistry while remaining at a 97% for physics.

    With that being said, there were some excellent features such as shape recognition, handwriting to text, cut and pasting notes, etc. I can certainly see myself using this for taking notes in the future but for now, I will stick to the old fashioned way of taking notes.

    • Thanks for your observations. Yes, there are some good features and I’m trying some out with a tablet for preparation of other materials. It just doesn’t seem good enough for a fast-paced lecture environment where you could easily fall behind and miss things.

  2. Not really regarding tablets or laptops, but since we’re on the topic of getting lecture information down onto your paper, what’s the deal with recording lectures? Particularly with engineering profs. Will I be allowed to record the audio or record a video? Thanks

    • I don’t think there is a standard answer to that question. If it’s only for personal use it may be OK. If it gets publicly posted or circulated in any way, there may be serious intellectual property rights or other issues (and you don’t want to go down that path!). The safest (and most professional) route would be to ask permission from each instructor at the start of the term, being sure to explain why and what you intend to do with the recordings. Following up with an email to each instructor would also be recommended to document your discussion.

      The other thing to consider is whether it is worth the time and effort. There will be something like 3 hr/wk/course x 12 wk x 5 courses = 180 hours of recording (not including any tutorials). That’s a lot of material to deal with, and it’s unlikely you will be able to find enough time to listen to much of it again. Most students are better off spending their time working through problems and examples, and getting one-on-one help from TAs (teaching assistants) and others when they get stuck on something.


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