Better Learning in College Lectures

Students listening and taking notes in a lecture hall in college

A growing body of evidence says “No.” When college students use computers or tablets during lecture, they learn less and earn worse grades. The evidence consists of a series of randomized trials, in both college classrooms and controlled laboratory settings.

Students who use laptops in class are likely different from those who don’t. They may be more easily distracted or less interested in the course material. Alternatively, they may be the most serious (or wealthiest) students who have invested in technology to support their learning.

Randomization assures us that, on average, the students using electronics in a study are comparable at baseline to those who do not. That means that any comparison we make of students at the end of the study is caused by the “treatment,” which in this case is laptop use.

Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through  their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, in this experiment, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than summaries of the lectures.

Taking notes can serve two learning functions: the physical storage of content (ideally, for later review) and the cognitive encoding of that content. These lab experiments suggest that laptops improve storage, but undermine encoding. On net, those who use laptops do worse, with any benefit of better storage swamped by worse encoding.

We could try to teach students to use their laptops better, nudging them to think about the material as they type. The researchers tried this in a second experiment, advising the laptop users that summarizing and condensing leads to more learning than transcription. This instruction had no effect on the results.

The researchers randomly assigned these sections to one of three conditions: 1) electronics allowed, 2) electronics banned, and 3) tablet computers allowed, but only if laid flat on desks where professors could observe their use. Because professors at USMA teach multiple sections of the same class in a given semester, the researchers assigned each professor to more than one treatment condition.

At the end of the semester, students in the classrooms where electronics were allowed had performed substantially worse, with scores 0.2 standard deviations below those of the sections where electronics were banned. There was no discernible difference between sections where tablets were allowed (but restricted) and those where electronics were unrestricted.

In real-world education settings, a fifth of a standard deviation is a large effect. For example, the Tennessee STAR experiment found that children who were randomly assigned to smaller classrooms between kindergarten and third grade scored a fifth of a standard deviation higher than children in standard classrooms.

We can criticize the external validity of any of these studies. How relevant, after all, is the experience of cadets learning economics to community college students learning Shakespeare? But the evidence-based strategy is not to therefore ignore the studies but to consider the specific reasons that their results would or would not extrapolate to other settings.

Students with learning disabilities may need a laptop or tablet in order to participate in class. I (and every teacher I know) solicit and accommodate such requests. There is a loss of privacy, in that a student using a laptop is revealed as having a learning disability. This loss of privacy has to be weighed against the deterioration in learning that the other students suffer if laptop use is freely allowed.

Students may object that a laptop ban prevents them from storing notes on their computers. But free smartphone apps can quickly snap pictures of handwritten pages and convert them to PDF format. Even better: typing and synthesizing handwritten notes is a terrific way to review and check one’s understanding of a class.

There may well be particular classroom settings in which laptops improve learning. Perhaps a coding class, in which students collaborate on solving a programming problem. But for the typical lecture setting, the best evidence suggests students should lay down their laptops and pick up a pen.

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