Laptops in the College Classroom and Creating an Environment Conducive to Learning

Laptops in the College Classroom and Creating an Environment Conducive to Learning

In his book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom (2004), professor Patrick Allitt asks his American history students at the start of each term to regard the classroom as “somewhere special, set aside for teaching and learning.” To foster this, Allitt bans eating, drinking, hats (yes, hats), cellular phones, and the like.

As well, to ensure the classroom is “free from as many contaminations of the outside world as possible,” the British-born prof, like many (but certainly NOT ALL) college instructors, includes on his syllabus strict policies about tardiness, plagiarism, and in-class participation. Regarding the latter, he warns students, “I will be calling on you by name during discussion, and I will expect you to be able to talk about these works on the basis of a careful reading” (6).

While I subscribe to some of this (a strict tardy policy, lawd yes) and reject other aspects (eat and drink in my classroom all you want, folks), it’s not Allitt’s syllabus guidelines or his book that charms me. It’s this mentality, which the history professor imparts upon students when they register for his courses:

Whatever you do beyond the classroom is your own business, but so long as you are here, I am going to assume that you came here with the intention of learning. I am the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive to learning. (6)

I often think of these two statements when compiling my own syllabi, especially when I get to the section on the use of laptops in the classroom.

My Erratic Laptop Policies and the Power of Twitter

My policies on in-class laptops has been inconsistent, to say the least. For many years, I banned them. For a couple of terms, I allowed them but only on the back rows. My reasoning: students monkeying around during lectures with websites, social media, and Internet porn (sure, it happens) will not distract their 130+ classmates if they’re in the back of the room, with no one behind them. And, yes, for a few terms now, I’ve allowed laptops, iPads, etc. in my classes, in any row for that matter.

Truth be told, my recent decision to admit laptops in the classroom is a result of Twitter. In short, I caved to my colleagues who asked and/or explained the following:

  • Why would someone teaching media courses NOT allow her students to use laptops?
  • What does it matter if your students are surfing the Web or checking Facebook during a lecture? That’s their problem, not yours.
  • I think most teachers ban laptops because they’re scared students aren’t going to pay attention to them (nod to above image).
  • With an outright ban, why punish students who use their laptops appropriately (i.e., note-taking)?

All valid points. But here’s the thing: more often than not, it seems college students do not use their laptops responsibly in class.

Even Students Think Their Own Laptops Are Distracting!

Several studies — formal and informal — reveal that the majority of college students who bring their laptops, iPads, etc. to class do not use them for academic purposes. For example, Georgetown law professor David Cole — who now bans laptops in class – surveyed his students and found that 95% of them admitted to using their computers for “purposes other than taking notes” (e.g., surfing the Web, checking e-mail, instant messaging). Similarly, a whopping 98% reported seeing their classmates do the same.

Nicole Glass similarly recalls her experience at American University in classrooms that allowed laptops. She remembers hearing the “sound of fast-paced typing” but looking around to see that “no one was taking notes.” Rather her classmates were “online shopping, answering emails, and chatting or finishing assignments for other classes.”

2006 study of psychology classes at Winona State University also confirms this behavior: over 25% of the time, students used their computers for something other than note-taking purposes (about 17 minutes out of every 75-minute class).

Laptop overload.

Furthermore, in 2011 a St. John’s Law School professor stationed “observers” in the rear of his lecture halls to record his students’ laptop/cell-phone behavior. Again, his findings align with the above. For five minutes or more, “87 percent of the upper-year students used laptops for non-class purposes.” And at least half the time, “58 percent used them for non-class purposes.” Moreover, even when the law professor announced that students should not be surfing the Web during lecture, they continued to do so.

Finally, in 2008 the problem had apparently gotten so bad at the University of Chicago Law School that classroom Internet access was shut off altogether (Washington Post). I admit, dear reader, I kinda love this.

Some Implications of In-Class Laptop Use

But what’s more disturbing are (some of) the ramifications of all this in-class computer use. According to several studies — again, formal and informal — on the whole, students who employ laptops in the classroom are more distracted and earn lower grades than those who do not. Get ready; more evidence ahead…

For example, one professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder compared the grades of students who used laptops in her classroom with those of the students who did not. On one of the first exams, the laptop-using students scored 11% lower than their counterparts without laptops. At the end of the term, the professor found that students who used laptops averaged a grade of 71%, “almost the same as the average for the students who didn’t come at all.”

Some professors have even installed “activity monitoring ‘spyware’” on student laptops to assess productivity or the lack thereof (yes, the students agreed to this). In “Examining the Affects of Student Multitasking with Laptops during the Lecture” James M. Kraushaar and David Novak found that their students engaged in “substantial multitasking behavior with their laptops and had non course-related software applications open and active about 42% of the time.” To put things another way, the average student in this study looked at 65 new, active windows per lecture, and one student, it seems, averaged 174 new windows per lecture. (Holy crap.)

My version: “Seriously, no one’s crotch glows like that.”

But interestingly, in Kraushaar’s and Novak’s investigation, it wasn’t students who frequently checked e-mail and surfed non-course-related sites that earned the lowest grades. Rather, those who used their laptops for instant messaging scored significantly lower on homework, quizzes, and exams.

As implied by these studies and others like Nancy Maxwell’s “From Facebook to Folsom Prison Blues: How Banning Laptops in the Classroom Made Me a Better Law School Teacher,” some laptop-using students not only fare poorer on assignments, but they are also more distracted than their counterparts who do not use laptops. For instance, in his informal survey cited above, David Cole found that “80% reported that they are more engaged in class discussion when they are laptop-free.” Similarly, the Winona State report shows that students identified their own and their classmates’ laptop use as “the biggest source of distraction during lectures.” I’m gonna’ say this one more time: even students who use laptops in the classroom find them distracting.

A Position Conducive to Learning

Disclaimer: some of the instructors I reference below have only 1-2 students regularly using computers in the classroom.

When I informally surveyed my colleagues (tenure-track/tenured professors, adjuncts, and PhD students who TA classes), several of them saw a link between in-class laptop use and grades. My initial question was this: “what percentage of your students who consistently use a laptop, iPad, etc. in class earn a grade of A or B?” I received the following: ”maybe 20%,” “probably 10%,” and “none, nada.” Likewise, one instructor recalled that nearly all of her students who used laptops/tablets in class did poorly on their exams.

But several of my colleagues also claimed they saw no correlation between regular laptop use and high/low grades, and in some cases, most of the computer-users “are my top students.” One instructor said her statistics are split about evenly: 50% use laptops responsibly and are A-students, and about 50% are in danger in failing. Another admits that his lower-level students who use their laptops during class are probably less successful than the upper-level students/majors who do (one of the studies I cite above mentions something similarly). Finally, one instructor claims that it’s the students using their smartphones in class (rather than laptops) who are the bane of her existence (I paraphrase that last part).

If I look back over my spreadsheets for the terms in which I’ve allowed laptops, I find a pattern that mostly echoes the studies in the first half of this post: that is, overall, the laptop-using students’ grades are poor and they are consistently distracted in class.

I have heavy computer use in some classes; close to 70% of my students sit behind the glow of a screen. But in other classes, only 10% of students regularly use laptops, iPads, etc. After revisiting all grades — participation, exams, written projects, etc. — and applying the question I asked of my colleagues (what percentage of your students who consistently use a laptop, iPad, etc. in class earn a grade of A or B?), I’ve found that

  • Only 3 of my laptop-using students have earned a final grade of B.
  • All of the other students who regularly type/surf on their laptops during class have scored a course grade a C or lower.
  • To date, no regular laptop-using student has earned an A in my classes.

Having taught at the college level for 13 years, I realize there are MANY factors that contribute to poor or average grades: scanty attendance, incomplete or shoddy assignments, student underpreparedness, my inattention to and/or students’ ignorance of learning styles, and too-difficult assignments on my end. I am also aware that regular in-class laptop use may be beneficial as Kristen E. Murray points out in “Let Them Use Laptops: Debunking the Assumptions Underlying the Debate Over Laptops in the Classroom” and as this Michigan State “advertisement” for the student response system/teaching module LectureTools indicates.

Moreover, regular visitors to MediAcademia know that I’ve incorporated Twitter into the classroom (long story short: I think it works better outside the class than within it) and that I’ve recently asked my students to create video essays and post assignments to their own blogs. In other words, I’m certainly not opposed to technology in pedagogy. But still, I am beginning to rethink things on the in-class laptop front.

Forget the web-surfing, Facebook-checking, and porn-gawking for a minute. It’s also clear that even when we use laptops appropriately in class — for notetaking — we’re ultimately transcribing the material, not necessarily learning it. As David Cole points out, “The note-taker tends to go into stenographic mode and no longer processes information in a way that is conducive to the give-and-take of classroom discussion. Because taking notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, is so much slower, the student actually has to listen, think and prioritize the most important themes.”

All of this brings me back to Patrick Allitt’s motto: I am the teacher, and I am doing everything I can to put you in a position conducive to learning. Yes, I am the teacher, and it is my job to make sure, as best I can, that my students get a solid introduction to film, an in-depth look at film noir, a thorough understanding of Seinfeld, and/or a heavy dose of media theory and television comedy. And it is, you can ask my students, not a job I take flippantly.

So next term, unless a student accommodation is needed or an assignment calls for screens, I will probably not allow laptops, iPads, etc. to be open in my classrooms. Will this decision yield better grades across the board? Will there be no doodling on notebook paper (instead of online shopping)? Will it make all students pay attention? Eh, maybe not. But I hope that I will at least have put my students in an environment more conducive to learning.

Further Reading

Added 18 Aug. 2013: Canadian study, “Students use of laptops in class lowers grades.”

Added 2 Dec. 2012: In “In-Class Multitasking and Academic Performance,” Rey Junco “conducted a survey of 1,839 college students and asked them how often they multitask during class by using Facebook, texting, emailing, searching for content not related to the class, IMing, and talking on the phone.” He also collected students’ GPAs for the semester. The findings: using Facebook and texting during class negatively affected student grades; emailing and searching during class did not. More on Junco’s blog here.

Addendum/Response to Comments

1 Dec. 2012: Based on some of your responses via Twitter and below, I need to clarify a few things in this post (that I knew would be somewhat controversial).

  1. To those asking about the studies… From what I can tell, most of these studies take place in large lecture halls (150+ students). With the exception of schools/students who use (or can afford?) software like LectureTools, clickers, etc. (i.e., a seemingly more active approach to teaching/learning), I will take that to mean that the setup here is, yes, what some would consider “old school”: professor as lecturer, student as vessel/note-taker.
  2. To those asking about pedagogy and whether we can work with this technology… Are there ways we can gauge students’ laptop use in the classroom and subsequently use those screens for good? OF COURSE. “Best Practices for Laptops in the Classroom,” a ProfHacker post by Mark Sample, points out some ways (e.g., polling, question posting, low-stakes writing assignments). Similarly, in his post on dealing with gadgets in the classroom, Jason B. Jones reminds, “Being tech-friendly doesn’t mean ‘anything goes,’ and it also doesn’t mean that you have an all-or-nothing policy.” Agreed—which is why I’ve amended the conclusion of my post to this: So next term, unless a student accommodation is needed or an assignment calls for screens, I will probably not allow laptops, iPads, etc. to be open in my classrooms.
  3. Directly related to #2… In the comments below, Professor Jung Choi mentions that he has had success with student laptop use in his “flipped” classroom (explanation and infographic). To be honest, this is a teaching method I’d not heard of—at least I didn’t know that specific term—but it is one I am certainly willing to check out. One question though: what if students do not have laptops, iPads, or smartphones? Are they left out of the assignment? Will they feel uncomfortable or inadequate? While a couple of the teachers with whom I’ve conversed in the last hour tell me that ALL of their students have screens, that’s certainly not the case everywhere, right?

In the last 24 hours, several professors have shared with me their views on this matter, and I thank them for that. To those teachers who allow screens: while you’ve provided me with some excellent reasons we should embrace technology and ways to integrate screens into the classroom, no one has shared with me any data about your students’ grades. Since you’ve moved to a “flipped” classroom or have heavily integrated laptops, iPads, etc. in your classroom, have you noticed any difference and/or improvement in student grades?

Thanks again, all, for your RTs, comments, and food-for-thought. And in case it needs to be said: if this no-screens-unless-called-for experiment does not work — i.e., grades don’t rise, students don’t seem to be learning, paper notetaking is a miserable catastrophe, etc. — I will certainly rethink things…yet again.