Dear Education Committee,
I’m considering a no-laptop policy in my class because I notice that students get distracted when they have their computers open. Is this a good idea? What other factors should I consider in my decision?
—Nervous about Notetaking
Dear Nervous about Notetaking,
Thanks for your question; this is a topic that many faculty members struggle with, and much has been written on the topic in venues such as the New York Times (see, “Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting”)1 and the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Don’t Insult Your Class by Banning Laptops”).2 While your question hints at one of the cognitive elements that students have to manage while notetaking (sustaining attention), there are others to consider when deciding how to approach students using laptops for notetaking. These factors (in addition to distraction) include working memory, language comprehension, transcription fluency, and prior knowledge.3 Let’s look at the evidence in favor of and against using a laptop for notetaking with special consideration of distraction and its effects on learning.
One place that all faculty seem to agree is that we want our students to stay on task during class time, yet technology can often be a distraction. This phenomenon has been examined to determine how distractions from social media impact student learning by having students send or receive messages related to or unrelated to course content using mobile phones.4 The authors found that students who sent or responded to messages unrelated to course content did experience negative impacts on their learning. In another study students reported twice as many benefits to using laptops than they reported challenges.5 However, the challenges reported included many distractions such as messaging, watching social media, watching movies, or surfing the Web. These and other studies demonstrate that technology can be a distraction but also offer benefits. You asked what else you should consider in designing a technology policy in your classroom.
We encourage you to also consider the impact on an individual student who is on task taking notes and how laptop usage might affect his or her learning. What has been shown definitively is that students generally type faster than they can write longhand. It may make intuitive sense that having more notes to study from might be beneficial; however, one study indicates that taking verbatim notes is less effective for conceptual learning than taking notes that help to synthesize and summarize information.6 The authors found that when individuals were given a chance to study and then re-test one week later on their factual and conceptual knowledge, longhand notetaking was more effective than laptops. In another study, researchers studied the impact of optional “laptop-free zones” in the classroom and found that students who primarily used a computer for notetaking performed significantly worse on exams than those who took notes on paper.7 These studies indicate that laptop notetaking leads to decreased class performance. There are many related questions that are still being studied. For example, does the use of a digital stylus result in notes that are more similar to handwritten or typed notes? Can interventions that promote synthesis during notetaking on a laptop improve learning over verbatim notetaking? Also, what are the impacts of technology use or prohibitions on students with differing needs and abilities? If you are interested in digging deeper into the learning benefits of notetaking in general, Jansen and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of studies revealing the cognitive costs and benefits of notetaking.8
One of the large questions that is left unanswered in much of this literature is around technology-based accommodations some students may require. For students with particular learning disabilities or those who are learning English as a foreign language, it may be beneficial or even necessary to use technology in the classroom. Faculty may have exceptions to their laptop-free policies for such students; however, this may breach the confidentiality of students who require an accommodation. Svnicki, an educational psychologist, suggests that laptops may even benefit students with limited transcriptional fluency.3
Clearly, understanding the impact of laptop policies on student learning is still a moving target and the ideal policy may differ for two different students in the same classroom. With the current evidence we have, we would encourage you to provide students with best practices on using devices of any kind in the classroom. Then they can better understand the value of taking notes that synthesize ideas and work to avoid distracting themselves and their peers. We would also prompt students to reflect on their notetaking style and level of distraction in the class. This data may be used to report back to students and update the laptop policy as needed during the semester. For example, if the data indicate that students are distracted by technology used by others, you could share this with students and indicate that students may politely and professionally ask their colleagues not to continue these behaviors. By sharing the data with students, you can enlist the help of my students in shaping the culture of the classroom and empower them to hold their colleagues to high expectations if and when they use technology. Ultimately, it isn’t just faculty who want students to learn; the students want to learn too.
3Svinicki M (2017). Supporting the cognitive skills behind note‐taking. The National Teaching & Learning Forum. Vol. 26, No. 2.
4 Kuznekoff JH, Munz S, Titsworth S (2015). Mobile phones in the classroom: Examining the effects of texting, Twitter, and message content on student learning. Communication Education 64, 344–365.
5Kaym RH, Lauricella S (2014). Investigating the benefits and challenges of using laptop computers in higher education classrooms. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 40(2), n2.
6Mueller RPA, Oppenheimer DM (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking, Psychol. Sci. 25, 1159–1168.
7Aguilar-Roca NM, Williams AE, O’Dowd DK (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education 59, 1300–1308.
8Jansen RS, Lakens,D. IJsselsteijn WA (2017). An integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking. Educational Research Review 22, 223–233.