Some professors tout the benefits of restricting laptop use during lectures. Two years ago, when The Varsity sought out students’ thoughts surrounding the ban, several concerns were raised — the same concerns prevail today.
The Faculty of Arts & Science’s Academic Handbook does not explicitly encourage or discourage such restrictions. Instead, it provides reasons to support a conducive learning environment for students who do and do not use laptops in lectures.
The handbook makes mention of ‘studies’ that found that students, aside from those with accessibility needs, retain information better if they take notes by hand. It does not actually name the studies that support this claim, so The Varsity took a look at some of the findings in this field.
A study in 2003 by Cornell University found that students who use their laptops without restrictions during lecture performed worse on tests immediately after learning new information than those who did not use laptops. The main reason for memory decrement was concluded to be a result of multitasking and not necessarily the devices themselves.
In a 2001 study by the same institution, browsing on laptops for long periods during lectures was linked to an overall lower performance in the course.
Furthermore, a collaborative American paper published in 2014 found that students who take notes longhand have better recall because they are able to better process information. It attributed the relatively poor test performance of laptop users to the shallow processing brought about by typing notes. While laptops allowed more accurate note taking, students were less able to synthesize the information presented to them.
These studies did not consider confounding factors like teaching style and quality. Some of the studies took place in laboratory settings. The 2014 paper, for example, tested recall by asking students to watch TED Talks and take follow-up quizzes, which undermines recall skills required in a university setting.
Contrary to these results, a more recent study by the University of Wisconsin concluded that laptop use had no statistically significant effect on a student’s performance in a course.
Although the negative effects of laptop use in the classroom cannot be dismissed, it must be acknowledged that technology is ubiquitous and laptop use increasingly so. In light of this, some professors have implemented zoning in their lectures: those with laptops are asked to sit on one side of the lecture hall in order to avoid distracting other students.
Some professors support the idea of a connected and engaged learning environment using laptops. “[Laptops are] not the issue… the issue is meaningful learning… built in novelty, active participation, working in groups, [and] discussing,” said Barrie Bennett, a retired professor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Bennett pointed out that many careers require collaboration, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills that can be combined with computer skills. If incorporated well, laptops can enhance learning. In fact, students from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology reported the benefits of in-class laptop use, including note-taking, outweighed the consequences, like social media use, by 30 per cent.
While current research often focuses on the distractions of having laptops in class, there is limited information about the confounding factors involved in these studies and how laptops can be used to enhance pedagogy.
The flipped classroom model is a prime example of this. It allows students to learn the material online before class and then use class time for problem solving. While this is different to bringing laptops into a class, it demonstrates how technology can aid learning.
Clicker questions and similar student response systems encourage active learning and synthesis in the classroom. A 2007 study by the University of Colorado found that students perceived clicker questions positively — they felt an intrinsic need to be motivated and engaged, and the questions helped them gauge their performance and standing in the course.
Laptops can be a nuisance to students and result in poor test performance, but factors like teaching methods in these classrooms should also be studied.