« University Presidents: Pay for Performance or Agency Problem? | Main | Seeking suggestions for "must-reads" for my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform seminar »

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New laptop study

From two doctoral students in Canada: The studies found that students who multi-task on computers perform worse, as do those sitting near the multi-tasking students (even when those students are not using computers at all). It makes sense that students who are paying less attention in class will not perform as well, although the researchers claimed to be surprised by the size of the effect (11 % difference, possibly the difference between a B+ and B-). Of course, that result is not really about computers per se, but about distractions. And while computers and the internet dramatically increase the number and type of potential distractions, one would expect the same effect if the multi-taskers were preparing shopping lists, doing crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper, or doodling by hand). I would still like to see a study of the effect, if any, of using computers as opposed to pen-and-paper for taking notes in class.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 15, 2013 at 11:58 AM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference New laptop study:


Let me add a comment on the last comment, for which I have some sympathy. I have experimented with laptop bans of various kinds for the past couple of years, for all the reasons given. Some students have made precisely that objection, adding that they learn far better if they take notes by laptop. I ultimately responded by allowing students to sign up to take notes by laptop--up to ten per class, so a fairly generous number. I did so on one condition: that they make those notes available to the rest of the class on the TWEN page within about 24 hours. Some students took me up on this, and have been quite admirable about following through. What I found striking was that some of the students who said they learned far better on laptop, and indeed would not learn if not allowed to use a laptop, nevertheless chose not to take notes by laptop rather than to share those notes. Of course there can be marginal gains and losses, but you would think that if someone really believes that he or she can't learn at all except by using a laptop, that this person would conclude that the gains of using one outweigh the lesser gains to others of sharing the notes.

I'll also add that while I have faced anger at the announcement of my policy, I've also had students come up afterwards, often well after the course was over, and tell me they learned and retained the material in my class better than in many other classes, and that they believed it was because they were participating in the class rather than spending all their time on stenography and the Internet. I try to take both reactions seriously, but I'm willing to take a certain amount of anger on the front end in exchange for those kind of responses on the back end.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Aug 16, 2013 10:31:27 AM

As a student, I preferred taking notes on laptop to writing because I type a lot faster than I write. I'm sure others are in the same boat. So I don't object to laptops per se, but I do object to web surfing during class. Forgive the technologically naive question, but has anyone heard of any way to disable internet usage during class time (through a signal blocker or something similar)?

Posted by: Anon | Aug 15, 2013 10:17:49 PM

There are, of course, outliers; we all knew people who didn't work hard in school and did very well. But I think the main run of students do better when they pay attention and do things the "right way."

In my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, there is no correlation between the level of engagement in the class and surfing. Students surf because it's there and they can. I have seen them tuning out from all manner of teaching styles, including some great, engaging, high-energy, highly interactive professors.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 15, 2013 6:01:05 PM

I find this discussion heartening in its support for banning laptops, but I have recently come to see things differently, and after experimenting for the last few years with a laptop ban I am going to try allowing them again. The issue as I have now come to see it has nothing to do with distraction. It has to do with the fact that my students are addicts, and when I tell them that they can't use social media for 90 minutes, I am depriving them of their fix -- and they *never* go 90 minutes without a fix; they can't. Anyone who deprives an addict of his fix is someone who becomes immediately an object of rather intense negative feelings, or so it seems to me. I am beginning to think that I would rather have them distracted but enjoying a pleasant high than focused but in a foul mood.

Posted by: Resigned | Aug 15, 2013 6:00:23 PM

I second the skepticism here, and in particular I find the anti-paternalism argument for allowing laptops unpersuasive. Within reason, it seems natural that teachers should be allowed to choose the method of instruction they believe is best for their class.

Should students be permitted to listen to the game during with a single earbud in, if they sit in the back and do not disrupt others in doing so? Laptops are far more distracting to the user and others. That there is no conceivable educational purpose to multitasking by radio rather than internet doesn't persuade me that it is actually worse for the individual student or the class. I grant that it is superficially worse.

I feel compelled to note here that I am on the young side and embrace technology in general, but my experience as a student and professor has been that at their best laptops do not add much value in classrooms. Moreover, the anti-paternalism argument, to which I am naturally sympathetic, does not really apply in this context. I obviously don't dictate how students study outside of class. But to say that there is something wrong with telling them they cannot interpose a screen and the internet between themselves, their classmates, and me *during class* strikes me as an odd criticism.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 15, 2013 5:47:40 PM

It's not all about boredom. It can be about the habit of multi-tasking. People watch television--shows that are hilarious or otherwise entertaining-- while they surf the Net. They want to do both, and think they are succeeding in getting all out of both experiences. They are not. Earlier studies have shown that people consistently overestimate how well they are doing when they multi-task.

Posted by: CHS | Aug 15, 2013 4:39:46 PM

Laptops make it easier to tune out when the Professor is boring; banning them does not cure the root cause. As AL mentioned, if the class is repeatedly boring or unhelpful, attendance becomes less attractive. Using a laptop in class can be a way to get the benfits of attendance (the interesting/informative parts of class) without the downside (the boredom can be avoided with the internet).

It would be interesting to see a study on variance in the time spent multitasking between lecture styles.

Posted by: J | Aug 15, 2013 2:05:36 PM

Interesting study, although I think its different when students are doing a task they are specifically asked to do (as in the study) versus students surfing only when they are bored or feel like the class discussion isn't adding much or just checking to make sure they haven't won the lottery yet. I remember a fellow I went to law school with who never attended class at all (at least in his 3rd year), and did very well.

Posted by: AL | Aug 15, 2013 12:48:02 PM

This study is not surprising to me.

I had two unintentional experiments with laptop use in my classrooms.

In a 1L civil procedure class that I taught as a very junior law professor, I had banned computers from the classroom. One of the students protested that I was being paternalistic and asked to speak to me after class about being allowed to use his laptop. I allowed him to use his laptop on the condition that he sat at the back of the class so that no one behind him would be distracted. He alone used his laptop. He alone failed the anonymously graded exam in a class of 65. Now, to be sure, there was some self-selection here with his ardent insistence on using his laptop.

In the second unintentional experiment as a lawprof, a student simply disobeyed my syllabus instruction to the class that he not use his laptop (had I been more hardline at that time, as I am now, I would have simply dismissed him from the class -- instead I admonished him about story #1 above). He too bombed his final exam in a class of 90, an exam that was also anonymously graded.

Now, both personalities were too stubborn to accept instruction so perhaps there were other issues going on here. Nonetheless, I found their outcomes instructive. I ban laptops from my 1L courses.

Posted by: TS | Aug 15, 2013 12:27:57 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.