• Laptops in the classroom
    • Posted by Alan Flurry - May 24, 2016
    • A Washington Post article notes a West Point study that using laptops during class harms smart students even worse than others. But how does computing in class affect learning, the classroom dynamic, the professor's engagement? Anyone can get distracted by distracted people:

      Now there is an answer, thanks to a big, new experiment from economists at West Point, who randomly banned computers from some sections of a popular economics course this past year at the military academy. One-third of the sections could use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture; one-third could use tablets, but only to look at class materials; and one-third were prohibited from using any technology.

      Unsurprisingly, the students who were allowed to use laptops — and 80 percent of them did — scored worse on the final exam. What’s interesting is that the smartest students seemed to be harmed the most. 

      Among students with high ACT scores, those in the laptop-friendly sections performed significantly worse than their counterparts in the no-technology sections. In contrast, there wasn’t much of a difference between students with low ACT scores — those who were allowed to use laptops did just as well as those who couldn’t. (The same pattern held true when researchers looked at students with high and low GPAs.)

      These results are a bit strange. We might have expected the smartest students to have used their laptops prudently. Instead, they became technology’s biggest victims. Perhaps hubris played a role. The smarter students may have overestimated their ability to multitask. Or the top students might have had the most to gain by paying attention in class.

      With so little research on this ubiquitous topic for professors, the results might be difficult to parse. But there is an Occam's dimension as well: students on computers during class pay less attention. Whether an over-reliance on the multi-tasking fallacy or actually trying to type notes, the issue is one of essential engagement. Great to see some work in this area, on an issue that won't go away on its own and should be at least talked about even without a reliance on easy remedies.

      Image: Washington Post graphic.