New research shows laptops in class impact grades

(Photo by Ryan Hugelin)

It is no surprise that electronic devices have begun to replace the traditional way of taking notes, as students across the globe are swapping their notebooks and binders for laptops and tablets.

However, a recent study done by two doctoral students has found that using laptops in the classroom can in fact be more harmful to students than we think.

“[It’s] not necessarily technology that’s the problem,” said Tina Weston, a doctoral student in psychology at York University. “But often times it’s the user.”

Weston co-authored the study alongside McMaster University doctoral student, Faria Sana, and investigated further into the effects of using laptops in classrooms.

“We’ve found that students have become very good at multi-tasking,” Weston continued. “Students have been able to take class notes while also surfing the web and visiting popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and so on.”

The idea of “multi-tasking” in the classroom was the base for a psychological experiment conducted by both Weston and Sana.  In this experiment, research subjects were invited to a university meteorology lecture in two waves. All students who attended the first lecture were asked to bring in laptops; the second group was not.

For those in the first lecture — the one permitting laptop use — half the participants were asked to complete an additional set of tasks on their computers.

These sidebar tasks were designed to replicate the ways in which students may go “off-track” in their lectures.

“You have to compete with all this other stuff on the Internet,” Weston explained.

At the end of lecture, students were given a simple multiple-choice quiz based on the day’s learning. The results were highly revealing.  Those who attempted to multitask during their lecture scored, on average, 11 per cent lower than the students who used their laptops only for academic purposes.

“After we did that, we were curious as to how laptops can affect the learning of those sitting nearby,” said Weston.

For this, they brought people into the second experiment to distract students with laptops and Internet surfing. These students — those who were being distracted by others — scored 17 per cent lower on their tests. That is six per cent lower than the students who had attempted multi-tasking.

“Laptops have a purpose in the classroom,” Weston said. “They can help students take notes who may not necessarily be able to catch up with the professor, and for students who may need accessible learning they are very helpful.”

“So, academically, laptops can be very beneficial to learning in the classroom,” she added. “It’s when the Internet is being used that causes student’s attention to wander elsewhere.”

Caitlin Molony, a fourth-year student at Wilfrid Laurier University, agreed that the Internet is too much of a distraction in lectures.

“Ever since first year I haven’t used [my] laptop once,” she said. “With laptops you’re almost mindless […] I’d go on Facebook all the time, I’d completely zone out.”

Molony also explained that those who use laptops improperly around her are just as distracting as the Internet itself.

“Sometimes I’ll zone out because the person in front of me will be on Facebook,” she said. “The Internet is a huge distraction; if it’s there, you’re going to want to use it.”

Professors and faculty members are also starting to crack down on laptop usage in lectures.

“Laptop computers or tablets may be used for educational purposes only,” explained Viviana Comensoli, an English professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I maintain the right [to] ask a student to leave the classroom for off-task use.”

Weston went on to explain that her study was not intended to bash laptop use or even start a boycott on technology in the classroom. As a doctoral student, Weston teaches many lectures at York and sees the value in such devices.

“I’m not saying let’s ban laptops or to ban the Internet in classrooms, but I think we need to consider the effects of using technology.”

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