Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

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Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.