Published: February 18, 2016
As college students increasingly replace conventional pen-and-paper note taking with laptops, recent studies suggest that laptop use in classrooms is detrimental not only to the laptop user but also to other nearby students.
Studies have found that college students who take notes on laptops tend to transcribe everything the lecturer says verbatim, which results in a poorer understanding of the material. Students taking notes on laptops are also much more likely to multitask, and multitasking on a laptop distracts both the laptop user and surrounding students.
Bryan Burnham, Ph.D., a psychology professor at The University who studies selective attention, said proper note taking requires a student to essentially summarize what a professor says by condensing several lines of lecture material into one statement — something that is commonplace in written notes but rarely occurs in typed notes.
“You’re (a student with handwritten notes) going to integrate several ideas and put them into one note. It’s essentially paraphrasing, and that’s going to require a lot more thought,” Burnham said.
Elaboration is an important element of successful note taking, Burnham said.
“Memory is worse if you study verbatim compared to if you try to elaborate,” he said. “If you elaborate on information, you tend to retain it longer, the memories tend to be much richer, and you remember a lot more detail.”
According to “The Pen Is Mightier than The Keyboard,” a study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and the University of California in April 2014 that looked at the effectiveness of handwritten notes versus notes taken on laptops, students who took notes on laptops scored lower on conceptual questions when compared to students who took handwritten notes.
“If the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears,” the researchers concluded in their study.
In October 2012, researchers from McMaster University and York University conducted a study on the effect of multitasking on laptops in college classrooms, and they found that multitasking hinders both the laptop users themselves and other nearby peers.
According to the study, “Overall, participants who multitasked scored 11percent lower on a post-lecture comprehension test … Those in view of a multitasking peer scored 17 percent lower on a post-lecture comprehension test.”
Given these studies, college professors are posed with the problem of deciding whether they should allow laptops in their classrooms, even if laptops may inhibit comprehension of lectures.
Michael Jenkins, a criminal justice professor at The University, changed his class policy as of the fall 2014 semester to allow laptops as long as they do not become distracting to others. When Jenkins made this decision, he said he had to consider the balance between holding students to standards and giving them the freedom to use laptops.
“If a student wants to watch YouTube videos, that’s their decision … It’s about how you’re spending your time and how you can best use your time,” Jenkins said.
Timothy Cannon, Ph.D., a psychology professor at The University, no longer allows laptops in his classes due to their distracting nature.
“If someone next to you in class or within your receptual sphere is multitasking, they harm your academic performance, and I can’t allow that. You can hurt yourself, but you cannot hurt others,” Cannon said. “It’s no longer an issue of individual freedoms. You don’t have the right to hurt others.”
Even when a student is not multitasking, students are still hurting themselves by taking notes on laptops, Cannon said.
“You turn into a drone. You don’t think. You’re like a transcriptionist at a court hearing. There’s no cognition there. They’re machines, and that is not a good way to learn,” Cannon said.
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