Laptops are standard fare in college classrooms. In 2013, the Deloitte “Back to School” survey reported that 82 percent of college students owned PCs, 80 percent had smartphones and only 18 percent used tablets.
Laptops score high marks in certain areas. A 2011 study reported in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology found that two-thirds of students used their laptops for note-taking. Seventy percent agreed they were important to their academic success. When working in groups, nearly 80 percent viewed their laptops as an important or very important collaborative tool.
But they don’t always make the grade.
Nearly half of all students reported being distracted by another person’s use of laptops in the classroom. One quarter acknowledged spending over half their time sending personal messages to friends. Sixteen percent said they were distracted by another student’s viewing of pornography on their computers. Forty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed that they’d do better if they weren’t distracted by the Internet during class.
Even upper-level law students have trouble resisting the pull. A paper by Jeff Sovern that appeared in the 2013 Louisville Law Review noted that 90 percent of the students were distracted for at least five minutes per class. Students were able to refrain from using their laptops for noneducational purposes for the entire class only 3 percent of the time.
Now, laptops in the college classroom have earned yet another demerit. Data published in the April 23, 2014, edition of Psychological Science show that note-taking on a laptop is less effective for learning than note-taking in longhand.
In three separate experiments, scientists from Princeton and UCLA had students take notes in a classroom setting, then tested them for factual recall, conceptual understanding and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students took notes on a laptop; the others wrote them out by hand.
In all studies, students using laptops took more notes. But the hand-writers had a better understanding of the material and were more successful when applying and integrating the information.
Researchers suggest that handwriting uses different cognitive processes than keyboarding and these processes impact how we learn. Students writing their notes can’t possibly write down every word of the lecture. They’re forced to listen more closely and to extract the most salient points. In effect, they’re processing and absorbing the material before they’ve touched pen to paper.
Keyboarders, on the other hand, can easily type more information without having to give it much thought.
This theory gained credence when the scientists analyzed the students’ notes. Those who used laptops had more verbatim transcription and consistently lower retention of the material.
Even when students were told they would be retested in a week and were able to study the material they’d taken notes on, long-hand note-takers fared better than their laptop-using classmates. Because hand-written notes contain students’ own words and notations, they may serve as better reminders of the original content and meaning.
There’s no doubt that technology plays an integral role in all levels of education. But this study reminds us that progress must sometimes be accompanied by a warning — and that new methods aren’t necessarily better.
Linda Lewis Griffith’s column is special to The Tribune. She is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit www.lindalewisgriffith.com.