Using Laptops in Class? It Won’t Help and It Could Hurt

An interesting article in the Washington Post, “Why Smart Kids Shouldn’t Use Laptops in Class,” describes the results of a study at West Point.

Although other studies have shown that laptop use in the classroom is detrimental–it’s distracting and tends to lower recall and the ability to understand complex ideas, apparently none had studied results over an entire semester. The West Point study does.

The economists who ran the study banned laptops from some sections of a course, allowed laptops or tablets for note taking in others, and banned any technology in others.

Who did worse on the final? The students who had been allowed to use laptops.

The really fascinating wrinkle in these results is that the students with the highest ACT scores seemed to be the most harmed; students with low scores weren’t much affected.

I don’t want you to think the ‘smart’ students received drastically lower grades. WashPo describes the effect as modest: “The difference between exam grades in the laptop-friendly sections and exam grades in the no-laptop sections is equivalent to the difference between scoring a 511 and scoring a 491 on the SAT’s math section.”

Although this is only one study, its results join those of many others that do not recommend technology use in class. The number of professors banning tech in their classes may be growing. Technology is expensive, yet, according to this study, it doesn’t help students who have low scores, and it hurts high scorers.

What does work?

In a post on her blog, journalist, author, and speaker Annie Murphy Paul discusses evidence-based techniques that positively affect student learning. Granted, she isn’t speaking to the specific issue of using tech for note taking in class–and her purview is students K-12, not college–but I’m connecting the dots.

Paul discusses the work of cognitive and educational psychologists that shows what works: spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and interleaving (a word I like because it rhymes with weaving and I like fiber arts).

Read her article in the New York Times for a description of these techniques that you can begin to teach your children tonight–or make good use of yourself if you’re in school. (Another point her post makes–teachers are not being taught these methods, alas.)

My point is we need to ask questions about what really works in education, pre-K-college, and understand that giving every student a laptop doesn’t do anything to improve student learning.

In a capitalist society maybe I shouldn’t say this, but what really works is free.

Disagree? Leave a comment below.