How laptops interfere with learning

June 6

Unlike some law professors, I have yet to ban laptops in my classes, but I regularly warn my students against their use in class.  It’s a good thing too.  Scientific American reports on new research showing how the use of laptops in the classroom results in less memory and comprehension of covered materials. (This research was also covered in The Atlantic last month.)  Here’s the abstract of the new study:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

It’s worth stressing that in this research the laptops were not connected to the Internet.  This means the results are not due to students spending time checking e-mail or surfing the Web. In most settings, such distractions will only impair performance even more. Indeed, prior research has found that laptop multitasking impairs learning and can even have negative effects on non-laptop users sitting nearby.   In other words, laptop users may not be only hurting themselves. 

The new research is interesting because many students seem to believe that having a laptop in class enhances their learning, and they certainly like having access to the Internet at all times.  I admit I like having a laptop handy in such settings.  Among other things, I like to look up relevant source materials as they are mentioned or discussed (and I do my best to stay away from my my e-mail or Twitter feed).  But even the best of us are not nearly as disciplined when using computers in such settings as we’d like to think.

The significance of the new research is that it confirms that even if the threat of multitasking can be eliminated, laptop use can still undermine classroom learning.  According to this study, it’s precisely when laptops are used as one might hope — for note-taking — that they are a problem.  Most people can type significantly faster than they can take notes by hand, and the natural tendency of most computer users is to take more notes — perhaps even to transcribe — at the expense of memory and comprehension.  If you don’t have to think about what you are hearing and what is or is not worth writing down, you are not lkely to listen as intently and actively.  Further, for many subjects, verbatim transcripts of class sessions are not particularly useful.  In law, computer class notes are too easily cut-and-pasted into an outline, obviating the need to comprehend (let alone seriously consider) what is being outlined.  The efficiency that laptops facilitate comes at the expense of thinking.

As the Scientific American report concludes:

Technology offers innovative tools that are shaping educational experiences for students, often in positive and dynamic ways.  The research by Mueller and Oppenheimer serves as a reminder, however, that even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning.  Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information.  If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities.  When it comes to taking notes, students need fewer gigs, more brain power.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Will Baude | June 6