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How distracting are laptops in class?

Hayfield Secondary School teacher Ken Halla helps a student log into digital… (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/ Fairfax…) Hayfield Secondary School teacher Ken Halla and students (By Shamus Ian Fatzinger/ Fairfax County Times)

Here’s a piece looking at how distracting laptops can be in class by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His latest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

There are some studies in psychology where you pretty much know what the results will be before you collect the data. But you gotta do ’em to be sure you’re right.

One example is a recent study (Sana et al, 2013) on the effects of laptop multitasking on classroom learning. (Thanks to Twitter users @rboulle and @CyniqueDeGauche for tipping me off to this study.)

The authors had college-aged subjects come into a laboratory to listen to a 45-minute lecture on meteorology, meant to simulate the sort of experience they would have in a college classroom. Half of the subjects were given a list of secondary tasks to perform, meant to represent the sort of thing that a bored student in a lecture might investigate during part of the lecture that seemed slow. For example, one question was, “What is on Channel 3 tonight at 10 p.m.?” All the questions were designed to be answerable with a simple search using websites that virtually students are familiar with (Google, YouTube, et al.)

The number of questions –12 –seemed pretty high to me. The authors said that pilot testing indicated students could answer all 12 in about 15 minutes. Thus, students would be multitasking for one-third of the 45-minute lecture. Researchers argued that other data indicate this percentage estimate is not unreasonable, although it makes me want to cry.

A 40-item comprehension test administered 20 minutes after the lecture showed a cost to multitasking.


Experiment 2 examined what happens when you are not multitasking  yourself, but someone near you is doing so. Again, you kind of know what’s going to happen. Motion in your peripheral vision is distracting, a phenomenon that web page designers have capitalized on for years, much to our annoyance.

There is a fundamental tension here, and I don’t know how to resolve it. On the one hand, I like it when students have their laptops in class. Many of them are more comfortable taking notes this way than longhand. In the middle of a lecture I might ask someone to look something up that I don’t know off the top of my head.

On the other hand, the potential for distraction is terrible. I’ve walked in the back of the classroom of many of my colleagues and seen that perhaps 50% of the students are on the Web.

Students think that they can snap attention back to class “when it gets interesting again.” I don’t have much confidence they can. Student judgments of their own learning are often not that well calibrated, and that seems to be especially true of multitasking. They think it’s cost-free.

Tellingly, researchers asked subjects in Experiment 2 to provide ratings as to whether they were distracted by other people multitasking and whether other people multitasking affected their own (the observers’) learning. Average answers? “Somewhat distracting” and “Barely” hindered my learning.

What can be done?

Some educators simply ban laptops. Some banish laptop users to the back rows. I don’t like either of these solution much because they impose a penalty on anyone who wants to use a laptop.

I asked our IT group if the Wifi could be turned on and off in my classroom. Nope.

Some argue that students are learning how to manage distraction, although there’s not much evidence that students are learning this lesson. Certainly, I don’t know of anyone actively teaching them this lesson.

Got ideas? I’d love to hear them.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 19, 2013

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