A new study finds that university students who use laptops to take notes in class perform significantly lower than those that use pen and paper. The study found the average difference turned out to be roughly half a grade — enough to take a student from an A- down to a B+.
Technology in the classroom, used by students and teachers, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In 2011, a study showed that 57 per cent of recent college graduates in the US reported using a smartphone, laptop or tablet in class, while by 2017, that number had increased to 79 per cent for laptop use in classrooms.
The trend is significant, as the importance of in-class time for students is also on the rise, with a 2011 study finding that although class time for students has remained relatively stable at about 16 hours a week over the last 50 years, the time students spent outside of class studying has dropped from 24 hours a week in 1961 to just 11 hours by 2004.
And yet, the educational gains achieved through increased technology are suspect. A 2007 study found that even as computer and internet access can connect students to a wider range of information, increasing information technology budgets for K-12 schools had no effects on academic performance and a 2014 study found that university students who took notes by hand had better recall of information than those who used computers.
The effect of computer use in the classroom extends even to those students sitting near fellow students with laptops. A 2013 study by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton and York University in Toronto found that just sitting nearby students using laptops caused distractions, such that the non-laptop using students scored 17 per cent lower on a post-lecture comprehension test.
For the new study, researchers looked at grades obtained by 5,600 students at a private liberal arts college in the United States and found that students who used laptops in either “laptop required” or “laptop optional” courses scored between 0.27 and 0.38 grade points lower on a four-point grade point average scale than those who took notes using pen and paper. Converted to an alphabetical scale, the findings show that laptop-using students scored about a half a grade lower — the difference between a B+ and an A- or a C+ and a B-.
“Students believe that laptops will improve their productivity but the opposite occurs,” said Richard Patterson, assistant professor of economics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, to Times Higher Education. Patterson stated that this was “either due to the superiority of pen and paper, the unforeseen influence of distractions, or some other unseen factor”.
The researchers also found that weaker students with lower grade point averages tended to be more negatively affected by laptop use than their higher performing peers and that male students were more negatively affected than females. The researchers speculated that the latter conclusion could be attributed to the observed trait that young males have weaker non-cognitive skills such as attentiveness than females.
Dr Patterson said that his findings have led to changes to laptop policies in his own classes at West Point. “My new classroom policy is that laptops and tablets are not allowed,” he said. “I only allow a student to use a laptop or tablet in the classroom if he or she can make a strong case that his or her learning will be improved by doing so.”