By Alison Campbell 02/10/2017 3


I type much more quickly than I write (some would argue, also more legibly). But when I’m taking notes in meetings, I do it with a (very old-fashioned) fountain pen & notebook. The reason is that this makes me filter what I’m writing, so that only the relevant points make it onto paper.  And this is why I’m actually somewhat chary of requiring, or expecting, students to take lecture notes on laptops, despite the push in many quarters for ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) to classes in the expectation that students will do just that.

Yes, there are some good things about using laptops in class (see here, for example – it’s a commercial site but I ignored the little pop-ups wanting to sell me things). They allow for faster note-taking, and if students are using google docs for that, then they can access their notes anywhere – they can also collaborate on the notes, which offers some exciting possibilities for peer-assisted learning. Laptops and other devices can also increase engagement e.g. via using them to complete in-class quizzes and polls.

However, they also allow for people to feel that they are multi-tasking – tweeting (as many academics do at conferences these days), chatting on messenger, posting on Facebook. Unfortunately that means that their attention’s divided and their focus on learning is diminished. It could be – and has been – argued that that’s the educator’s fault; that we should offer such engaging classes that no-one’s interested in goofing off, and indeed I think there is some truth in that. After all, if what the lecturer says is pretty much identical to what’s in the slides they posted on line, many students may not see much incentive to pay attention, because “I can always read the notes or watch the recordings later”. (Only, many never do 🙁 )

What’s more, the off-task use can be distracting to other students as well as the individual users:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content (Sana, Weston & Cepeda, 2012)

and

Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance (Fried, 2006)

and

Results show a significant negative correlation between in-class phone use and final grades… These findings are consistent with research (Ophir, Nass, and Wagner 2009) suggesting students cannot multitask nearly as effectively as they think they can (Duncan, Hoekstra & Wilcox, 2012).

 

Source: wikimedia / Brett Jordan.

Laptops and tablets also allow for very rapid note-taking – and yes, I’m saying that like it’s a bad thing. But if you’re typing so quickly that you can take down what’s being said verbatim, then you’re probably not processing the information, and that has a negative effect on learning and mastery of the material further down the track. This was investigated by Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014), who found that even when students were completely on task, i.e. using their devices only for note-taking, their engagement and understanding was poorer than those taking notes longhand. (That’s in addition to other negative impacts they identify: students off-task, poorer academic performance, and even being “actually less satisfied with their education than their peers who do not use laptops in class.”)

Mueller and Oppenheimer cite earlier work that identified two possible, positive, impacts of longhand note-taking: the material is processed as the notes are made, which improves both learning (makes it more likely that deep, rather than shallow, learning will occur) and retention of concepts; and the information can be reviewed later (of course, that’s also possible with digital notes).  Processing usually involves paraphrases and/or summaries – which is what my meeting notes generally look like – but can also involve tools such as concept mapping, and there’s a lot of research showing that students involved in this sort of activity do better on tests of conceptual understanding and the ability to integrate information.

So, since it’s those higher-order skills that we hope to develop in our students, perhaps we need to tread carefully around the BYOD idea. Or at the very least, discuss all these issues with students at the start of the semester!


3 Responses to “Laptops in lectures”

  • It’s tricky, isn’t it? We have this push towards greater use of technology, and sometimes I think there’s a tacit assumption that it can only be a Good Thing in terms of student learning, when in fact the data show that assumption may be quite wrong.

  • I wonder if there’s a way to get the best of both worlds in terms of retention and speed of note-taking? I’ve actually seen a similar issue recently in quite a different sphere – so-called pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons.

    There are a bunch of digital utilities that can be handy when playing these games, which tend to involve a lot of referencing information on rules and various characters’ stats as well as keeping track of a bunch of changing numbers. But doing it on a digital device comes with the temptation of multi-tasking, and even with the best of intentions I find that often seems to lead to not paying attention to what’s going on.

    Some applications have distraction-free modes, but of course it’s quite possible for the user to just switch them off. That sort of thing can’t help you if you aren’t already motivated to avoid distractions or multi-tasking.