Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Is it time to ban laptops from lectures?

Students are increasingly using laptops in lectures, for 'note-taking'. It is surprising (to me, at least) that this has been a relatively recent (and noticeable) trend in my classes. However, since I spend a good portion of my lecture time walking around the class, I can see the potential for distraction that open laptops provide - although students usually get back on-task after being the subject of jokes about updating their Facebook status to tell their friends about how awesome economics is.

Distraction aside though, it has been an open question as to whether note-taking on laptops is more effective for study purposes than note-taking by hand. Students argue that, since they can type faster than they can write, they can make more notes on their laptop than by hand. However, quantity of notes is not necessarily a substitute for quality of notes.

Back in March, Joseph Stromberg wrote an article on Vox about a study by Pam Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel Oppenheimer (UCLA) entitled "The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking" (gated, ungated here), published in the journal Psychological Science. In the study the authors attempt to disentangle whether (and why) longhand note-taking is superior to note-taking on laptops.

Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted three studies with students in experimental settings. In the first study, the authors projected selected TED talks onto a screen and asked the participants to take notes (randomised to be either by hand, or on a laptop), using "their normal classroom note-taking strategy". To eliminate distraction as a factor, none of the laptops had internet access. After 30 minutes:
...participants responded to both factual-recall questions (e.g., “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”) and conceptual-application questions (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”) about the lecture...
In terms of results, participants who took notes by hand wrote significantly less than those using laptops, and wrote fewer verbatim notes. There was no statistically significant difference in terms of factual-recall question performance, but students who took notes by hand did significantly better than laptop users on conceptual-application questions.

In the second study, the authors ran a similar task but this time with three groups: (1) note-taking by hand; (2) note-taking using a laptop; and (3) note-taking using a laptop, but this third group was specifically told to take notes in their own words. The results were similar - the group taking notes by hand performed best, and the 'non-intervention' laptop group (group 2) performed worst. The group note-taking on laptops that was told to take notes in their own words performed somewhere in-between (but not statistically significantly differently from either of the other two groups).

In the third study, the authors repeated the first study but tested recall after one week (instead of 30 minutes), and allowed some of the participants to spend 10 minutes before the test studying their notes. So in this case there were four experimental groups: (1) handwritten notes without studying; (2) laptop notes without studying; (3) handwritten notes with studying; and (4) laptop notes with studying. In this study, participants who took handwritten notes and had the opportunity to study performed better than the other three groups, both in factual questions and conceptual questions.

The authors conclude:
Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes... For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.
So, perhaps students would be better off without their laptops in class, even if they are using them diligently for note-taking rather than watching the NBA finals (as I saw one student doing in class last semester).

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