Thursday, 13 April 2017

Strong evidence that laptop use in lectures is bad for learning

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about how laptop use in lectures was bad for student learning. That post was based on this article (ungated version here). Here's what I said then:
Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted three studies with students in experimental settings...
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...
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).
Now, a new paper by Richard Patterson (US Military Academy) and Robert Patterson (Westminster College), and published in the journal Economics of Education Review (sorry I don't see an ungated version anywhere), provides even stronger evidence that laptop use is bad for student learning. The authors use data from 5571 students from a private liberal arts college over the period 2013-2015.

What really sets this study apart is the care with which Patterson and Patterson design the study in order to identify the causal (rather than correlational) impacts of laptop use on student academic performance. The college they draw their sample from allows lecturers to decide whether to make laptops required in class, make them prohibited in class, or make them optional (neither required nor prohibited). Importantly, a university policy that requires all students to own a laptop. So there is no question that students choose their courses based on whether laptops are required or not (and the authors confirm this with a student survey, where only 4 percent mentioned that this was a factor in their course selection decision).

This is where the study gets very smart. The combination of the laptop policies mean that students in classes where laptops are optional will be more likely to have them (and use them) if they have classes on the same day where they have one or more classes where laptops are required. Patterson and Patterson exploit this and look at how a student's performance in one class is affected by the laptop policies in that student's other classes with lectures on the same day.

Laptop use in Class A where laptops are required shouldn't affect the student's performance in Class B where laptop use is optional, except through the fact that students will be more likely to have (and use) their laptop. Similarly, laptop non-use in Class C where laptops are prohibited shouldn't affect the student's performance in Class B, except through the fact that students will be less likely to have (and use) their laptop.

This allows Patterson and Patterson to make pretty strong claims of causality in their results by looking at the students' results in classes where laptop use is optional and whether they have laptop-required or laptop-prohibited classes on the same day. They also conduct a bunch of robustness checks in their analysis that make their findings quite compelling.

In their main results, they find that:
...having a laptop-required class on the same day increased the probability that a student used a laptop in class by 20.6% or 14.2 percentage points (significant at the 1% level) and having a class that prohibited laptop use on the same day decreased the probability of using a laptop by 48.9% or 36.7 percentage points (significant at the 5% level)...
Our results suggest that computer use has a significant negative impact on course performance, on the scale of 0.14–0.37 grade points or 0.17–0.46 standard deviations... Additionally, we find evidence that computers have the most negative impact on male and low-performing students and in quantitative and major courses.
So, they found that laptop use makes students significantly worse off, and the effects are much larger for male students and for low-performing students, and in quantitative subjects (presumably including economics). So, perhaps we really should be banning laptops from lectures?

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