Rosario: The case against laptop bans in the classroom

While professors who ban laptops do so in the interest of students, studies concluding their inferiority to handwritten notes are murkier than headlines suggest.

Photo+illustration

Nick Rohlman

Photo illustration

Isabella Rosario, Opinion Columnist

The beginning of a new semester ushers in “syllabus week,” a time for professors to outline course expectations. A popular classroom policy I’ve noticed, especially for lectures, is a technology ban. In the past, my professors have cited studies contending that students learn less effectively when typing notes on laptops. The conclusion, they say, is that handwritten note-taking is an unequivocally superior learning method.

Now, let’s be clear: professors are free to ban laptop use from their classrooms, and they’re not obligated to justify this policy with supporting research. But when they do, that research is worth critical examination.

So what does research show about technology in the classroom? In an often-cited 2014 report, students were shown TED talks and tested on factual and conceptual recollection. The researchers concluded that students using laptops “performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” However, the studies were conducted in a lab, not a classroom, and laptops were disconnected from the internet — i.e., students couldn’t look up information they didn’t understand. The TED talks were not related to their coursework, nor were the students reviewing their notes at home. The application of this narrow research to semester courses seems questionable.

A 2016 study of U.S. Military Academy students tested internet interference, concluding that computer devices “have a substantial negative effect on academic performance.” How substantial? A 1.7-point test score reduction on a 100-point scale. The researchers also wrote, “We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note-taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, Facebook, Twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades, or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers.”

Something that both these studies (and others) have in common? The word “disability” isn’t mentioned once. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 11 percent of undergraduate students report having disabilities. This increases to 21 percent for veterans and 16 percent for students over 30. There are various reasons students may have difficulty writing by hand, such as nerve damage or a connective-tissue disorder. Laptop bans put them in a position that “outs” them for having disabilities if they are granted laptop accommodations. Although disability is nothing to be ashamed of, accessibility is still stigmatized as “special treatment.” Furthermore, not all UI students with disabilities have the resources to receive accommodations, which require documentation from a licensed clinical professional.

Of course, students don’t have to have disabilities to prefer note-taking on laptops. Some students with poor handwriting may find it easier to reread notes from an organized Word document. And while studies have pointed to better conceptual understanding through concise, handwritten notes, some students learn by connecting lots of details (which can be typed faster) into larger narratives. I’ve been in many laptop-free lectures in which students ask professors to slow down numerous times because they cannot write fast enough. Eventually, students stop asking when professors tell them to just take shorter notes.

The distraction of laptops — for users and other students — is undoubtedly an issue. But classroom distractions did not simply emerge with the digital revolution. There is and has long been doodling, and eating, and conversations, and pen-clicking, and foot-tapping. Professors are teaching distractible adults, not robots. These adults should be responsible enough to determine when a device is unhelpful. As scholars navigate the role of technology in the classroom, recognizing the needs of individual students should take precedence over (problematic) statistical generalizations.

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