Do Laptops Impede Classroom Learning?

I just posted a comment on a discussion thread titled Laptops in the Classroom on the blog of law professor Michael Dorf. Dorf’s post discusses his ban this semester on the use of laptops in his first-year civil procedure course, a ban inspired in part by the article Taking Notes Without a Computer: How Laptops Distract from Classroom Learning by Sherry Colb posted on FindLaw. In large part the anti-laptop stance is an anti-surfing-the-web-during-class-discussion stance, but not entirely. Colb states “[w]hen you take notes by hand, you are forced to digest what has been said and write down only a fraction of it. You are forced, in other words, to think while the class is in progress.” Dorf states “[g]enerations of students (including mine) succeeded in law school without laptop computers, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were better able to give their undivided attention to class.”

Colb’s statement assumes that laptop users take notes in a qualitatively different way than those who take handwritten notes, that they transcribe verbatim like speech-recognition drones. Dorf posits written notes as a superior vehicle for holding one’s attention. My personal anecdotal experience supports neither view — I am both eminently distractable armed only with pen and paper and a thoughtful note-taker on a laptop. I am curious what others think.

16 Replies to “Do Laptops Impede Classroom Learning?”

  1. Stacia

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  2. AnandB

    I may be 200 weeks too late, but I'm guessing that some professors still are on the edge about laptop usage in class. Since I can remember, I've always preferred to type rather than to write. I've had a computer since the second grade, and I pride myself on having mastered the art of typing quickly. I personally dislike writing by hand because sometimes my mind is overflowing with thoughts, and then the decision I have to make is which fact is more important to right down? It seems as it could be a great strategy in the classroom setting, but I don't think so. When I have to hand write notes, I find myself occasionally not writing down some important details because I'm hearing new information that I think is relevant as well, and then I have very minimal recollection of what was said before. Typing helps. In some classes, I find myself writing everything that the professor says word for word, while in others I selectively note take. Is this making me less efficient? I'm not sure, but it might seem like that. When studying for my Psychology exams, I love using my personal notes as a text book instead. It's important to me to have as much information as I can for some classes.

    All in all, laptop usage might not be the greatest idea for those who can't handle the freedom of being able to surf the web while in a lecture. But I don't think it's worth banning laptops to those students that find it to really help.

    • drandall Post author

      That's why I've opted for the "Gadget Ghetto." I hope it inhibits those web-surfing laptop users who distract me during teaching while enabling students like you to use laptops effectively.

  3. awoz

    I realise this is supposed to be on your forum, but
    I’m being moderately lazy and not using it since I
    can’t find my password/sn. Either way…i’m in class
    right now…on my laptop…supposedly doing a
    math/stats problem.

    However, even though I’m not really utilizing my
    laptop right now, I know of certain students who do
    take better notes with laptops, and I find they are
    better organized and easier to read.

    See ya in class!

    (originally emailed to Prof Randall)

  4. jhayden

    Everyone learns differently. Since i understand and respect that i don’t agree with banning laptops, but I do agree with Colb’s reasoning. Personally, I think that i digest more when i write out notes by hand rather than typing them. I can type faster than i can write so i would be able to type every word i hear rather than listening and writing down what’s key and what will remind me of the lecture.

  5. alvs27

    It has become commonplace in private secondary schools to begin using computers in the classroom at younger and younger ages. I know this is a bit different from taking notes in class, but at times computers do come in handly for something more than taking notes in a large lecture. From time to time I like to look up things on the web (no, not facebook or myspace) that pertain to the professor’s lecture. Sometimes, in fact, professor’s ask me to look things up. So, just as computers serve as a supplement to education in elementary and high schools, the same could be applied in college.

    I know that I may be the annoying girl in class who looks like a nerd, but I feel as though I get better notes and I am able to pay better attention to the lecture when I use my laptop. I spend less time thinking about a hand cramp and more time actually listening to the lecture. Plus, why should any professor have the right to ban laptops? Professor’s should not be able to control how you learn the material or how you take notes on what they are saying just because they think using a notebook is best.

  6. m.alsunaid

    I personally enjoy taking notes on my laptop . I am normally a slow note taker in genral , so with the use of my laptop i am able to take more notes in less time . Also , When using my laptop i feel like i am alot more organized.

    Although students may surf the web instead of taking notes in class, i feel like a laptop motivates students who normally wouldnt take many notes to infact take notes..

  7. chrislee

    I personally rarely use my laptop in the class room. Computers do allow me to take notes quicker but I find that I don’t learn as much when I type. When I write my notes I realize that as I am writing down notes I am also learning or reviewing the information that I write down.

    Of course the problem with this is that sometimes professors speak too fast or go through slides too fast and therefore I am not able to get everything down. Of course this problem is solved if the professor posts the lectures online.

    Although I personally don’t like using a laptop during class I believe that every student has a different way of learning. Some student find that typing notes is better while others like to use a pencil and paper. Of course a laptop can be a distraction but I think that the use of them in the classroom should be optional.

  8. WSHustler

    I think taking notes on a laptop offers the benefit of clear, well laid out notes when students go back to review their material for exams. You can’t argue the fact that almost all students who takes notes on their laptop will occasional veer away from the notetaking and check out, browse google, or get on instant messenger. But, it’d be interesting to examine the differences in performance on exams and assignments between those who take notes by hand and those who take notes on their laptops.

    I heard that the top finance concentrator in BU’s class of 2006 used his laptop for notes through his 4 years of college and was notorious for browsing the net and even having long chats on instant messenger in the middle of class. Apparently he turned out alright…so it can’t be that bad, can it?

  9. jmd1

    I think that whichever method of note-taking works best for a student should be allowed in the classroom. Laptops should not be banned simply because some teachers see them as a distraction during class time. Personally, I like taking notes the old-fashioned way and, like Sherry Colb noted in her article, I feel that you learn the material better by writing it down. However, that is my personal preference, and I have many friends who opt to take notes on their computers and do stay focused throughout the lecture, especially when the lecture slides are posted on the web and you can follow along and add your own notes to them, leaving less room for distraction. Even if you prevented students from accessing the internet during class (as in the teacher could look at records of user names who went on VPN) there are still programs on the computer that can cause distractions, such as Solitaire and even other homework assignments, so I feel like that would be burdensome and somewhat ineffective. I say let the students choose how they wish to take down the material, for they are responsible adults who can choose to focus during class if they truly care about their studies.

  10. HEWB

    I use a laptop to take notes in two of my classes at BU. Both are pure lecture with no student participation, aside from the brave soul who asks a question in front of 300 students. When I use my laptop to take notes in a class when all exams are based on lectures, I find that I am able to recall more details without studying as much and I am able to connect concepts from lecture to lecture more easily than handwritten notes. Laptop note taking also seems to be less tedious and laborious. In classes when participation is a part of the daily routine, I find that it is better to take hand written notes and listen to my peers rather than transcribe every detail. I find that it is just as easy to zone out when writing by hand or typing, but when I am typing I am less likely to notice the ticking clock because my hands are always busy.

    If typing notes works for a student than it should be allowed. Teachers should not limit the way a student learns.

  11. cbg7

    I have rarely used my laptop for taking notes, mainly because I hate having to carry it around. The few times I have used it in class, I was easily distracted with my online options opposed to strictly note-taking. However I am also easily distracting taking handwritten notes and my notebooks are absolutely covered in doodles, sometimes making my notes harder to read after class, a problem I don’t have when taking notes on a laptop. I feel how someone takes notes its their preference and banning the use of lap tops seems unfair for those with illegible handwriting.

  12. maucordero

    A couple of thoughts came to my mind after I read this Post. First of all, whatever the disadvantages are for the use of laptops in class, I do not think they should be prohibited. After all, each student has a unique way of learning and several valid reasons for the use of laptop during class. Therefore, if they choose to use them in class they should be allowed to.

    Nevertheless, I agree with Colb’s statement. My personal experience has taught me that I learn more from paraphrasing and writing down in paper what I listen than from typing every word I hear simulating a “speech-recognition drones,” as Colb describes it.

    This idea could be compared to a simple study method while reading books. Instead of merely highlighting the important parts, many scholars recommend to write down on paper what you consider significant. By doing this, the brain analyzes the information at least twice and, at least in my experience, brings better results for studying.

  13. dpearl

    If I were a professor, I would prohibit the use of laptops in class. In CORE, most teachers allowed their use and 90% of the time, the laptops were used for Fantasy Football and AIM instead of taking notes.

    The problem, in my opinion however, is not so much the rude students but instead the boring professors.

    Students surf the web, instead of taking notes, during class for two reasons: 1. the lectures are posted online, and 2. the teachers are too boring to listen to.

    I don’t disagree with posting the lectures online as they are often beneficial for studying, especially when the professors speak too fast for anyone to copy down every word (whether by hand or by computer). Here, I also disagree with Prof. Colb becuase often every word is necessary for tests, and I, for one, cannot remember every word months later when it’s time to study.

    I do disagree with a professor who lectures solely from the slides, without any elaboration or hint of creativity. Why take notes when every important word said is already written on the slides? In CORE I have two teachers who almost exclusively lecture off the slides. Their reasoning is logical in that that material is what will be covered on the tests. However, anything in the slides is extremely self-explanatory and students almost immediately realize that paying attention in class will not increase their tests scores.

    If teachers with these sort of classes want attentive students who would rather listen than seach the web, then they need to present the material in a more interesting and creative manner.

    So, I agree with laptop bans, but that will not be the answer to more attentive students. The laptop ban must come with a changing teaching mindset.

  14. JesseR

    I have always taken notes via paper notebooks. Personally, lugging around my laptop, turning it on and off, and loading Word seems like a pain to me. And since I rarely backup my hard drive, what happens if my computer crashes? While applying to law schools, I have noticed they heavily encourage laptop use in classrooms. George Washingotn Univ Law even requires all law students to have a laptop! Maybe in law school I’ll switch over, but for now I’m most comfortable taking notes the old fashioned way.

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