Should you ban laptops (and other devices) from your classroom?

Students using laptops in a lecture hall, view from the back looking at the students' screens.This question was cogently addressed in two recent articles. One by Tal Gross, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University, appeared December 30, 2014 in a Washington Post op-ed piece titled, This Year, I Resolve to Ban Laptops from my Classroom. Gross references the other article, by Clay Shirkey, professor at New York University, Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away, which appeared September 8, 2014 on Medium. To be clear, neither is teaching in an active learning classroom where laptops might be considered a necessary piece of equipment for the pedagogical process.  Gross describes a lecture format with 85 students. Shirkey, who call himself “an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, [and] a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor” asked the students in his “fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.”

Shirkey noticed a change over time as mobile devices grew to be both more technically robust and widely used. Rather than being a useful tool for note taking, these devices have become a distraction. There is also the issue of multitasking. Shirkey states, “We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.” Any number of studies have shown that multi-taskers are deluded in their belief that the practice enhances their work performance. The seductive immediacy of social media makes it even more difficult for students using laptops, tablets, and cellphones in the classroom to focus on the material being taught. But what tipped Shirkey over was the paper Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers, with results that “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.” In justifying his decision to have students put away their laptops (and other devices), he says that he now sees teaching and learning as a collaborative effort with his students. “It’s not me demanding that they focus — its (sic) me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.”

Tal Gross focuses on another aspect of the issue—that of note taking. Typing on laptops can become “an exercise in dictation.” In a study undertaken by Pam A. Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (UCLA) titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the KeyboardAdvantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, the results showed “…that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” [Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, doi: 10.1177/ 0956797614524581.]

Both articles provide food for thought. Anecdotal evidence from our faculty here at Johns Hopkins suggests that students are becoming less adept at taking notes by hand, and even writing by hand at all. Old-fashioned essay-style exams taken in blue books seem to provide a challenge to students who complain of hand cramps at the end of the test. Yet the learning gains may be significant. Maybe it’s time to revive an old, tried and true practice. For students (and instructors) who need some tutoring on how to take notes, here is a resource to check out: The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking, by Mike Rohde [Peachpit Press, November 30, 2012.]

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC MCGunner on Imgur at

Summer Reading: Three Articles for Your Consideration

Celebrating the end of the academic year and looking forward to some time for summer reading? It’s always good to have solid research to back up our teaching practices. Three recent articles highlight scholarship behind the claimed benefits of collaborative learning, improved student performance with the use of active learning, and taking notes by hand provides better cognitive retention than using a laptop.

Woman lying on grass reading a book.A tip from the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent The Innovative Instructor to IDEA (Individual Development and Educational Assessment) and POD (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education). “IDEA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.” [] As part of IDEA, POD produces “succinct papers” to address specific ways for instructors to employ innovative teaching methods. The POD Center Notes on Instruction is definitely worth a look.

POD Item #5 Formed “Teams” or “Discussion Groups” To Facilitate Learning Overall, reviews the research supporting the benefits of collaborative learning. “Learning is enhanced when the material to be learned is thought about deeply and also when related material is retrieved from memory and associated with the new material. When students have an opportunity to work together to learn course content, particularly when applying that material to a new challenge, both deep thinking and retrieval of associated materials are realized.” Specific tips are presented for implementing group work in a course, including setting clear expectations and monitoring group progress. Applications of group work for online settings are examined, and assessment issues are addressed.

Next, a study on lecturing versus active learning was recently highlighted in both Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The results of the research, Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Scott Freeman, Mary Wenderoth, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Michelle Smith. The lead researchers are in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle.

From the abstract: “This is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date.” “These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” As for the significance of the report, “[t]he analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.”

From the April 2014 Psychological Science, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, reports on the benefits students gain by taking lecture notes longhand rather than on a laptop. Although using laptops in class is common (and instructors complain about the distractions laptops present), this study “…suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” “In three studies, [the researchers] found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors conclude “…that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Image Source: CC Spirit Fire on Flickr: