December 4, 2017

Should you ban laptops from your next meeting?

Daily Briefing

    A growing body of research suggests that college students perform worse when they use laptops during class, and "it's not a leap to think that the same holds for middle and high school classrooms, as well as for workplace meetings," Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan, writes for the New York Times' "Economic View." 

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    A growing body of research

    While research into the effect of laptops on learning typically is subject to "selection bias"—since students who use laptops differ in many ways from those who do not—Dynarski, who has a no-laptops-allowed policy in her classroom, cites several studies into the topic that account for this potential issue.

    For instance, she writes researchers at Princeton University and UCLA randomly assigned students to use laptops or pen and paper to take notes during a lecture. The researchers assessed students' understanding of the lecture using a standardized test and found that laptop users "had [a] substantially worse understanding" than pen and paper users.

    According to Dynarski, "The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer's words flowed right to the students' typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing." Pen and paper users, meanwhile, "had to process and condense" the lecture so that "their pens [could] keep up," Dynarski writes.

    Further, laptop users' notes were more like transcripts than summaries, Dynarski says, while the handwritten notes "were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed."

    In addition, lab experiments by researchers at York University and McMaster University in Canada found that "students seated near … laptop users" were "negatively affected" when laptop users performed tasks unrelated to the lecture, such as looking up movie times.

    Dynarski acknowledges that laptops do offer some benefits, such as by providing a platform to quickly "look up unfamiliar concepts," and that more study into laptop use in colleges is needed. She asserts, however, "The best evidence available now suggests that students should avoid laptops during lectures and just pick up their pens."

    She adds, "It's not a leap to think that the same holds ... for workplace meetings" (Dynarski, "Economic View," New York Times, 11/22).

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