Using laptops in class harms academic performance, study warns

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

April 4, 2017
students use laptops
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At times, it can seem as if the march of technology in higher education is unstoppable. But using a laptop in class can significantly damage students’ academic performance, a study warns.

The paper, based on an analysis of the grades of about 5,600 students at a private US liberal arts college, found that using a laptop appeared to harm the grades of male and low-performing students most significantly. 

The two US academics who conducted the research found that students who used laptops, typically in “laptop required” or “laptop optional” classes, scored between 0.27 and 0.38 grade points lower on a four-point grade point average scale than those who took notes using pen and paper.

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When converted to an alphabetical scale, the results meant that laptop-using students were scoring roughly half a grade lower – proving the difference between, for example, a B+ (3.3) and an A- (3.7), or a C+ (2.3) and a B- (2.7).

Authors Richard Patterson, assistant professor of economics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, near New York, and Robert Patterson, associate professor of finance at Westminster College, in Utah, conclude that use of laptops in class “significantly worsens academic performance”. Their findings, published in the journal Economics of Education Review last month, emerged as academics increasingly permit or even encourage students to use laptops in lectures or the classroom.

While the authors were unable to definitively say why laptop use caused a “significant negative effect in grades”, the authors believe that classroom “cyber-slacking” plays a major role in lower achievement, with wi-fi-enabled computers providing numerous distractions for students.

“Students believe that laptops will improve their productivity but the opposite occurs,” Richard Patterson told Times Higher Education. He explained that this was “either due to the superiority of pen and paper, the unforeseen influence of distractions, or some other unseen factor”.

Other students are probably aware that using a laptop will limit their productivity “but choose to do so anyway, perhaps due to self-control problems”, he added.

Dr Patterson said that his findings had pushed him to examine the laptop policies for his own classes at West Point.

“My new classroom policy is that laptops and tablets are not allowed,” he said. “I only allow a student to use a laptop or tablet in the classroom if he or she can make a strong case that his or her learning will be improved by doing so.”

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Reader's comments (4)

That's a very broad headline statement - surely it depends what the students are asked to do with their laptops? If you are expecting them to sit quietly and record your thoughts over a two hour lecture ('note taking' being almost the only activity described in the study) then of course they will get distracted - wouldn't we all? Perhaps the question should be: if they are enabled to use the laptop to contribute to the session, or to actively work on something of value to their learning, is the same still true?
I would second the valid comment made above about the assumptions made here about the role of the teacher and the role of the learner in the classroom. This sounds like a model where the students are predominantly passive 'vessels' required to take down information from the 'expert', which is pedagogically highly questionable. Also from a research methods point of view - how on earth can they make this claim? Its not a particularly large margin and there are all kinds of other variables that could impact performance between classes. I would question the validaity of this study on a number of fronts. I am surprised to see THE promote this.
*validity. typo apologies
I agree that the headline is overly broad. The actual study only found a significant effect for low-performing males in quantitative courses. The study design was innovative - it relied on the phenomenon of mandatory laptop rules in some courses affecting optional laptop use on the same day in other courses - but it does seem to necessitate a focus on a particular sort of tertiary institution where such rules are prevalent. I have no criticism of the study, but it's a pity to see THE not addressing study limitations and just aiming for clickbait headlines.


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