Everybody Is Stupid Except You

The truth about learning and memory.

Close That Laptop in Class!

Multitasking on a laptop in class reduces learning for user and nearby peers.

According to one estimate, about 65% of college students bring a laptop to class (Fried, 2008). Unlike a traditional notebook and pen, computers can be a lot of fun--they have ESPN, Facebook, email, etcetera. Putting a computer in front of a college student is kind of like putting a marshmallow in front of a little kid and telling her not to eat it--the temptation is far too great. (Another example: The Kindle is less tempting than the iPad.)

I've sat in the back of classrooms recently because I wanted to observe great teachers. I did not expect to learn so much from observing students. I saw a lot of multitasking, by which I mean Facebook (etc). It's not just distracting for the multitasker, I was distracted too. 

A new study by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda (2013) examined the effect of laptop multitasking in a simulated classroom. Participants were shown a 45 minute lecture on meteorology. The researches summarize their first study nicely:

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All participants were asked to attend to a university-style lecture and take notes using their laptops as a primary task. Half the participants, by random assignment, received additional instructions to complete a series of non-lecture-related online tasks at any convenient point during the lecture. These tasks were considered secondary and were meant to mimic typical student web browsing during class in terms of both quality and quantity.  

The students who multitasked did 11% worse on a comprehension test covering the lecture. That's equivalent to a whole grade lower in a class. 

But what about the "secondhand smoke" of laptops--their effect on people near the multitasker? The researchers did a second study, which they summarize thusly:

A new group of participants was asked to take notes using paper and pencil while attending to the lecture. Some participants were strategically seated throughout the classroom so that they were in view of multitasking confederates on laptops, while others had a distraction-free view of the lecture. Confederates mimicked multitaskers from Experiment 1 by typing notes on the lecture and performing other concurrent, irrelevant online tasks. 

This time, students who has a multitasker in their line of sight did 17% worse than students who did not. 

Why is multitasking harmful? Because there's no such thing. You can't think about two things at once. If you're checking email, you're not paying attention. And if you're an innocent bystander, watching someone else check email, you're not paying attention either. 

There are a lot of practical solutions. Students: Don't bring your laptop, or turn off your wifi at the start of class. And if you want to avoid secondhand smoke, sit up front where you can't see other people multitasking. Teachers: Ban laptops (if you want to make everyone mad) or send all laptop users to the back of class. Or tell your class about these studies and let them decide what to do. The researchers provide a FAQ full of practical tips.  

As this great clip from The Office shows, you can always find something to distract yourself, even if it's that little bouncing logo that never seems to quite hit the corner of the screen. 

The bottom line: Laptops are distracting. Don't expose yourself to distraction and try to exercise self-control. Remove the distraction. Close the laptop. 

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Nate Kornell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Williams College.

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