Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

Banning Laptops in Classrooms

Can students multitask effectively?

In my 150-student class on medical ethics last winter, I was often dismayed to look up in the amphitheater to see 30-40 students sitting behind their laptops. In recent years, wireless access to the Web has become very common in universities, and the number of students using laptops in classes has steadily increased. So in my two classes on cognitive science in the fall I'm planning to ban laptop use. Here's why.

The obvious first question to ask is: What are the students doing with their laptops? According to reports from various students I've asked, the vast majority are doing things that are not class related: surfing the Web, sending text messages, checking email, and pursuing other social activities such as Facebook. I've even heard of cases of students watching movies or engaging in video chat. Not only are the students distracting themselves away from class lectures and discussions, they are also distracting the students sitting beside and behind them who can't help but notice what's on the screen.

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The second question is: Why should I care? The students are adults and responsible for their own learning, so perhaps I should just let this slide; banning laptops may cause a dip in my usually very positive course evaluations. But in the three decades that I've been teaching I've always cared about helping students to learn material about philosophy and cognitive science that I think is important. The importance is partly theoretical, because questions about the nature of mind and intelligence are intrinsically interesting; but it is also partly practical, because understanding how the mind works is crucial for many applications, including management, education, design, mental illness, and construction of useable machines. I design many aspects of courses - readings, assignments, classroom procedures - to help students learn, so I have a responsibility to prevent laptop use from undermining their educations.

From a cognitive science perspective, there is a crucial third question: What evidence is there that distractions such as laptop use are actually impeding student learning in the classroom? Such evidence comes from two sources. The first is specific studies of laptop use, including ones reported in a paper by two Cornell University researchers.  Their abstract reports, with my italics: "THE EFFECTS OF MULTITASKING IN THE CLASSROOM were investigated in students in an upper level Communications course. Two groups of students heard the same exact lecture and tested immediately following the lecture. One group of students was allowed to use their laptops to engage in browsing, search, and/or social computing behaviors during the lecture. Students in the second condition were asked to keep their laptops closed for the duration of the lecture. Students in the open laptop condition suffered decrements on traditional measures of memory for lecture content. A second experiment replicated the results of the first." A similar study at Winona State University reported that laptop use reduced student learning and course performance. A Stanford University group reported that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. 

The second kind of evidence against multitasking derives more generally from many studies of attention and memory. Short term memory in humans is very limited, and people experience substantial interference effects at retrieval and encoding.  Given what is known about how memory works, it is not at all surprising that people are not very effective at multitasking. In trying to upload this posting, I've fallen victim myself, as I was distracted by new email that prompted me to Google something, thereby losing the screen that had material already entered but not saved.

That multitasking works is only one of many misconceptions about learning that are common among students and even many of their teachers. Students absorbed in their laptops are not only ineffective in their passive learning strategies, but are also missing out on crucial active and social aspects of learning.   Learning is not a fast process of acquiring a bunch of independent facts, but rather an active, effortful process of fitting  new material in with what a student already knows. Active learning requires students to give what is going on in the classroom their full attention.

Moreover, learning in a classroom should be a social process in which the student interacts with the instructor and other students. I try to avoid straight lecturing in favor of engaging my students in interactive questions and answers. Moreover, I arrange ways in which the students can learn through discussions with each other. Even my biggest classes have a 5-minute allocation for small group discussions. Especially in an interdisciplinary class that attracts many different kinds of students, much can be learned from such discussions among them. I've noticed that laptop use discourages students from this kind of participation.

So, in order to improve my student's learning, I'm banning laptops in class. Class learning may be even more important than it used to be, given a report that students are spending less and less time studying outside the classroom. According to one informal survey, most students actually approve of a laptop ban.  I hope that my students will perceive the laptop ban, not as an authoritarian imposition, but as a well-motivated and evidence-based strategy to help them get as much as possible out of their classes.

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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