“Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers”.

According to experimental research by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda (2013), trying to multitask on your laptop during class distracts you, and even more, distracts the students around you.
In their sample, it lowered the laptop-using students’ grades from a C to a D.

And the grades of the students around them? From a B to a D.

Yet Sana et al.’s (2015) participants believed that laptop use in the classroom only “somewhat hindered” their learning, and “barely hindered” their peers’ learning. Students are just not good judges of the impact of these distractions on themselves and on fellow students.

Ragan, Jennings, Massey and Doolittle (2014) surveyed 212 students and observed 92 students in a large lecture-based university evening course (of almost 3000 enrolled students!). Classes were almost 3 hours long. 59% of the surveyed students reported they brought their laptop to class (while 41% reported they did not). The students who used laptops in class reported that their most common use was to take notes (on-task about 39% of the time), and on social media or other off-task activities 61% of the time. The observations yielded similar results to the surveys. The researcher observers noted that students spent 37% of their laptop time on task, such as note-taking. 63% of laptop time was spent off task (on social media, browsing, playing games, etc).

Other studies (by Fried in 2008 and by Borbone in 2009) (as cited in Aguilar-Roca, Williams, & O’Dowd, 2012) found that students report that other students’ laptop use was “the greatest distraction during lecture”. The most cited reasons were their curiosity about what was on the other students’ screens and the annoying sound of nearby keyboard tapping. So Aguilar-Roca et al. (2012) designed a field experiment/structured observation to test the idea of zoning off laptop users to a set laptop zone in the classroom, to decrease the effect of laptop distraction on other students. They found that compared to Control groups in usual classroom setups, this actually worsened the tendency for laptop-using students to be off task, (generally on social networking sites, according to the researchers’ observers), likely because of a “spreading effect”. Unlike Sana et al.’s study, in Aguilar-Roca et al.’s (2012) experiment, the grades of other paper-using students were not significantly impacted by the distraction of nearby laptop users.

Sana et al. (2013) had noted that if laptops in the classroom are used ONLY for taking notes or accessing course material, they were a positive benefit to learning.

However, in their study, Aguilar-Roca et al. (2012) found that paper notetakers had higher exam scores than laptop users, by an average of 3%, and the percentage of paper notetakers who earned As was significantly higher than laptop users, consistent with many other studies that found a correlation between in-class laptop use and lower grades, possibly because of poor self-regulation.

That says a lot.

Another experiment on the same topic was conducted by Downs, Tran, McMenemy and Abegaze (2015). They randomly assigned 204 student participants to one of 6 different conditions: sitting and watching the video lecture with laptops vs without;  using laptops to take notes vs paper and pen for notes’; and with laptops with or without Facebook distractions (chatting).  The participants were then tested (with 15 multiple choice questions).

You might be able to guess the results. Which group had the highest average test scores?  The Notes on Paper group, with an average of 71% (B-).  The Notes on Laptop group were a close second, with an average of 68% (C+), not significantly different (though slightly lower) (Downs, et al., 2015). Interestingly, this is the exact percentage decrease Aguilar-Roca et al. (2012) found in their study.

The three lowest scoring groups in Downs, et al.’s study (2015) were the distracted groups, and their scores were significantly lower than those of the undistracted groups. And consistent past research Wood et al., worst of all was the Facebook-distracted group. Their average score was significantly lower than all the five other class environments (F = 26.4, p <.001): an astonishingly low 34% (F).

Aguilar-Roca et al. (2012) asked students about their preferred method of notetaking, and found that 50% reported they took notes on paper, citing that it “facilitates learning”. 22% of their participants reported using laptops in class, for convenience reasons.

Downs, et al. (2015) concluded that, although the participants were likely trying to switch back and forth from attention to the video lecture to the concurrent Facebook chat (task switching across the two tasks), they clearly missed key information presented in the video.

Cognitive process and resource theories could explain this difficulty with dual processing: listening to the video lecture would require both perceptual and cognitive processes, which were too engaged by the motor, cognitive and perceptual processes being used by the Facebook chat. In other words, as they were listening to and responding to the chat, they weren’t listening to and storing into memory the information on the video lecture. And the need to switch tasks from one activity to another itself takes a measurable amount of time.

The easiest dual process, leading to the highest grade on the quiz, was note-taking on paper. Watching the video engaged perceptual and cognitive processes, and taking notes engaged motor, but writing is a very well-learned and well-practiced automatic task (and automatic processes can be multitasked). Taking notes with the laptop also engages the same processes, but likely for most students rapid written notetaking is easier than quick typing on the laptop.

So some clear evidence-based hints – demonstrated by experimental empirical evidence – as a way to higher grades. Only use your laptop for note-taking.

Or put it away and pull out your Five-Star notebook instead.

Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Williams, A. E. & O’Dowd, D. K. (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers and Education, 59, 1300-1308. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.05.002

Downs, E., Tran, A., McMenemy, R., & Abegaze, N. (2015). Exam performance and attitudes toward multitasking in six mulitmedia-multitasking classroom environment. Computers and Education, 86, 250-259. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2015.08.008

Ragan, E. D., Jennings, S. R., Massey, J. D. & Doolittle, P. E. (2014). Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes. Computers and Education, 78, 78-86. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.05.002

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003