In Class laptop use and it’s effect on student learning


Fried, C. B., (2008). In-class laptop use and its effect on student learning. Computers & Education. 50 (e.g. 2), pp.906-914


There is a correlation between increased laptop use, self reported perceptions of lower lecture clarity, and lower attention paid in lecture, and lower score testing on standardised MCQ tests.

Students reported their own laptop use as the largest disrtactor in class, larger than all other reported distractors combined. The second highest reported was other students laptop use.

Laptop using students reported spending, on average, 17 out of every 75 minutes in class using laptops doing other things – email, messaging, surfing etc.

The suggestion is that due to cognitive load, and attention splitting (voluntary and involuntary) that unstructured laptop use distracts students, lowers attention and information processing and retrieval, and results in lower test scores. In addition, it may have an adverse effect as a distractor on non laptop users.

The study carefully points out that it finds correlation, but cannot speak to causality.

In unstructured environments, where laptop use is not built into the class, it may be advisable to have a strategy for dealing with this – laptop up and down rules, or cautions about the problems, or bans.

This may not apply to structured laptop use |(where there is an institutional program, or laptops are a necessary part of the course, or an instructor is guiding and structiring their students use explicltly)


Context: Concerns over the use of laptops in class, increased numbers of educators banning them, or having to engage with the reality of laptop use,

Lit review argues that there is some evidence for positive effects of laptop use – question and answer mechanisms that allow in class participation, laptops and web based activities enhancing student satisfaction (a subjective and limited, though important measure), promotion of exploratory learning and meaningful student instructor interaction, others point out a wealth of perceived improvements.

The lit review points out two issues with past research. Typically, no evidence is put forward for objective measures of learning, or there is no control group. Perceived learning by students and satisfaction do not equal evidence for learning or effectiveness.

Secondly, most reviews are based on structured programs for laptop use, and are prescriptions for howto roll it out, making objective assessment of impact difficult.

Proponents of laptop use have had to find ways to control and structure in class use. Laptop up laptop down rules, and software control solutions have been put forward as possible solutions to distraction concerns.

The paper theorises a cognitive load position, where distractions will lessen the resources available for classes. Attention is a limited resource and attention splitting lowers cognitive resources available for information processing, slows processing speed, and increases errors. The paper wants to establish the type and level of laptop use,. It’s effect on learning outcomes, and it’s effect on other students.

137 students on a general psychology course were studied, from different years. Classes targeted were conventional lecture formats. Students were free to use or not use laptops as they wished. Learning was measured based on homework completion and testing, with a bias towards multi choice testing (89%). Surveys on laptop usage classroom experience were weekly. Response rate was 93.4%.

64.3% used laptops for at least one period. Multitasking was reported at an average of 17 out of every 75 mins. Mail checking, Instant messaging, surfing the net, game playing and other, in that order were the multitasking engagements reported.

Students admit to engaging in distracting in class activities, and laptop use was linked to several undesireable outcomes, indicating laptop use decreased comprehension, and resulted in lower test scores. It’s not possible to draw clear causal relationships between laptop use and decreased retention, but there is correlation. In addition, this is an in the wild study. Faculty who tailor classes to laptop use, or where laptop use is intrinsic to the course may report different findings. This is to do with unstructured laptop use in a non laptop optimised course.

Clearly, from the data, the more students used laptops, the lower they scored on standardised tests. In the list of distractions identified in class, other students computer use ranked first (64% of all responses, more than all other responses combined), and students own computer use ranked second. Students who used laptops more self reported paying less attention in class, and understanding less. Students who reported understanding lectures clearly, and paying attention tended to score higher.

Their recommendations – further study, and faculty who do not have students use laptops in a structured way should limit their use, or at least advise students of the problems and attempt to limit the distraction posed to other students.

The study makes no claims to comment on the structured use of laptops in class.

My takeaway.

The study seems sound, within it’s limits. It seems unsurprising that unstructured laptop use, where it is characterised by significant multitasking, would correlate with reported lower levels of clarity and attention paid, and lower test scores on learning outcomes.

It also may tie in with other papers arguing that we need to structure students technology use within our classes, modelling, tutoring, and providing support, guidance and direction that covers how to leverage technology for learning, and why it should be done.

That said, the door seems open for more work, in this line, on structured use of laptops, and other devices, in class, and whether this can be and is a good thing.

To do: read the papers referenced on structured laptop use.



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