By Sarah Gray
November 27, 2017

Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show.

In a New York Times article, Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, explained that she has banned students from using electronics during her classes because of research showing that computers inhibit learning. To back up her argument, she points to research showing that students retain information better by taking notes the old-fashioned way.

A study by Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles in 2014 found that “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” Even electronics-suing students who refrained from multi-tasking during class like checking Facebook and shopping online had a “tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words.”

It turned out that students who took notes with a pen and paper did a much better job because they had to process, synthesize, and then summarize what the lecturer was saying.

The researchers conducted three studies by looked at randomized groups of people who were asked to take notes with either a pen and paper or a laptop while being shown a lecture. The students were then tested about what they retained.

In the first study, those who used laptops took more verbatim notes, and performed worse on the test. In the second study, students were told not to take verbatim notes, but often did anyways, and those who used laptops performed worse. In the final study, students were allowed to study before the test. Those who studied their handwritten notes performed the best.

A study by the U.S. Military Academy students at West Point that was published in 2017 looked at the performance of small economics classes. One was allowed an Internet-connected laptop, another was allowed a tablet that had to be face-up on the desk to be monitored, and the final one prohibited Internet-connected devices. Students “who were not allowed Internet access earned about 73% of the possible points on the multiple choice and short answer portion of the final exam, whereas students who had access to Internet-enabled devices earned about 71%.”

Not broadly discussed by Prof. Dynarski in the Times article was the risk of distraction that Internet-connected laptops pose in the classroom. However, a recent study from Michigan State University noted that distraction is an issue. “First, participants spent almost 40 minutes out of every 100-minute class period using the internet for nonacademic purposes, including social media, checking email, shopping, reading the news, chatting, watching videos, and playing games.” Scientific American said about the study. “This nonacademic use was negatively associated with final exam scores, such that students with higher use tended to score lower on the exam.”

Dynarski did, however, look at research from York University and McMaster University, which found that the distraction of laptop use (for students that multitask) can spillover to other students who are seated nearby.

Though the use of technology may aid classrooms in some ways (online syllabi, PDFs of reading materials), studies point towards leaving your laptop closed during the lecture.

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