Classroom Laptop Users Distract Others As Well As Themselves
It won’t surprise anyone to learn that having a laptop computer open in a lecture class is an invitation to distraction for the user. But what about the students sitting nearby? A new study by a group of researchers at McMaster and York universities, both in Canada, finds evidence that laptop use in college classrooms distracts not just laptop owners, but their classmates as well.
The researchers begin their article, published last month in the journal Computers & Education, by reviewing what we know about learning while our attention is divided:
“Research suggests that we have limited resources available to attend to, process, encode, and store information for later retrieval. When focused on a single primary task, our attentional resources are well directed and uninterrupted, and information is adequately processed, encoded, and stored. When we add a secondary task, attention must be divided, and processing of incoming information becomes fragmented. As a result, encoding is disrupted, and this reduces the quantity and quality of information that is stored.
When we eventually retrieve information that was processed without interruptions, as a primary task, we are likely to experience minimal errors. When we retrieve information that was processed via multitasking or with significant interruptions from a secondary task, we are more likely to experience some form of performance decrement.”
These findings “are especially significant when considered in the context of student learning,” the authors note:
“In classroom environments, students tend to switch back and forth between academic and non-academic tasks. This behavior poses concerns for learning. The presumed primary tasks in many university classes are to listen to a lecture, consolidate information spoken by the instructor and presented on information slides, take notes, and ask or respond to questions.
On their own, these activities require effort. If a secondary task is introduced, particularly one that is irrelevant to the learning context, attention must shift back and forth between primary and secondary tasks, thereby taxing attentional resources. This multitasking can result in weaker encoding of primary information into long-term memory.”
Distracting oneself, and learning less well as a result, is bad enough. But students who media multitask during class may also impede the learning of their classmates. The researchers detail their findings:
“We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.
The authors conclude:
“Comprehension was impaired for participants who were seated in view of peers engaged in multitasking. This finding suggests that despite actively trying to learn the material (as evidenced by comprehensive notes, similar in quality to those with a clear view of the lecture), these participants were placed at a disadvantage by the choices of their peers.” (Read more here.)
Sufficient grounds, in my view, for professors to ask all students not to use laptops during class, or perhaps to sign a pledge that they won’t use their computers during class for non-course-related purposes. It’s just not fair to others who are actually trying to pay attention.
What do you think?