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?

 

11 Responses to “Classroom Laptop Users Distract Others As Well As Themselves”

  1. LaDonna Coy says:

    Hi Annie — Thx for the article and post. I’m going to disagree on this one. I don’t think barring technology from the classroom is the answer nor likely to happen — the horse has left the barn. In my mind it is smarter of us to do experiments to find ways to enable and enhance the learning experience through the technology. If classrooms are still all about the professor’s lecture, (which has other challenges and shortcomings) then it seems to me we haven’t come very far down the learning-focused path. Definitely a thought-provoking post – thank you.

    • Jeff Boggs says:

      This definition of ‘technology’ is a bit one-sided. Technology includes both practices and artifacts. It’s not just things we can trip over — like laptop cords snaking across aisles — but also the kinds of practices they enable, such as splitting attention between the lecturer and online content. Heck, even lectures are a kind of technology that at its most basic really just relies on a common language as the only mediating technology.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by the ‘learning-focused path’. I would assume that small-group seminar discussions, wet lab work, threaded online discussions and even one-to-many lectures all help (prepared) students along the path of learning.

      Granted, many faculty lecture in part because it’s easier and more familiar than other techniques. It doesn’t help that many administrators really could care less about student learning and just want to maximize the rump-to-seat ratio. What detractors of the lecture overlook is that in many university settings, only the keenest students are prepared to participate in class discussions (i.e., have actually completed the readings or other preparatory activities beforehand and hence can make informed contributions) and most of the students don’t want to do anything but sit there like passive lumps.

      Sorry if this comes off like the Grinch Who Stole Xmas, but as someone who has used active learning approaches in lectures and seem them go over like the proverbial lead balloon, it is a bit irksome when something as simple as banning laptops is poo-pooed as being impossible to do.

  2. Tom says:

    How about banning teacher centered, lecture based classes instead?

  3. LaDonna Coy hits the mark. I wonder if what we see in this study is not the disruption of learning so much as the disruption of the lecture as a mode of instruction. It has not been established that that is a bad thing.

  4. John says:

    I love the ideas this article brings to light. I would suggest the lesson delivery is not as engaging as it should be if the students are going back and forth between the lecture and other things on their computer. If the teacher connects by telling an engaging story, allows students to discuss an issue, or challenges them to produce something the distractions are removed. I think this says more about how college classes are taught then it does about students and laptops.

    • Jeff Boggs says:

      I think this tells us more about our students’ inability to focus on the ostensible purpose of attending university and instead taking for granted how privileged they are.

  5. In a classroom I’d call that a management issue rather than a technology one. In a large lecture I can’t see how it could be managed.

  6. Interesting article. However, in my experience, someone in a classroom using a laptop isn’t a distraction. When I attend writer’s conferences, laptops are usually scattered throughout the room… it’s common and I don’t pay any attention. I think it is a more efficient way to take notes since I tend to scribble when I write fast. So, I’m all for modern technology for students. Those who don’t have access to it are going to be far behind those who do. Still, distraction in the classroom is always a concern. And, some will be distracted no matter what. Pencil and paper and note-passing were a distraction before laptops came on the scene.

  7. Jeff Boggs says:

    I used to ban laptops in my courses. Students who had documented need from Student Development Services were exempt.

    More generally, the example noted here is an excellent example of a localized negative externality. This is especially problematic in lecture halls with steeply inclined and tiered seating.

    While lectures are maligned, they are quite efficient means of demonstrating and introducing large swathes of information, especially when working through scenario-based problems. Some of life does involve forcing oneself to do unpleasant things, and while I like active learning, I find the pendulum has swung a bit too far in favor of it. And in my experience, when I’ve run my stats course as a flipped course — an allegedly very effective technique for student engagement — the vast majority of students never bothered to prepare.

  8. LA Grant says:

    Interesting. You report on a study that actually collects data. Most of the comments speak in some form or another of their ‘feelings’ about the study, giving no indication that they’ve actually read it. Perhaps you should do an article on how to engage in scientific study and analysis.

  9. Shadow says:

    It’s up to the students to pay attention—it does not matter if they have laptop or not. A student who doesn’t care will be lost in his own world, with or without a computer in front of him.

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