The question of students’ laptop use in class is not new. But the debate has gained steam as more studies suggest that students who take notes by hand retain more information than students who type.
Some UNC students say they’ve noticed laptops impacting classroom environments.
“Laptops are kind of distracting in humanities classes because people get absorbed in them and don’t participate in discussion,” said senior Lisa Toledo.
“A lot of (students) are shopping online and that really bothers me,” said junior Lauren Key.
Senior Sneha Saravannan said she doesn’t mind taking notes by hand, though she recalls one class that banned laptops where it was hard to write quickly enough.
“It wasn’t super bothersome, but it was a little annoying,” she said.
She said she’s noticed laptops being banned more often in recent classes.
“I don’t remember having professors do it freshman and sophomore year.”
A study published in April uncovered new territory on the laptop question, finding that even students who used their computers solely to take notes retained less information than their pen-and-paper counterparts.
Pam Mueller, a Princeton University graduate student and the report’s co-author, said students on laptops often take notes verbatim, which don’t sink in as well.
“If you’re handwriting, you can’t write everything down, so you have to be selective and think about it more,” Mueller said.
In one part of the study, researchers had students take a quiz a week after a lecture, allowing them to study their handwritten or typed notes beforehand. Even though laptop users had taken more notes, the handwriters performed better on the quiz.
Key said she hasn’t used a laptop in class since starting college.
“If I actually write it down in a notebook, I will remember it,” she said.
Jason Roberts, a UNC political science professor, said students’ laptop use is a common topic of discussion among his faculty peers. He said he’s noticed how distracting laptops can be since he started teaching.
“Sometimes people are so lost in their computers that they do not even notice when class ends,” he said in an email.
He first asked students to put laptops away in a 400-level honors course in spring 2014 and then did the same in a large lecture in the fall. Grades improved in both courses.
“Some (students) have even thanked me,” he said.
Lisa Lindsay, a history professor, said she has banned laptops for several years, both in large lectures and small seminars.
Though students have complained in the past that they can’t take notes fast enough without a laptop, she said she posts an outline of each lecture before class and posts all PowerPoint slides on Sakai.
She’s never regretted her no-laptops policy.
“Every time I go to a class where students are using laptops, I’m reminded of it.”
But biology professor Kelly Hogan said laptops enhance her Biology 101 classes. Hogan has been a vocal advocate for the flipped classroom model, where students learn the material before class and come prepared to work through practice problems.
Laptops allow students to answer multiple choice questions, do calculations and draw graphs with instant submission and feedback, Hogan said.
“Visitors to my class tell me that students in the back rows of this 400-plus person class are equally engaged too,” she said in an email.
Computer science professor Jay Aikat said it’s impractical not to have laptops in a class like Computer Science 110.
“You can talk and talk about programming, but you won’t learn a thing until you actually do it,” she said.
She has thought about students’ laptop use. She knows some students aren’t paying attention to her lecture.
But since she always types notes on her own laptop during meetings, she doesn’t want to impose a classroom policy that she wouldn’t follow.
“If a student doesn’t want to mentally be in the class, well, don’t come to class,” she said.
Hogan and her teaching assistants walk around the room periodically while students are working through problems, and if students are not on task, they tap them on the shoulder and give them a warning. But the benefits of using laptops outweigh the negatives, she said.
“I’m willing to take on the challenge and try to keep my students entertained with biology, so they won’t even think about shoe shopping or social media,” she said.
Roberts said he’ll keep asking students not to use laptops, though he doesn’t think it’s the only way professors can make a class more engaging.
He said he thinks the increasing trend of professors banning laptops will continue.
Still, Key said even though she doesn’t use her laptop in class, she thinks college students should have the freedom to decide for themselves.
“The students who are going to get As are going to do what they need to do to get them,” she said. “If others are going to be lazy and play on laptops, that’s on them.”