More than three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the debate over allowing cell phones and laptops in class. In the blog post, I summarized a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer showing that students who took notes on a laptop did not do as well on conceptual test questions as those who had taken notes by hand.
I thought about this issue a lot more over this past summer, and about a week before this semester started I decided to take the plunge: No more laptops and cell phones in my nonmajors biology class. Here are some of the factors that influenced me:
- I rediscovered the Mueller and Oppenheimer study, which suggests that the very slowness of taking notes by hand actually enhances learning.
- I observed a few instructors teaching over the spring and summer semesters. From my vantage point at the back of the classroom, I saw that much of what happens on laptops has nothing to do with the class.
- I recognized that goofing off on a laptop (or cell phone, to a lesser extent) is not just a private act; it distracts and influences neighboring students.
- I talked to a student who took my class in a previous semester. She said that she prefers note-taking by hand because she can sketch diagrams as she goes.
- When students have their noses buried in their own personal electronic devices, they are not interacting with their classmates. I want my students to get used to talking to each other.
I used the slide accompanying this blog post to introduce these arguments to my students. Before I revealed my Family Feud “survey says” answers, I asked how they would answer the question posed in yellow. They came up with two more arguments that I hadn’t thought of: (1) It’s disrespectful to the teacher; I think a tiny tear of gratitude came to my eye when I heard that answer. (2) Laptops can be used to cheat, e.g., students can look up answers to clicker questions instead of thinking about the material themselves. I’ll add one or both of those to the Family Feud slide next time I teach.
The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about imposing a laptop ban is that students are supposed to be learning to take responsibility for their actions. My class is mostly populated by freshmen and sophomores, and I’d like them to feel as if they are in a college class, not in “13th grade.” But I decided to experiment with a ban because I think the pros listed above outweigh this con.
And how have the students responded? Surprisingly well! I was prepared to give individual students permission to use their laptops under certain conditions, but none has asked. It’s only week 2, but things look good so far.
What about you? Have you ever banned laptop use in your class? How has it worked? If you are against banning laptops in the classroom, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as well.
Next time, I’ll show you how I used the Mueller and Oppenheimer study in a classroom activity to win my students over. Stay tuned!