Faithful readers may remember that a couple of years ago I banned the use of laptops in my nonmajors biology classroom. You can read about the rationale in a previous blog post that summarizes the Mueller and Oppenheimer study, which found that students performed best on conceptual questions when they took notes by hand. And you can see how I implement the ban and sell the idea to my class during week 1.
In course evaluations, surprisingly few students complain about the ban, perhaps because my class proceeds at a pace for which it is possible for most students to take notes by hand. One student last fall did gripe about it; his main argument was that he’s a grownup, he’s paying for class, and he should be able to use his class time however he sees fit. I am sympathetic to that argument, as students need to learn to manage their own time and resources at some point. However, that point of view focuses only on the would-be laptop user and not on the neighboring students who would be constantly distracted by whatever is happening on someone else’s glowing screen. Moreover, the desire to look at screens of all sizes seem to be contagious. That is, it’s easy enough to ignore your phone if no one is using one (e.g., during an exam), but it’s a lot harder when others around you are enjoying the dopamine rush that accompanies incoming notifications and social media posts.
Why am I bringing this up again? It’s because the Chronicle of Higher Education just did. They recently noted that researchers tried to repeat the Mueller and Oppenheimer study that you can read about in my previous blog posts. In the Chronicle’s words, “The new paper … couldn’t completely replicate those findings.” The Chronicle also points out what’s wrong with both studies, namely that taking a test 30 minutes after taking notes (as they did in both studies) is a whole lot different from taking a test 4 weeks after taking notes (as often happens in the college classes). It also makes sense that student study habits during the exam-free interval might be more important than how they took notes in the first place.
The article began by mentioning the problem of distracting the neighbors, but only briefly returned to that point at the end. For me, that will remain one of the primary reasons to carry on with the ban. Most students aren’t complaining, so I’ll stay the course.