Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Using your laptop during lectures could be a bad idea

On the surface, carrying a laptop or tablet to your lecture seems like a good idea (and if you’re like most other students, you do). They make note-taking infinitely faster. Don’t understand a term your professor used? A quick Google search will give you the answer. Need to work on coursework from another class? A laptop will allow you to do this secretly and gracefully. In a time where you need to be efficient and multi-task in order to be successful, laptops and tablets have become indispensable working tools for students. 

But a recent study done at MIT suggests that your laptop might not exactly be the godsend you think it is. The study – you can read it in full here – found that undergraduates who were allowed unrestricted use of personal computers and tablets during their lectures performed poorer in their exams compared to those that didn’t have that luxury. Here’s what they say (emphasis added):

"The results from our randomized experiment suggest that computer devices have a substantial negative effect on academic performance. Our estimates imply that permitting computers or laptops in a classroom lowers overall exam grades by around one-fifth of a standard deviation."

So why is this? The researchers think there could be a few factors at play. The big one may be distraction – it’s obviously difficult to pay attention to what’s going on in class when you have your e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook all in front of you. Another might just be that a pen and paper is better for note-taking than a laptop is – think about it, it offers you to be more flexible and hands-on with whatever it is you’re writing (especially if your notes involve a lot of graphs, equations, or diagrams) and computers/tablets can sometimes be clunky and unresponsive. A third reason, the researchers say – and I suspect this is a big player too – is that instructors might simply be more interactive with their students when everyone is gazing up at them rather than their laptops. And that extra engagement might pay off in terms of students better understanding and remembering the material. Being able to actively engage with the material during lectures for instance – such as through back-and-forth discussions with the professor – can go a long way in imprinting that information in your memory.

So there are a few lessons to be learned here. If you’re the sort of person who gets distracted easily and find yourself absent-mindedly browsing Facebook or Reddit during a lecture, maybe it’s time to keep your electronics at home. You don’t want those instant-gratification websites sapping up your attention span, especially when you need to be attentive for what could be a two-hour lecture. For those who see the allure of going back to traditional pen and paper again, try it for a week and see how you like it, and take note of how fidgety and distracted you feel versus when you’re on a laptop.

And for those that think their laptop or iPad is an absolute essential for note-taking, put them on airplane mode and close all non-essential applications at the beginning of a lecture so you don’t get tempted to explore the wonders of the interwebs when you get bored. 

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