I disallow laptops in my classroom. No screens, only books, paper, and pencil. The obvious reason is the distraction factor. Stand in the back of a classroom of fifty-plus students, survey the dozens of screens propped open, and count how many show social media, pictures, text messages . . .

That’s one reason why, when I announce the laptop ban on the first day of class, several students nod in relief. They find nothing more annoying than having their eyes drawn to the screens of the mates in front or beside them. If a movie is playing, they can’t help but glimpse the action and lose track of class content.

Here is a study that uncovers a deeper problem with laptop use. (The link is contained in the news story, but you’ll have to use your academic password to get access to the full report in Psychological Science, June 2014.) Even when students pay attention and take notes on the keyboard, their learning suffers. Or rather, they understand and retain the material less effectively than they do when they take notes by hand.

In the study, longhand and laptop note-takers performed equally well on factual-recall questions, but on “conceptual-application” questions, “laptop participants performed significantly worse than longhand participants.” This was true in spite of the fact that laptop note-takers composed many more words than longhanders did (though, within each group added volume correlated with higher scores).

The difference comes down to “the manner and quality of note-taking,” the researchers state. Typing quickly on a keyboard involves “shallower processing” than writing by hand. Handwriting is slower and more laborious than typing, and so a student has to be more selective about what to record. Because the speed of longhand is lower than the speed of presentation, the student also must condense and summarize, thereby initiating a process of comprehension in the very act of taking notes. In fact, the closer a student came to a verbatim rendition of the teacher’s presentation, the lower he scored on the test.

This is further evidence in favor of the old way of doing things, and so I encourage the teachers reading this to adopt the “no-screen” pedagogy. Yes, it’s counter-cultural, and some of the students will resent it because it means more work. But a little more pain will bring them more gain at exam time.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things

Articles by Mark Bauerlein

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