Should students use laptops in the classroom?

References:

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581

Urry et al. (2020). Don’t ditch the laptop just yet: A direct replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) study 1 plus mini-meta-analyses across similar studies. Forthcoming in Psychological Science. https://psyarxiv.com/vqyw6/

During the COVID-19 pandemic, computers and education have become completely intertwined. Many students are receiving education through hybrid courses or entirely online. In this way, the question of whether students should use laptops in the classroom may feel somewhat antiquated, but once this pandemic ends, and courses return to in-person delivery, the issue of technology use will continue to be of interest to students and teachers once more.

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org

The Initial Study: Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014)

In 2014, Drs. Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, then of Princeton and UCLA, respectively, published a study finding that laptops were worse for notetaking than writing notes by hand while watching a video lecture (specifically, a TED Talk). They assigned half the participants to take notes longhand and the other half to take notes with a laptop. They found that students in the laptop note taking condition were much more likely to copy down the video lectures verbatim and that they performed worse on recalling the conceptual knowledge conveyed in the lectures. Thus, it seemed that the very act of taking notes on a laptop reduces one’s memory for the content being learned.   

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study has been cited over 1,000 times in the last seven years and the results were shared widely in popular news media as a reason to stop using laptops to take notes in class. I remember that in the aftermath of this study, many of my own undergraduate psychology professors disallowed or limited laptop use in their classrooms in an effort to boost student learning.

The Replication Studies: Urry et al. (2020)

However, in the intervening years, the story around laptop usage in classrooms has become more complicated. Dr. Heather Urry, in collaboration with a team of undergraduate and graduate students, conducted a replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study, as well as a meta-analysis of related studies.

A replication study attempts to mimic the conditions of an earlier study as closely as possible in order to see if the same results will be found. In science, any experiment with human participants will have a lot of noise in it. You don’t need to be a social scientist to know that humans vary quite a bit from person to person and they don’t ever behave exactly the same way, even if they’re in the exact same situation! The very nature of random noise means that every once in a while researchers will find results that seem important and striking, even if the effect is not ‘real’ and there is truly nothing going on (i.e., the findings were solely due to random noise). 

“Revamping the course to make room for this replication project and working on it with the grad and undergrad students was a) completely exhausting, and b) completely fulfilling. It rejuvenated my sense of purpose and a concrete way to enact the old adage, “Think globally, act locally”. I want to advance the field of psychological science (that’s thinking globally) and I can do that by teaching the students in my one class at one university how to do and disseminate rigorous, transparent research (that’s acting locally).”

Dr. Urry in an email; cogbites

Psychological researchers and other social scientists are continuously developing new methods of increasing research transparency and making sure that we do not place too much importance on any one statistical result. Replication studies are an important way to examine whether an earlier study was a statistical fluke or if the results are robust. 

By mimicking the earlier study closely, scientists can be more confident that a difference in results is not primarily because they accidentally tested a slightly different hypothesis. For instance, Urry et al. used the exact same TED Talks that Mueller and Oppenheimer used. If they had chosen different TED Talks, it would be difficult to know if a failed replication was due to there actually being no effect, or whether, for instance, the different videos just lent themselves to different styles of note taking. 

That being said, as with any replication attempt, there were a couple of ways in which the replication did differ. For example, Urry et al. could not recruit the exact same participants. And even if they could, the participants would not be exactly the same as they were seven years ago1.

Now that we know what they did, what did they find? 

Urry et al. found that unlike Mueller and Oppenheimer’s earlier study, there was no significant negative effect of laptop use on memory for the lecture. In other words, neither note-taking condition led to substantially better or worse recall than the other. They did, however, replicate Mueller and Oppenheimer’s finding that laptop note-takers write substantially more in their notes. So, while laptop notes may be more verbose than longhand notes, they don’t appear to be more or less helpful to one’s memory. 

They also looked at several other studies using similar methods and conducted a meta-analysis, which is essentially a statistically sound way of averaging across similar studies. In this case, Urry and her colleagues used meta-analysis to get a better estimate of the effects of laptop use on students’ memory. Across eight total studies of this phenomenon using similar methods, again Urry et al. found support for Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusion that laptop use results in more verbatim notes. Critically, they did not find support for the idea that laptop note taking impairs encoding of the lectures into memory.

Even the Current Replications Won’t be the Last Word

At this point, you may be thinking, “I guess it  doesn’t matter whether you use laptop or longhand notetaking in class.” As with most apparent results in social science and as Urry and colleagues acknowledge in their limitations section, no one study can provide all of the answers. As such, there are couple of key points they note to mention before teachers or students start changing their classroom behavior.

First, the studies I have described here did not account for any distraction effects. Students were not using these laptops in a natural way; they weren’t online shopping, playing solitaire, or scrolling through social media. They were only using the laptops to take notes. 

Additionally, students were not using these notes to study for an exam. It has long been known that reviewing notes is one of the most important functions of note taking. Some research has actually found that reviewing is the most beneficial aspect of note taking and that the actual act of taking notes does not imbue as much benefit (Carter & Van Matre, 1975; Fisher & Harris, 1973). In more realistic situations, it may be more beneficial to have more verbatim notes, because these could be better resources for exam studying. (This is just my personal hypothesis; more research is needed to know how verbatim note taking relates to studying efficacy.)

What’s more, in terms of the lecture content the students were exposed to, TED Talks are not exactly a one-to-one comparison to normal lecture content, which may be more focused on purely factual material, and not, for example, personal narratives. Lectures tend to be responsive to learners’ needs, such as stopping for questions, and re-explaining content that is complex. Prerecorded TED Talks do not allow for such adjustments.

For these reasons, making prescriptive recommendations regarding note taking with or without laptops in the classroom based on these findings alone may be a mistake.

Other findings suggest that laptops have detrimental effects on learning when students are liable to engage in distracting online material. More realistic studies of in-class behavior, such as Sana et al. (2013), have found that laptop usage results in worse performance for the students using the laptops. Perhaps just as importantly, it seems that when a student uses a laptop in the classroom, their neighboring students are also negatively affected, as they too can be distracted by what’s on that student’s laptop.

Laptop use in the classroom may also involve issues of accessibility that should be handled with care. Some students with learning accommodations may need to use laptops if they cannot adequately take notes longhand and teachers should be cognizant not to single out any one student for their choice of how to take notes. 

As such, the issue of whether students should use laptops is a complicated one, and there may not even be one “right” scientific answer to this question. Nevertheless, as the research in this domain progresses, we can be more certain where and when low-tech note-taking strategies, such as writing by hand, may be preferable to taking notes digitally. Students and teachers must take the evidence that social scientists produce and decide what they value and what works for their classroom. 

Footnote:

1 I highly recommend reading the Urry et al. paper and looking at their section “Deviations from the Original Method” for more information about how the study differed from the original, to see if you agree with the authors’ reasoning about the validity of their replication attempt. I, for one, think they did a pretty good job of replicating the original conditions as closely as possible.

Additional References:

Carter, J. F., & Van Matre, N. H. (1975). Note taking versus note having. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67(6), 900–904. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.67.6.900

Fisher, J. L., & Harris, M. B. (1973). Effect of note taking and review on recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 65(3), 321–325. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0035640

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003