student laptop
Steve Helber/AP

Students Using Laptops in Class Do Worse on Tests

September 29, 2010 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Diane Sieber, a University of Colorado professor, found that students who use laptops in class average 11 percent worse on tests than their peers.

Laptop Use Distracts Students, Annoys Teachers, Affects Learning

According to the 2008 Campus Computing Survey, more than two-thirds of college classrooms have wireless access; for private universities that number is more than 75 percent of classrooms. Wireless access means that teachers can use the Internet for in-class activities, but it also means that students with laptops can surf the Web during class.

In-class Web activities, such as instant messaging, online shopping and browsing social networking sites, distract the student and their peers from the lesson at hand. It’s also a nuisance for teachers. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some law schools, including Florida International, Georgetown and Harvard, have created laptop-free zones to help keep students on task.
But some schools don’t feel it is necessary to ban laptop use, and prefer to let students regulate themselves. One professor, Diane Sieber of the University of Colorado at Boulder, lets her classroom govern itself using “social contracts.” She expects students to tell each other when computer use is distracting.

She also employs another method to encourage focus during class time. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, Sieber kept track of the students who regularly used their laptops in class and found that those students performed an average of 11 percent lower on the first test than their peers. After sharing this information with the class, many of Sieber’s laptop users put away their computers and saw their test scores improve.

Sieber told the Daily Camera, “These are grown-ups. They need to identify what keeps them from learning, and then act on it.”

Related Topic: Multitasking diminishes performance

When commenting on laptop use in class, Colorado University Law Professor Phil Weiser told the Daily Camera, “The mind doesn’t do anything effectively when it’s being pulled in different directions.”

A study by the University of Michigan supports Weiser’s claim. The study found that switching between tasks actually took up more time than just doing the tasks separately. Other reports have found that multitasking increases stress and the likelihood of dangerous accidents.

While college students may be able to regulate their computer use based on consequences, it seems that young students have difficulty balancing the entertainment value of the Internet with its educational opportunities. 

Although computer use for young students with parental guidance can improve performance, it was found that low-income students in Romania who were given laptops performed worse than their peers without laptops. The reason was thought to be that the computers were more distracting than helpful to the students. 

Computer use may have other effects on young learners; a 2008 Pew study found that two thirds of teenagers used Internet slang such as emoticons in their schoolwork.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines