Beyond the Laptop Debate

Teaching students about learning.


March 9, 2015

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Carol Holstead reported on her experiences banning laptops in her journalism course: “Although I am an engaging lecturer, I could not compete with Facebook and YouTube, and I was tired of trying.”

She discussed the negative consequences of laptop note-taking based on her experience and intuition on what behaviors lead to effective learning (engagement with the lecture and selective note-taking).

One reader echoed my own reaction best when he or she commented, “Bottom line. [Undergraduate] Students are adults.” Optimizing student learning (or more broadly, any behavioral change) can come from either an external force (like an instructor) and/or from an internal motivation or desire to change, and the latter is better.

As instructors, we ought to teach students about the science of learning. We also might want to acknowledge that effective self-regulation requires students to make their own decisions about what works for them (e.g., taking notes on a laptop, longhand, or not at all).

We all want students to use effective learning strategies and behaviors. What happens, though, when we force students to do so?

By banning laptops in her course, Dr. Holstead took that choice away from her students. In my conversations with faculty at Harvard University and elsewhere, she is not alone. More and more instructors are banning laptops in their courses.

I don’t mean to say that the policy is wrong – there is a growing body of research on the detrimental impact of laptops on learning (multitasking, tendency to transcribe content verbatim, potential source of distraction for other students). However, few works have documented the impact of laptop note-taking on a course-wide level. Those that have suggest the effects are a bit more complicated to interpret.

During the spring 2014 semester, my collaborators and I surveyed students in two large general education courses on their note-taking habits. Linking survey responses with course grades and institutional data for those students, we discovered that students who reported taking notes on a laptop had lower GPAs than those taking longhand notes.

Interestingly, we also found longhand note-takers in the first course had final course grades that were 3% higher than laptop note-takers (the difference between a B and a B+), yet we found no statistical difference between note-takers in the second course.

The difference could be attributed to a variety of factors – interactions between students enrolled in either course, note-taking preferences, course-specific factors – but most salient to me were differences in assessments across in the two courses. Namely, grades in the first course were based on two multiple-choice exams, while grades in the second course were based on two submitted papers.

Like the findings from the Mueller and Oppenheimer study in Psychological Science, it may also be the case that first course’s exams required more conceptual thinking or applied knowledge (as opposed to factual recall). Given the time-constraints on in-class examinations relative to the self-paced nature of written papers, differences between note-taking preferences may have been more apparent in the first course than the second.

We do not know the specifics of Dr. Holstead’s journalism course, but the differences she found may be attributable to other factors, such as the assessments used in the course.

Going beyond the laptop versus longhand question, there are several points I recommend for students and instructors to try based on a review of the note-taking literature. This is still a work in progress, but the main points are:

For students...

  • Avoid transcribing notes (writing every word the instructor says) in favor of writing notes in your own words.
  • Review your notes the same day you created them and then on a regular basis, rather than cramming review into one long study session immediately prior to an exam.
  • Test yourself on the content of your notes either by using flashcards or using methodology from Cornell Notes. Testing yourself helps you identify what you do not yet know from your notes, and successful retrieval of tested information improves your ability to recall that information later (you will be less likely to forget it).
  • Carefully consider whether to take notes on pen and paper or with a laptop. There are costs and benefits to either option.
  • We are often misled to believe that we know lecture content better than we actually do, which can lead to poor study decisions. Avoid this misperception at all costs!

For instructors...

  • Explain your course policies regarding note-taking at the start of the semester (Do you allow laptops? Do you provide slides to students before or after class?). Point to the literature/research and your own experience to support your policies. 
  • Prior to lecture, provide students with materials so that they become familiar with main ideas or topics. This will help students identify the important concepts during class and take selective notes (however, avoid giving students so much material that they elect poor study behaviors such as relying on materials instead of attending class and taking notes). 
  • Encourage students to take notes in their own words rather than record every word you say in class. Doing so will lead to deeper understanding during lecture, more student engagement in class, and better retention of course content.
  • Make connections between current and previously discussed course concepts, and encourage students to make such connections on their own. Doing so will help students retrieve related ideas when they are needed (i.e., during an exam) and assist your students in identifying relationships they would have otherwise missed.

Ultimately, Dr. Holstead’s article raises an important point beyond the laptop debate: do we want to impose specific policies on students to optimize their learning and long-term retention, or do we want students to optimize their learning by showing them the evidence and letting them figure out what works best for them? Even if students make the wrong choices, they may be more motivated learners if they have the autonomy to decide for themselves.

It is also possible that while students may learn more in courses with optimal learning policies, they may not appreciate the impact on their learning (and likely give lower ratings on their course evaluations). Additionally, it is unlikely that policies imposed on students within a single class would be incorporated into that student’s study habits in subsequent courses or future learning.

Within Dr. Holstead’s course survey, one student expressed such a frustration: “I couldn’t get everything down! I can’t write as fast as I can type!” This particular student may very well have benefitted from handwriting notes, but is unlikely to change his or her note-taking habits in future courses.

In a Harvard Initiative in Learning and Teach (HILT)-sponsored presentation by UCLA cognitive psychologist Dr. Robert Bjork, he concluded his talk by discussing the merits of designing a course that would optimize student learning versus designing a course that optimizes course ratings.

Even if the courses covered identical content, their end products would look vastly different. What I am trying to convey is that instructors can design courses that get good ratings and still have optimal learning, but the latter needs to be driven by the students themselves rather than the instructor.

We can expose students to effective and empirically supported study strategies and behaviors such as the research on note-taking, but it is up to the students to incorporate those behaviors into their own habits.

If students go against or ignore those recommendations and their achievement suffers for it, then that feedback can motivate students to change their behaviors and figure out what works for them – an important facet of a college education.

In the current landscape where blended and online courses are becoming increasingly common, the need for students to self-regulate and optimize their own learning is now more important than ever.

Michael Friedman is a research fellow at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching (HILT) and a member of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) at Harvard University. 


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