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When faculty members at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point took away students’ computers and tablets in an introductory economics courses, their students' grades jumped.

The study of those faculty members' findings, published this month by the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that male students and students with high grade point averages at the beginning of their college careers are most susceptible to their grades suffering from device-induced distraction.

Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg and Michael Walker, three faculty members in economics at West Point, last year separated students in the course into three sections to determine the effect Internet-connected devices have on academic performance. One section was strictly technology-free, while a second allowed students to use laptops and tablets (though professors were free to discipline “blatantly distracted” students). A third section struck a compromise, allowing students to use tablets as long as the devices lay flat on the desk so that professors could see what was on the screen. The study does not address cell phone use.

The different formats had a marked effect on device use. Students in the third section, which the researchers created to mimic an ideal example of how devices should be used in the classroom, used tablets much less frequently than those in the technology-filled classroom. While 80 percent of the students in that section said they used a device at some point during the semester, only 41 percent in the tablet-only class did.

However, the percentage of students who brought their laptops and tablets to class didn’t make a difference in their sections' academic performance. On a computer-based final exam, students in the sections that allowed some form of device use scored 18 percent of a standard deviation lower than students in the section where devices were banned. On a test with a maximum score of 100, that means the students who used computers and tablets in the classroom -- even specifically for class purposes -- scored 1.7 points lower than students who didn’t.

“By way of comparison, this effect is as large as the average difference in exam scores for two students whose cumulative GPAs at the start of the semester differ by one-third of a standard deviation,” the report said.

On a final exam that accounted for 25 percent of students’ grade in the class, such a difference can tip a score from pass to fail. And in the case of the West Point students, failing the final exam could mean failing the entire class.

The findings carry implications for higher education broadly. By some measures, the use of devices in the classroom is on the rise, and while the occasional study has found beneficial uses, there is plenty of literature that argues the contrary.

The report presents a handful of potential reasons why using a device in the classroom might lead to lower grades. It could be that digital note taking isn’t as effective as writing by hand, which other studies have sought to explore. Perhaps professors change the way they teach courses when laptops and tablets are introduced to their classrooms. Or it could just have something to do with the endless distractions that are available to students online.

“We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, Facebook, Twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers,” the report reads. “Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.”

The co-authors were open about the study’s limitations. West Point, after all, is obviously not the picture of an average college. It attracts students interested in pursuing a career as a military officer, has a gender gap of about 60 percentage points and tends to enroll fewer students with minority backgrounds. Academically, however, West Point students compare somewhat to students at selective, smaller four-year institutions and liberal arts colleges.

“Although many aspects of West Point differ from typical four-year undergraduate institutions, there are many reasons to believe that permitting computers in traditional lecture-style classrooms could have even more harmful effects than those found in this study,” the report reads. “Students at West Point are highly incentivized to earn high marks, professors are expected to interact with their students during every lesson and class sizes are small enough that it is difficult for students to be completely distracted by their computer without the professor noticing.”

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