Why many educators ban laptops from class

Over the past couple of years, a number of articles have been published in The Peak discussing the pros and cons of students using laptops in classes, including one earlier this fall titled “Don’t ban my laptop from class.” As a postdoctoral fellow and aspiring educator, I understand why many educators don’t allow laptops in lectures – that being, you learn better if you handwrite. Plain and simple.

A recent study found that students who handwrite notes in lecture retain more information, understand the material better, perform better on exams and enjoy their classes more than their keyboarding peers. During lecture, skilled note-takers filter out the important information and reframe it in their own words.

Handwriting forces movement. Your hand moves differently to form letters than it does when you are typing. For many, movement helps memory. My guess is that what you remember best about your day, your weekend or weeks gone by was the doing, the activity, or the engagement. Taking an active role in learning has been my core belief both as a student and as an educator.

Back in my days as an undergraduate I found immense value in my active, handwritten note taking. Not only did I quickly learn my own shorthand, but I also learned to embellish the important points with stories and examples that resonated with me. One of the biology educators I had as an undergrad was able to turn mundane facts about life cycles into shocking stories with pictures and activities that kept me captivated and interested throughout his courses.

In a survey I designed prior to writing this response, I discovered that, like most university educators, this educator has learners who spend their time online, distracted rather than immersing themselves in his lectures. This is not new. I’ve taken some pretty boring courses; I’ve seen students sleeping in class or reading a novel — rude, but only self-impeding — not a distraction to students around them (40 per cent of students surveyed said they get distracted by other people using laptops in lecture).

I quickly learned my own shorthand, and to embellish the important points with examples that resonated with me.

In my opinion, laptops are too passive for note-taking and the Internet is too alluring (14 per cent of students I surveyed agree, and 54 per cent said they go online or work on other projects if the lecture is slow or boring), thus laptops (and other digital devices) may prevent students from learning.

I’m not alone in this opinion. The majority of the educators and students I surveyed agree that laptops are both distracting and poor learning tools. One educator commented that “laptops are ‘black holes’ for student attention.” Another wrote: “I actively discourage the use of laptops. I tell [students] about the studies linking note taking to retention and understanding, and impress upon them that the screen is for when I am not there. [. . .] They have to engage with me and the material, not a screen.”

However, both of these educators, like the vast majority of their peers, allow laptops in lectures.

As the world becomes more digitized, educators are learning to incorporate digital devices into their teaching. A second survey I conducted of elementary, middle, and high school teachers revealed that while most educators only allow students to use devices to listen to music up until grade six, others have started incorporating tablets into lessons at grade two.

What will this mean for our ‘modern’ quality of learning? Will we become better learners or more stagnant? The benefits of learning by active handwriting outweigh the convenience and distractions of typing. But is it my right, as an educator, to determine whether or not your style or ability to learn conforms to the majority? Clearly, more studies need to be done in order to determine how benefits of traditional learning can be incorporated into a digital style of learning.