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Ban Devices in Classrooms

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Computers and Lecture

I routinely ban laptops in the classroom because the majority of the students aren’t going to pay attention to the lecture if they have the option to upload photos to Snapchat. I know this to be true, as if I have to attend a boring and pointless campus meeting, I am probably going to be on Twitter or reading the Times or something so that I don’t have to pay attention. But in the classroom, that option then undermines learning.

Now there is an answer, thanks to a big, new experiment from economists at West Point, who randomly banned computers from some sections of a popular economics course this past year at the military academy. One-third of the sections could use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture; one-third could use tablets, but only to look at class materials; and one-third were prohibited from using any technology.

Unsurprisingly, the students who were allowed to use laptops — and 80 percent of them did — scored worse on the final exam. What’s interesting is that the smartest students seemed to be harmed the most.

Among students with high ACT scores, those in the laptop-friendly sections performed significantly worse than their counterparts in the no-technology sections. In contrast, there wasn’t much of a difference between students with low ACT scores — those who were allowed to use laptops did just as well as those who couldn’t. (The same pattern held true when researchers looked at students with high and low GPAs.)

These results are a bit strange. We might have expected the smartest students to have used their laptops prudently. Instead, they became technology’s biggest victims. Perhaps hubris played a role. The smarter students may have overestimated their ability to multitask. Or the top students might have had the most to gain by paying attention in class.

Of course this is just one study and I don’t really know why the smartest students would flop the most. Perhaps an overconfidence in their own abilities. But there’s no question that playing on devices in class means students aren’t learning as much. The phone issue is much harder to police, but what can you do.

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  • On this I agree 100%. Devices are a distraction, and should be banned from the classroom.

    • CP Norris

      If we could only ban devices from the GOOD classes, I would agree. But there are plenty of classes where not paying attention doesn’t make much of a difference much of the time. In my day we didn’t have smartphones or Wifi, but the campus newspaper sure had a crossword.

      • vic rattlehead

        Those were the types of classes I skipped.

        • Lost Left Coaster

          Exactly. If there is no need to pay attention, then no need to attend — I’ve never seen a large lecture that had mandatory attendance.

    • Buckeye623

      Students regularly overestimate the speed of their ability to learn – and don’t understand/appreciate the mechanism by which they actually assimilate new information.

      I have to hear it in lecture, go through the process of writing it down while hearing it in that lecture [Lecture notes! The horror!], read those notes later, rewrite the notes for myself again, and complete a problem set… before anything actually is solid.

      This appears tedious to me even as I type it, but it got me a M.Eng.. I don’t think I’m that unusual.

      Mere possession of a tablet doesn’t get the knowledge into the brain matter..

    • Brett

      No disagreement here. I stopped bringing my laptop to classes back when I was in college because it was too distracting to have it out. Writing out notes on paper forces you to listen more.

  • Colin Day

    It may depend on the class. I have taught statistics and encouraged my students to use their laptops.

    • No doubt there are cases where that can be useful, but you have assume they are paying absolutely no attention to you at all except when you ask them to use their laptops for the problems.

      • Colin Day

        The classes I had were small enough to check on individual students. I don’t know if it work for a large lecture class.

  • Pyramid Scheme

    It’s a good thing school districts everywhere spent billions in IPads then!!

    • nadirehsa

      This study doesn’t really transfer to K-12. No K-12 teacher would just allow a student to sit there on a device and obviously ignore the class; we check periodically to make sure they’re on task, and they don’t use the devices if they’re not needed for the activity. College is obviously a different story. Few college professors are going to be checking up on the students, because they’re supposed to be adults. Or semi-adults, anyway.

      • Shantanu Saha

        Also, in my school students mostly use school computers. As the tech teacher, I have full control of school computers in my classroom (and I largely disallow students to bring in their own computers). When students are working, I usually circulate around making sure they are doing their work, or have the screens up on my laptop monitoring them. When I am lecturing, though, I do tell them to close the laptops so that they can listen to me.

  • Robert M.

    As a sometime ed researcher, I’d also be interested in replicating the study with controls for the quality of teaching.

    Personally, my use of devices in the classroom (as a grad student; I missed the laptop revolution as an undergrad by about two years) was almost always related to the course material–refreshing myself on the simplifying rule the instructor briefly waved his hands at before proceeding, pulling up a relevant study and saving it for later review, etc.

    On the other hand, I was once working with an observation protocol designed to look at exactly this issue in a large undergraduate lecture classroom. There were three of us, each standing at the back of the auditorium and counting visible devices and attempting to broadly identify the content. It was March, and Facebook and sports news sites accounted for almost every device and about 60% of all students.

    • addicted44

      refreshing myself on the simplifying rule the instructor briefly waved his hands at before proceeding

      Or alternatively, you could do what would happen in my non-laptopclasses (this was pre-smartphone days) where someone would raise their hand asking the professor to explain what they hand waved away, and instead of just 1 student learning, the vast majority of the class understood th rest of the lecture better (because if you didn’t understand something, invariably at least half the class didn’t understand it either).

      • Robert M.

        I’m not as sanguine as you are that interrupting the flow of the instructor’s thinking is a better outcome than reviewing quietly on my own.

        • Lost Left Coaster

          Depends on the class, of course. Hopefully professors set clear expectations at the beginning of the term regarding when students should / shouldn’t ask questions during lecture.

    • CD

      Facebook and sports news sites accounted for almost every device and about 60% of all students.

      That’s been my experience doing course observations as well.

      It would not be so bad if they were just reading one site. But people who are bored surf, look at videos, play games. And that means that in the field of view of anyone behind them are these distracting flickering images.

      • Robert M.

        That was one of my frequent notes: it was distracting for me to have moving, flickering images in my peripheral vision, and all I was doing was trying to count.

  • Jhoosier

    Oddly enough, I was at a professional development lecture today and spent most of the time in a group chat about game of thrones and/or looking up online rubric-creating tools (which was the topic of the talk).

    Our university requires students to have an iPad, and much of my material requires some sort of internet-capable device so students can access the class Drive folder where I put the daily handouts, or do research online. None of my classes (English as a Foreign Language) have more than 22 students though, and they’re almost always doing pair/groupwork, so time for texting is limited.

    That said, I allow them to friend me on facebook, and have caught students posting status updates during class.

  • MPAVictoria

    I am of two minds on this. I was an early adopter of laptops and always brought them to class during my undergrad and graduate years (2002-2008). As I have horrible handwriting they did increase the quality of my notes and made review for exams much easier. However, as wireless internet became more common on campus, I did find myself mindlessly surfing Fark and political blogs (remember this was way back in the early 2000s) rather than paying attention.

    Perhaps some sort of dumb device with just a word processor and no internet access? That may have been the correct answer for me at least.

    • BigHank53

      Chromebooks with either no wi-fi or a bottlenecked server that only delivers course content. (This is how a lot of primary schools use laptops in the classroom.) Of course some clever boots will activate his/her phone as a hotspot, but that’s easy to detect.

    • Yeah, that would be fine if you could shut off internet access in the classroom. Of course, that’s the opposite of what college administrations are pushing.

      • MPAVictoria

        Yep. I remember in my final year pretty much every student had a laptop in class, every class had w/l internet and we all spent at least part of the time goofing off.

      • sam

        As someone who went to law school in the 90s (we were almost all still on dial-up back then, forget about wifi!) but who routinely typed my notes on a laptop, I agree that I wish there was a compromise these days.

        I was a terrible handwritten note-taker. being a lefty, the desks were almost never oriented to fit my left-handed-ness, particularly in the wonky way that I learned to write so that I didn’t end up with giant ink smudges down the side of my hand/arm. But I can basically type 70-80 WPM, particularly if I’m not that concerned about spelling/grammar up front.

        Back then, there were about 3 of us in my section who typed in class. We were the weirdos. And I had to sit in a specific spot along the wall where the one outlet was because my battery wouldn’t last through class. and the halls weren’t even set up to have outlets at the desks.

    • addicted44

      It would be nice if professors were required to pass notes for the class ahead of time.

      It’s easier to annotate pre-existing notes, less effort, and allows you to focus on the lecture, and the parts you don’t understand.

      • Murc

        My understanding is that being handed notes is far, far less effective for most (not all, but most) people than composing your own. Indeed, I knew a lot of people who were completely helpless if they didn’t take notes, but almost never needed to actually refer to them, because the mere act of note-taking caused the information to burn in.

        • Emily68

          Yes. You have to pay attention to take notes. I went to college way back when the only devices we had were notebooks and pens. I figured if the information went in my ear and out of my hand, it had to go through my brain and that was going to come in handy at exam time.

      • MPAVictoria

        I always appreciated when profs sent out decks of their presentations before hand.

      • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

        People love to bag on PowerPoint, but I use it in my lectures for exactly this reason. And students seem to like it.

        • Bill Murray

          see I find that many undergraduate students don’t really use them very well and don’t really pay attention when they are used. They do like them because it means they don’t really have to do as much

          • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

            I have a student version and a class version of my PowerPoint. The student version has lots of blanks and lots of unanswered questions. They have to pay attention for it to be any good.

            • MPAVictoria

              Very good idea that

            • Philip

              A few of my professors in undergrad also did this, especially in early-morning classes, and it helped a lot.

            • dmuskett

              I can’t recall the source, but I remember hearing of at least one study that showed this was the worst way to use powerpoint. Students aren’t paying attention and trying to learn the material – they are simply looking for the missing pieces of information. Rather than engaging with the material as a whole, they filter out anything that isn’t necessary to help fill in the blanks.

              • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

                I can’t recall the source, but I remember hearing of at least one study that showed this was the worst way to use powerpoint.

                Oh God how I hope that’s not true. I mean, the only sense of dignity I still have is based on the idea that I am imparting knowledge. If I am attempting to do so in the worst way, that is indeed troubling.

      • Buckeye623

        The act of writing down the words spoken by the prof is a key part of “Read And Write” learning. Yes, it’s always good to have a backup to ensure you don’t miss something – but the feedback of your brain processing what you watch yourself write down for your own notes is, in fact, a thing.

        Other styles are auditory learning and visual learning.

        But most people don’t fit perfectly into any one “style.”

        • Ronan

          That’s interesting. I rarely took notes in humanities/social science courses . I couldn’t concentrate on both listening attentively and writing decent notes. I might have jotted down important topics the instructor emphasised, but that was about it.

          • Students who don’t take notes in my courses, even students who are engaged with the material, really don’t do well.

            • Ronan

              What is it you’re implying, professor loomis ; )
              Retrospectively i think my learning methods might have been “sub optimal” (as they say) I might have wasted a lot of time re learning the material. I did okay though.
              Might be worth checking out other methods of learning though as I’m possibly going back to university for a course soon

            • CD

              yep.

              It actually doesn’t matter that much if the notes are legible afterwards. What matters is that you are doing the work in real time of making a written/graphical version of what you are hearing/seeing. That means you have to process material rather than just nodding along.

              Practices vary, but my notes are never stenography. They’re words plus diagrams, little arguments, arrows drawn looping back to earlier points, questions.

              • sonamib

                What matters is that you are doing the work in real time of making a written/graphical version of what you are hearing/seeing. That means you have to process material rather than just nodding along.

                Yes, you’re reinterpreting the material in your own words (or graphics or whatever) in a way that’s understandable to you. And you can identify in real time what parts of the course material you don’t actually understand, because you’ll struggle to write the corresponding notes.

                • CHD

                  Right. Actually, I didn’t actually use my notes all that much once I’d taken them. And I actually tended to remember topics by where on the page of notes they were – I guess that’s a pretty clear indication that I’m a visual thinker (presumably common for a mechanical engineer)

      • Woodrowfan

        then they just look at the notes, then look at me, repeat, repeat, repeat. Most never write anything down if I pass out material before class. I make them available after class.

        I should note that my Powerpoints (gasp!) are only a rough outline. they are there to keep me on track and to help the students follow along. They are NOT sufficient to be notes.

        • ASV

          When I used to make slides available, I had not only this problem, but also a noticeable chunk of students who decided they didn’t need to come to class at all because they had “the notes.”

        • sonamib

          I should note that my Powerpoints (gasp!) are only a rough outline. they are there to keep me on track and to help the students follow along.

          THANK YOU.

          Seriously, there are a lot of professors out there who don’t know what a power point is for. They try to make it work both as a support for a presentation and as lecture notes. So we would get power points which failed at both purposes, composed almost entirely of unreadable walls of text.

      • wjts

        It’s not the teacher’s job to take notes for students any more than it is to write papers or take exams for them.

        • sonamib

          Huh. I didn’t know it was so unusual for lecture notes to be available. When I was an undergrad, there were only a few teachers who did not provide their own syllabus. It’s really useful for when, you know, you’re ill and have to skip a class.

          But I did take my own notes when I could, even if there were “official” lecture notes. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to assimilate what was being taught.

        • Philip

          If they’re going to cram 25 equations in a 50 minute lecture, they can give me notes so I can make sure I didn’t mis-transcribe a couple greek letters.

      • elm

        I provide an outline of my lectures, usually the day before the lecture. (I also project the outline on screen during the lecture.). The outlines are fairly bare bones and are mostly there to show them (and me) the structure of the lecture with the intent that they would take notes by filling in the outline during the lecture.

        The percentage of students who don’t look at the outline before the lecture (or, for that matter, ever) is surprising. At least half the class seem to have never seen the outline before when I put it up on the screen.

        • CD

          I put up a rough outline of what the class will do, sometimes with a little bit of detail, to help students who zone out for a moment figure out where we are.

          And lately, sometimes, I’ve started putting up my own scaffolding notes on the board too — the guiding phrases that tell me what points I want to make. That I think does no harm. Often I’m reconfiguring what I’m saying on the fly depending on what has come out of student discussion and other classroom exercises, so putting up a little outline and then doing it seems to work.

  • TribalistMeathead

    The professor of one of my MBA classes (I ended up withdrawing from his section and enrolling in another for unrelated reasons) forbade the use of technology in class for non-academic purposes. I don’t recall if he backed it up by punishing students who did so (other than taking points off the participation portion of their grade), but policing graduate students seemed a bit much.

    Mostly I’m relieved I got my undergrad degree before tablet computers were commonplace and it was cost-effective to own a laptop, although being able to rent textbooks from Amazon would’ve been easier on my wallet back then.

  • LGMPoster

    Very simple answer – the “smartest” students did worse than the “average” students because they are bored and the laptops were too tempting of a distraction. “Smart” students like challenges and lectures are only slightly more stimulating than busy work.

    • TribalistMeathead

      “Smart” students like challenges and lectures are only slightly more stimulating than busy work.

      Ah yes, the short answer to the question “Why TribalistMeathead’s ADD wasn’t diagnosed until he was 36 years old.”

    • timb

      Of course that’s the answer.

      I have the unique (here) perspective of going to undergrad from 1988-1991 and not returning to law school until 2005. My laptop was in hindsight a hindrance. Once I understood the point, while the prof went over and over it with the others, I would wander off. By the time I was paying attention again, they had often switched subjects. BUT, I had done similar things in my undergrad years, reading ahead in the textbook or another book or daydreaming.

      When it came time to pass the bar, I just wrote and re-wrote the notes into an entire notebook so I could memorize things and only used the laptop to do practice tests.

      So, I would like to enthusiastically endorse the idea that smart kids are the ones whose attention wanders

    • guthrie

      I have a different hypothesis – the smart ones know they are smart, so think they can fool around a bit and not pay so much attention and make it up later. Oddly enough, they can’t.

    • SJ

      The smart students did not do worse than average students; the smart students in the laptop class did worse than the smart students in the no laptop class. It should not be surprising that the technology affected smart students more than poorer students. Poor students are going to do poorly no matter what so the technology could make little difference; the smart students had a much larger range of potential outcomes so the technology had the possibility of having a significsant effect. That the authors of the study didn’t understand this basic principle calls into question their understanding of their own study.

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    The college I went to as an undergraduate didn’t require attendance at classes. (I intentionally selected a college with this practice.)

    My method was simple. I attended the first class or two. If the professor lectured from the book, I just showed up for the exam because I can read, and faster than someone can talk. And unfortunately, that’s what over half the classes were- someone reading from a book. What a waste of money those classes were.

    If students aren’t paying attention to a lecture, I’d say it’s probably one of two reasons: either the lecture isn’t worth paying attention to, or the student shouldn’t be in that class.

  • Murc

    I dunno. I mean… if your students want to goof off in class in ways that don’t impact the learning of others, trying to police them seems like a lot of effort that’s going to make both teachers and students significantly less happy.

    It makes sense for minor children, but college students are grown-ass adults.

    Also too… one of my abortive attempts at undergrad was back in the very, very early aughts when a laptop was an expensive investment and wi-fi wasn’t at all common. This in no way, shape, or form incentivized me to pay attention in class; only I could do that for myself.

    What it did incentivize me to do was to bring a novel to lectures. This is functionally equivalent to being online in terms of grabbing your attention and my experience has been that college teachers are very reluctant to tell students “stop reading” even if that they’re reading is clearly genre trash. (They’re not at all reluctant to call on those students, tho.)

    • Bill Murray

      if your students want to goof off in class in ways that don’t impact the learning of others,

      but most current ways to goof off do impact the learning of others

      • Philip

        This’s the real problem. In a big lecture hall, a laptop near the front is really distracting

      • Katya

        Seconded. It can be really distracting to have the person next to you or any of the people in front of you watching a video, rapidly navigating through web pages or scrolling through a FB feed, etc. It is also distracting and frustrating to have the professor call on someone who has been paying zero attention to the lecture and so cannot answer even basic questions because they don’t know what the topic is.

    • CD

      If it’s straight lecture, you have a point – as long as there’s no distraction of others. But a lot of us have moved to shorter bursts of lecture, like ten or 15 minutes (partly because of research on student attention) interspersed with paired or group work on a specific question. And group work is really impaired if half the people in the group have not been tracking what’s going on.

  • MAJeff

    The phone issue is much harder to police, but what can you do.

    I’m looking for ways to get them using it to look up relevant information for class exercises. If they’re gonna use it, might as well make it productive.

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      The phone issue is much harder to police, but what can you do.

      Run a high-power spark-gap transmitter that disrupts radio transmissions in a 10km radius, of course.

      Technical problem? Technical solution! It’s not MY problem if you don’t like it.

      And before you whine about the FCC, those guys are so underfunded that they’ll get around to your case, hmmm… NEVER.

      • N__B

        Too complicated. Faraday-cage wallpaper and carpet in the classrooms.

    • CD

      Well, it’s pretty obvious, especially when under the desk — people who are not using phones don’t stare at their own crotches. I don’t always police that, but I do sometimes ask own-crotch-starers to put the phone away, and not just in their pocket but in their bag.

      edit — I see this point is taken up below!

  • Cash & Cable

    In additional to controlling for the quality of teaching, these studies should control for the amount of work students did outside the classroom. In law school, I had classes that did and did not permit laptops. I always did the reading (even as a 3L) but I quickly determined that a lot of the lectures didn’t add much value to what I was reading. So when I had a laptop in class, I would do other things. However, I had one professor for CivPro and Legislation who was a bona fide genius, and there was simply no way for me to keep up with him while screwing around on the laptop. So I paid attention, and I did pretty well in a very tough and competitive set of courses.

    • ASV

      Pedantry: Strictly speaking controls should not be necessary given true random assignment, but examining these as factors that might interact with technology availability would make sense.

  • Woodrowfan

    I am always amazed how students think we can’t see them trying to play on their phones (I ban most laptop use) in class. Seriously? Your hands are busy in your lap and you’re looking down and grinning. How do you think it looks from up here?

    thank God we didn’t have cell phones or laptops in the 70s or I would have flunked out my freshman year.

    • Murc

      According to my sister, what she would do, if the text was meaty enough, was open the book on her desk, push it forward a bit, and lay her phone flat in the gap between the book and the edge of the desk. Elbow goes on desk, head goes on hand, from below and to the front you look like you’re just a tired student who might be zoning out, but who is at least trying to read along.

      It’s not perfect, because you have to make the scrolly-scrolly movements with your free hand, but according to her it was pretty effective.

      • Woodrowfan

        in a BIG classroom it would be. In my smaller classes (max 35 students) not so much. If as student does it quickly and then goes back to their note-taking or paying attention to class I pretend not to see it. If they do it repeatedly I might also make a note on my attendance sheet to dock their grade accordingly. Don’t mistake “not saying anything” with “did not see” or “no consequences.”

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      I am always amazed how students think we can’t see them trying to play on their phones

      What I am even more amazed by is the fact that these students bother to show up at all. If all you are going to do is text friends, why waste everyone’s time?

      • Murc

        Possibility of a pop quiz, a vital handout, a lab period after class you will be embarrassed to turn up for if you weren’t at lecture, or a professor who rates attendance as a nontrivial portion of your grade and/or will automatically have you dropped if you miss too many classes.

        All good reasons to show up even if you aren’t going to pay close attention.

        • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

          I’m not a fan of the pop quiz. All of my handouts are posted on the class website. I don’t teach science, so no labs. And I (specifically for this purpose) don’t rate attendance as a nontrivial portion of students’ grades. Yet I still get douchebags?

    • Your hands are busy in your lap and you’re looking down and grinning. How do you think it looks from up here?

      IYKWIM.

    • Crusty

      Back in my day, if you’re hands were busy in your lap and you were grinning, you were probably jerking off.

      • TribalistMeathead

        Excellent name/post combo.

        • Crusty

          Thank you. I’m bowing and waving triumphantly right now.

  • georgekaplan

    Laptops are rubbish for class note-taking. Plaintext isn’t enough even in subjects not heavy in formulae and diagrams. There may be some small number of students who use them effectively but my guess is that most people who bash away on laptops during lectures are fooling themselves about how helpful they are.

    • Cash & Cable

      I didn’t think taking notes in Word was really helpful, but I liked OneNote.

    • Warren Terra

      That’s silly. Sure, diagrams can be helpful, but more often than not what you need is the ability to take down every important thing the lecturer says, preferably edited/paraphrased for efficiency and organized to some degree (I was taught to take very good lecture notes in outline format). Text is fine for that. Indeed, I find it a huge advantage to take notes in seminars on my phone; I’d be more efficient and take better notes on paper, but I always have my phone and my notes are synced to the cloud and are searchable, a tremendous advantage especially across years (which is relevant for seminars and meetings I attended, although I’d concede that searching notes across years is less useful for typical course notes).

  • No Longer Middle Aged Man

    Yes it’s a problem but I think bans are a bad practice. Back ~15 years ago I had the attitude that I was such a good teacher (winner of multiple teaching awards, some awarded by students, others by colleagues) that if students were playing on their notebooks rather than paying attention to what was going on in class, then I needed to rethink what was going on in class.

    That more or less worked up until around the advent of Facebook, at which point there would be a large % of students doing nothing but Facebook. I struggled, and would regularly call on students who weren’t paying attention to class, patiently repeating the question and sometimes even the background material that I’d just covered to give them a sense of the motivation for the question.

    I’ve now pretty much decided “screw it, if they can manage to keep up while they’re doing something else then good on them, if not then it’s their problem.” Grad students (I teach mostly working adult professionals who are attending school part time) in particular often rapidly check on things I say in class — when I give an estimate or say “I’m not sure but I think …” or “Good question, I have no idea …” — and come up with answers that either confirm (thank you) or contradict (Oh, damn) what I said. For the rest who are beavering away doing non-class-related stuff, I still call on them, and when they ask “please repeat the question” because they haven’t been paying attention I just call on another student. Some of them get really indignant about this and will come up and brace me about it after class. My response is that if they want to do other stuff instead of pay attention in class then that’s their choice, but that I’m not about to adjust the pace of class for them.

  • drwormphd

    My argument is that, now more than ever, classrooms need to be places where students learn how to concentrate and read deeply. Portable devices are not amenable to this. This idea is becoming very popular among high school teachers who, at least anecdotally, find students a lot more distracted these days. Bottom line is, concentration is a skill that needs to be taught in classrooms.

    The only worry I have about banning devices is that I have a lot of students who can’t afford textbooks and thus read stuff online. Next semester I may very well go back to an old-fashioned homemade course packet…

  • Matt McIrvin

    I’ve taken to not bringing my laptop to meetings if I can possibly get by without it. Often I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t have one. But I participate more if I don’t have it.

  • Matt McIrvin

    There’s a weird side effect of phone/tablet bans, which is that calculators as standalone devices (especially fancy graphing scientific calculators) have gradually dwindled to a weird specialized market catering only to students, often with ridiculously jacked-up prices compared to other computing devices of the same level of capability.

    But I guess we can live with it–in my secondary-school career I mostly got by with scientific calculators of a sort you can get at a drug store for under $20 now.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      fancy graphing scientific calculators

      Some day, when I am telling my own kids about the graphing calculator I got as a graduation gift, it will probably sound as old and weird as when my father tried to explain his slide rule to me.

      • TribalistMeathead

        “No, no, you don’t understand! You could use it to create graphs AND play Arkanoid!”

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        “You can have my slide rule when you pry it from my cold, dead, fingers…

        …and since it’s one of those circular ones included with Effects of Nuclear Weapons, that’s probably how it’ll happen, also, too.”

        • Colin Day

          Does it include the slide rule because EMP plays havoc with electronic calculators?

          • Matt McIrvin

            It’s from before electronic calculators, though there was a 1977 edition.

    • Lurker

      My Alma Mater had a simple rule: no graphics calculators in exams. From the entrance exam onwards, the only thing that was allowed was a scientific calculator, selected from a list of approved ones.

      I really liked it. You don’t need a graphic calculator for anything.

      • sonamib

        But they’re so cool! I loved to plot sin(1/x) and see the oscillations going crazy close to zero and I just kept zooming in and zooming in…

        • Lurker

          Me too, but that was in the senior high, where we used graphics calculators. TI-85 was the recommended model.

          • sonamib

            True, never used them at the university.

            And because I’m a young one, I used the TI-89. Very fancy.

            • Philip

              I was always jealous of the 89s, but my TI-84-Plus-Silver was pretty snazzy too

      • Matt McIrvin

        I had a very powerful HP-28S (and later a 48G) in college, which had graphing capabilities, and I even wrote a program to give the 28 the ability to make multi-screen scrolling graphs, and one to let the 48G make 3D plots (they built an almost identical facility into the next model)…

        but I don’t think I ever actually used its graphing capability for much. In high school I’d learned enough analytic geometry that I could usually visualize functions to greater fidelity than the graphing you could get on that chunky little LCD.

  • royko

    Of course this is just one study and I don’t really know why the smartest students would flop the most. Perhaps an overconfidence in their own abilities.

    Overconfidence would have done it for me. Even without laptops, I tended to overestimate my ability to pull it all together at the end. Usually I came out OK, but sometimes the results were disastrous.

  • leftwingfox

    I just wish there were more studies looking for alternatives to lectures.

    Lectures suck powerfully.

    • Murc

      The idea behind lectures is you’re supposed to ask questions and then engage in a dialogue.

      I mean… fundamentally, “here is the information we are trying to impart. If you don’t understand it, or want to discuss it further, it turns out the person imparting it to you is an actual expert in the field and would love to talk about it!” seems pretty sound, doesn’t it?

      • Crusty

        In a large lecture class in a theater style setting, it always seemed like the point was for the expert to impart the information and you to soak it in. Dialogue would take place in a smaller section, a smaller class altogether, or if necessary, office hours. Personally, I think fewer large lectures is the key.

        • leftwingfox

          It’s those theater-style lectures that I’m thinking about here.

          • NonyNony

            Large theater-style 300+ student lectures are a way for a university to steal money from students by making them think that the university is providing a service while actually giving the students next to nothing in return. This was true in the days before the internet and is even more true now that lectures can be recorded and viewed online – whatever value they once had is completely gone at this point.

            The true value of large lecture sections is in the associated lab or recitation section where actual dialogue about questions and answers can be performed. Generally by underpaid graduate students. So its hit or miss depending on whether the grad student is taking their role seriously or not.

            (Small lecture sections, OTOH, can be very beneficial for learning and get undervalued because they get conflated with large lecture sections designed to steal student tuition dollars. There’s something about having an expert go through the material, curating what’s important and what’s not and in an environment where you can ask direct follow-up questions that you can’t replicate with other teaching methods. But if you show up at a class and it’s a 300+ person lecture section with no recitation and no lab associated with it? Nearly worthless these days – might as well be a TED talk.)

            • guthrie

              There’s a reason that Oxbridge uses lots of tutorials – because interaction with the subject and an expert and indeed other learners is much better than in a lecture theatre. Unfortunately here in the UK the funding etc was pushed down the mass participation by lecture route in the 1980’s or so and has only gotten worse since.

    • ASV

      The alternative to lectures is spending more money on faculty.

      • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

        Or MOOCs and a bunch of adjuncts, sadly.

      • Charlie S

        The alternative to lectures usually assumes students have pre read some material so they can discuss it or do meaningful exercises using it. I’ve found that to be a bad assumption.

        • NonyNony

          If you’re willing to give them a quiz every day and grade it seriously, I’ve found that you can train them to prepare. But it does take far longer than you’d think to convince them that you’re really going to give them a quiz every day and that failing to prepare is going to seriously impact their grades. (Also your student evaluations will suffer because you’re doing something different from what other instructors are doing. Therefore your class is weird and you are cruel – even if they do end up learning more in your class than they otherwise might.)

    • Warren Terra

      Lectures suck powerfully.

      Bad lectures suck. Maybe even most lectures suck. But: great lectures are awesome. There are some people who can give great lectures for an entire semester’s material, and it’s worth taking their class even if it’s utterly irrelevant to your major. There are a lot of people who can give a week’s great lectures on their own particular topic.

      Lectures might be a bad teaching format, if the skill to do a really good lecture, and especially a semester of them, is too rare. But that’s not the same thing as saying lectures suck.

  • Crusty

    Some random thoughts-

    With college students, why would we tell them what to do? They’re paying, and the education is there if they would like to be educated. Shouldn’t they be learning to take responsibility for their own life, i.e., make the decision not to play video games or use social media during class? In k-12, we kind of force the education on people. By college shouldn’t it be more of an offering? Of course, if the college is always blabbing about technology and “smart” classrooms and that crap it gives the students a mixed message of sorts, but that is still different than switching over to angry birds during class.

    Nobody brought laptops to class when I was in undergrad. They started to appear during law school. I never did it as I knew it wouldn’t have helped me, but in law school it seemed like there was such an emphasis on your notes and converting them into some type of outline and refining that into some kind of ultimate treatise on the subject that in theory, the laptop for note taking seems like a good idea- saving the time to enter your handwritten notes into a word processor.

    My style was that I was so bad at dividing my attention that even when I tried to take notes with pencil and paper in a notebook (with paper, not a notebook computer) that I usually missed whatever the instructor was saying next, while I was trying to write down what was previously said. And later, I’d go back and read my notes and they were often incoherent. Eventually, I realized that in most situations, just plain old listening and concentrating without trying to write things down was the best way for me to learn.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      With college students, why would we tell them what to do? They’re paying, and the education is there if they would like to be educated. Shouldn’t they be learning to take responsibility for their own life, i.e., make the decision not to play video games or use social media during class?

      A significant chunk of college students are, literally, still teenagers. Yes, they are learning to take responsibility for their own life, but like any teenager, they could use some help from the adults in the room.

    • leftwingfox

      To your first point, I have to ask where they were supposed to learn that particular life skill? Is this something actually covered in school, or just something we assume people should understand as “common sense”, even though the study is evidence that most people don’t have that skill.

      • Crusty

        College is a good place to learn it. Play angry birds through the mid-term exam, and then try a different approach for the final.

        As for people lacking that skill, I dunno, when I was in college, plenty of people figured out that if they could force themselves to be interested in 19th century lit and calculus, jump through the hoops placed in front of them, they could get a job that they liked and which involved no calculus or 19th century lit. Unless someone is truly passionate about the subject matter (in which case paying attention shouldn’t be hard, you’d actually want to do it) that’s the skill to be mastered- jumping through the hoop placed in front of you. College sorts who can jump through those hoops and sends them off to professional and graduate schools and employers.

        • Lurker

          Learning calculus is more than jumping through the hoop. It is, in fact, probably the first subject that you encounter where you need to have an ability to think using certain completely formal, logical concepts that have little to do with real life. There are lots of people who are utterly

          • Lurker

            I continue my text, which was inadvertently sent when I left the computer: utterly incapable of learning calculus.

            Those who are able to learn it, however, will be able to do so without “being interested”. Working hard is quite enough.

            • Crusty

              Hopefully, those who are utterly incapable of learning calculus are not admitted to colleges where calculus is a requirement.

        • leftwingfox

          I’m increasingly glad I never did university. “Look, it’s expensive and a poor investment, and the skills you really need to learn are the ones we don’t actually teach you.”

          I feel like so much of modern politics is someone wondering why we need to walk a dangerous tightrope for no readily apparent reason, and the solution is always “Add tigers; that’ll incentivize people not to fall off”.

      • Lurker

        West Point is maybe a special case. The students there are cadets, future officers, and they are educated on taxpayer’s dime. It is actually in the taxpayer’s interest that they learn as much as possible. The alternative is to have officers who are badly educated.

    • timb

      If you haven’t figured it out from the comments, the commentariat here at LGM finds it insults the delicate genius imparting their life’s work to a captive audience.

      Seems to me that some people can scare or interest people enough that the info he/she imparts keeps the attention of others.

      Then again, that’s just me being snarky, since, in my experience, the profs on this board are right: I DID learn better without devices

  • DonN

    There have been more than a few meetings at work where I’ve asked everybody to close their laptops. People will be actively working on email and then suddenly realize they were interested in the last five minutes. And want it repeated. It’s infuriating and disruptive to the people paying attention. Maybe in University the ones surfing are only hurting themselves and should be allowed to make that choice. But if there is rollover impact on others in the room, I’m for shutting the lid.
    DN

    • N__B

      I had a project a few years ago where every meeting lasted twice as long as it should have because the building’s owner spent most of every meeting on his phone (email, Facebook, Angry Birds…who knows?) and every discussion had to be repeated for him or we sat in silence until his attention returned to the dozen professionals in the room.

      In short, he’s a flaming asshole.

      • ChrisTS

        Ugh. One of our former Presidents (college) used to answer his phone and text people during meetings. Someone would be talking, and he’d go off on his phone then close and give us all this sneering grin, “Sorry? What were you saying?”

        It was so f-ing insulting: obviously our time was not important.

  • mcarson

    There are many studies that show taking notes by hand improves learning compared to typing notes or listening to a tape of the lecture as a review.
    Since writing is slower it requires you to summarize an idea in order to write it down, which aids in retention. There is also some sort of “muscle memory” involved in actually using your hands, you can remember a word or phrase you wrote out by hand better than one you typed.

    • Matt McIrvin

      In my own academic career I found notes of any kind essentially useless, but I took them because I felt I was expected to. Maybe the note-taking was more important than the actual notes; it would have been just as useful to take the notes and then throw them in the wastebasket at the end of class.

      • Warren Terra

        One of the most useful pieces of preparation I had for my college years was a history instructor who started the year by teaching us to take notes, according to a very particular formula (very complete notes from very dense lectures, in outline format, with extra space ruled off on the left margin). Part of his system was the imperative that the student review their notes and make marginalia, preferably the same evening. I’m not saying this formula was perfect, and certainly not the only valid approach, but it works very well for many people.

        • Matt McIrvin

          Cornell Notes? I know some people who are devotees of that system, but I was never introduced to it.

    • Lurker

      I wrote hundreds of pages of notes at college. In fact, I seldom studied them for the exam. The point of the note-taking was to write things up in order to learn them. That’s an extremely good way to learn.

      • Thirtyish

        I find both to be the case–I am a tactile learner who absolutely has to take hand-written notes in order to optimally absorb the material, while at the same time my short-term memory more often than not blows chunks, and I need to refer back to what I have written.

  • Thirtyish

    I’m tempted to find a reason to disagree, but on this one, I can’t. As someone who has spent the majority of her life in academia, in fact, I can’t agree more. The very presence of someone in a classroom or lecture using their smartphone is distracting. And barring student disabilities, I find laptops even more distracting–the sound of the typing is very hard for me to tune out (even for allegedly “soundless” Mac keyboards). Especially in the case of cellphones (the use of which, short of emergency situations, just does not seem able to be justified), I can’t help but put myself in the instructor’s shoes and wonder what it’s like to stand up there in a classroom and so obviously not be listened to.

    • timb

      Their paycheck cashes. They want people to listen, perhaps express the material in a way which captures the audience. It’s important, right?

      • ChrisTS

        Wow. You know what? Many students take courses they are not interested in. Yes, good teaching can bring some of them around, but others can not be dazzled into attention. It is *their* education; teaching and learning is a two way street.

  • Venerable Monk

    I suppose this is another way of saying that the best students had the most to gain, but is it possible that some of the students with lower ACT scores/GPAs weren’t paying attention in class regardless of the presence of electronic devices? If a student earns roughly the same grades whether they have a laptop in front of them or not, it would make sense that the laptop itself doesn’t really affect how well they absorb the material presented in class. They could be missing out on the important stuff for any number of reasons, like the student just learns more effectively by reading, is bored by the material, or can find ways to distract themselves without a device.

    To bring in some more anecdotal evidence, I almost never studied outside of required homework in engineering school and passed almost all of my classes easily, though I didn’t have a perfect 4.0. I only brought my laptop to labs where we were doing data acquisition or CAD because it was super heavy, so I was usually paying attention in class and taking notes by hand. My grades definitely would have suffered if I didn’t pay attention in class because it was the only time I learned anything new.

    • sonamib

      Taking notes in a computer for an engineering class would be nightmarish. I mean, you do have to copy a few math formulae. How would you do it, type them in latex? Hand writing is a lot easier.

      Even for non-math heavy classes, I think using a computer for typing your notes is a solution in search of a problem. Hand writing is a lot more flexible : you can draw a circle around important concepts and relate them by arrows, you can strike out words etc.

      • Venerable Monk

        You’ll get no argument from me on those points, save one. I’m a much faster typist than writer, and my handwriting is terrible when I’m trying to write fast (and passably legible when I’m not). Fortunately, I’ve rarely run into a professor that refuses to write out the important parts of her lectures on the board as she speaks, so it’s easy to keep up. Of the engineering students I’ve shared a classroom with, the ones that “took notes” on their laptops in class were more often playing StarCraft instead of listening to the lecture.

      • Matt McIrvin

        I remember thinking when I was in grad school that a dream device would be a tablet computer with handwriting recognition that was capable of parsing handwritten mathematical notation into something like Mathematica expressions. Today we have all the necessary hardware as mass consumer products, but I don’t think the mathematical handwriting recognition has been done–it would probably be very hard, since math notation especially at the professional-research level is extremely context-dependent.

  • Crusty

    All electronic devices, though useful for some things, are distracting to most life activities.

    My brother, who marches to the beat of his own drummer, has five children and does not own a tv. Once in a while they’ll watch a movie as a special treat. They are different than other kids that I know. They play differently, interact with people differently, all kinds of stuff.

  • GustePDX

    Banning a useful tool because some people are misusing them is punishing the wrong people. If I weren’t able to take notes into OneNote, I’d be screwed: organizationally and just based on fatigue from handwriting.

    • GustePDX

      [That said, I understand what some commenters have said here about protecting teenage college students from themselves and teaching them good habits. I just am not going to let you take my baby with the bathwater].

    • Warren Terra

      Some of this is what you’re use to: in college I might take 30 pages of notes in a day (and yes, my hand cramped, at least in part because we don’t teach lefties to hold pens well), while now I struggle to write a short paragraph by hand (less because of cramp than because I’m used to a different sort of composition, with more editing). I suspect if I’d kept in practice I could write a lot by hand still, though I don’t miss it.

      • GustePDX

        All true. And I’m actually a case study for this very thing (of course, without controlling for age, wisdom, and greater sense of metaphysical desperation) because my undergrad was spent handwriting notes in ever-disappearing spirals and trying to cobble them together at the end of any given semester, while law school is being spent with OneNote and the positive latter-day difference in grades and confidence in actual learning is remarkable.

        Again, maturity is a large variable in that equation; I’m just explaining that I have indeed tried both and handwritten notes are, for me, anecdotally, etc., a massively inferior option.

  • Pseudonym

    Snapchat doesn’t run on laptops.

    • Thirtyish

      Yet!

  • Warren Terra

    As I said above: while I recognize the problem of distractions, and even sometimes succumb to them if a speaker is going noplace, I find it incredibly useful to take seminar or meeting notes on my phone. Having searchable records stored in the cloud and available across multiple devices is a huge boon, compared to paper notes that I’ve sometimes attempted to search at far greater effort and with less success.

    • GustePDX

      This here. I’ve spent four decades in search of a way to organize handwritten notes to my benefit & convenience, and have yet to find it.

      ETA: I guess I could just transcribe my handwritten notes into OneNote or similar. But that begs a pretty big question.

  • njorl

    I don’t really know why the smartest students would flop the most.

    Smart students are easily bored. Even with optimal engagement, only a small percentage of the time in class is spent learning. Most of it is rehashing what students know. It is the unpredictable nature of what you might learn that makes the class time necessary. The longer you sit there without hearing anything new or interesting the more likely you are to mess around on your laptop, and tune out something important.

  • rdennist

    Oh dear god, is it as bad as the picture suggests? I thankfully stopped teaching about 5 years ago and even then, notebooks were roughly in line with computers.

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