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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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