of laptops and learning: causal mechanisms and heterogeneity


The following is a guest post by Jeff Lockhart.

Recently, Cindi May argued in Scientific American that “Students are Better Off without a Laptop in the Classroom.” As with the numerous articles in this vein that preceded it, May’s article was picked up by many academics on social media as proof that they were right to ban laptops in their classrooms. Others have responded that students have always found ways to distract themselves, that banning laptops is infantilizing and that it’s harmful to students with disabilities, among other objections. Although these are important concerns, I want to focus here on a few frustrating trends in the research and reporting on classroom laptop use.

Equating laptops with the internet. Laptops do, of course, have other uses like typing notes and searching PDFs. Yet Ravizza et al.’s paper, which May cites as the primary proof laptops are bad for student learning, measures only laptop internet use. Nevertheless, this paper and reporting about it draw conclusions about the value of laptops in general. (To be fair, the paper calls for future study of “non-Internet laptop use,” but this point is lost in subsequent reporting.)

Equating keyboards with verbatim transcription. Much of the pro-laptop-ban writing cites research that taking notes is better with pens than keyboards. The causal mechanism they propose is not the note taking technology, however, it is the note taking style. Verbatim transcriptions foster less learning than summaries. They observe verbatim notes are associated with keyboards and posit that this is enabled by the greater speed of typing relative to hand writing. That’s a real association with a plausible mechanism, but this two-step process (technology causes style causes learning outcomes) needs to be disaggregated. The first step remains largely untested, and there are compelling reasons to question the association between technology and style. For instance, some students learn to take verbatim notes with pens in high school debate, and shorthand is not an entirely lost art. Others type too slowly to transcribe, or have learned to synthesize ideas while typing notes. Conceptual note taking may even be enhanced by laptops, as students can rearrange ideas and make insertions much easier with digital text than ink. The issue demonstrated by research is not laptops themselves but how they’re used.

Equating laptops with multitasking. Like the previous point, this is a two-step argument: laptops cause multitasking, which causes decreases in learning for both the multitasker and nearby students. Proponents have done a better job of naming and defending the empirical link between laptops and multitasking, but they don’t often examine whether that link is fungible.

These false equivalences lead people commenting on the research to take blanket policy stances that ignore the possibility of heterogeneous treatment effects. Maybe not all students use laptops the same way. As Jeffrey W. McClurken points out, these studies generally “don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes.” Such students do exist. My high school adopted laptops for note taking in 2006; those first students are now 25 years old. 45% of K-12 students were using laptops in school daily by 2014. Predicting which students will have this experience is not simple. They probably skew disproportionately wealthy, but many school laptop programs aim to increase access for lower income students (results are mixed). Rigorous interrogation of the relationship between laptop use and learning outcomes in college should examine students who come to college with experience using laptops in class. If laptops are good for anyone, it is probably them. Likewise, students who haven’t used pens for notes in years are particularly likely to struggle with laptop bans.

Although Scientific American omitted it, there is some evidence in Ravizza et al.’s article supporting this idea. They found a negative effect of internet use on grades for those students who said it had a negative effect on their grades—but they did not find any effect for students who said their grades would be unaffected. This is consistent with some students being rightfully confident in their ability to learn while using laptops in class. (Some cautions: this study—like most on the subject—was published in a psychology journal using relatively a small N.) Our understanding would benefit from more research on the actual process and mechanisms connecting technology and learning outcomes.

Commentary on this research would benefit from more attention to the details of these studies. The mechanisms posited by research are complicated, and important parts of them remain untested. In a class similar to the economics course at West Point, one might decide to ban laptops because a large, randomized, controlled trial showed that, on average, the ban increased grades. But how we justify that policy matters. In cold, utilitarian terms, we can choose to institute a ban because it will help the most students (or provide a huge boost to a minority of students…). But we should acknowledge that this policy may hinder some students who learn better with laptops consider seriously how many of our students this may be. Absent the time and resources to teach students effective technology use, one may decide this tradeoff is reasonable. Too often, it is discussed as if laptops are categorically bad for all students, which is a broader claim than current research supports. With different kinds of courses or groups of students, banning laptops may not have a net-positive effect. The edge cases are untested and even some ban advocates find it plausible. In either case, simplistic “ban vs no ban” debates and experiments prevent us from imagining and evaluating alternatives like teaching study skills. “Laptops are bad for learning” is a catchy polemic, but the studies it is based on support far narrower claims.

Jeff Lockhart is a PhD student at the University of Michigan.


Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

12 thoughts on “of laptops and learning: causal mechanisms and heterogeneity”

  1. as a person who can barely read my own handwriting anymore I rely on my tablet for notetaking. I have never banned laptops (though I do ban phones) since I think it unfair to demand of my students what I would be unwilling to do myself.


  2. For years in my classes people using laptops were an obvious, massive distraction that constantly undermined teaching. After trying in vain to police their use, for the last few years I have banned them (and phones), affecting a few hundred students so far, of course with the proviso that exceptions may be granted if people ask me individually. Maybe one or two people have asked for exceptions. The result has been fabulous and I recommend it.


    1. My one experience banning them in a lecture was very positive. I think it may have also forced me to give better lectures, knowing I (more easily) had students’ attention. I am trying to think if there’s a way to apply the ideas from here to a partial ban – maybe make a laptops section of the lecture hall with a TA stationed behind the students and enforce a no-internet rule, plus have a conversation about good note-taking?


  3. I also banned laptops and phones, except by special permission, in my big lecture class, and also found it positive, given the nature of my specific class. I’m actually worrying now, because I’ve agreed to try using Top Hat in the fall to add an interactive component, and I’m realizing that I’ll be opening the door to the laptops, which will be basically bad, given how I lecture and teach. Ugh.


  4. It’s pointless banning one without the other. And there are many studies that prove laptops are a fantastic educational learning tool. And Im sure that policing them for the good of vanity is a mistake. Its an interesting topic, but its a study with many different outcomes depending on the teacher/student bias.


  5. I wish all surveys/studies and claims would include this type of explanation below them. Great post. I can see where it would be difficult to make it fair for everyone. I don’t think you could pick and choose between students in the same classroom without causing some kind of backlash. If internet or socializing is a problem, banning them seems like the right thing to do, unfair to students who use their laptops for legit reasons.

    I am glad I would never have to make these kinds of decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Here comes Professor Broken Record…
    Disability discrimination remains, for some reason, an acceptable practice in higher education. Laptop bans are discriminatory. They are discriminatory EVEN IF you permit case-by-case exceptions, particularly if those exceptions are granted only to people who provide proof of individual registration with the disability office or otherwise self-disclose their disability status. If this is the policy you use, you will have students who do not ask for accommodations because they do not wish to face the remarkable stigma that comes with being visible as a student with a disability–stigma that comes both from peers and from faculty. Indeed, if you are only rarely asked for exceptions to your policy despite having applied it to hundreds of students, it is statistically certain that there are students who need to use a laptop and who have not asked.

    You will have other students who do ask for accommodations, but who face that stigma every day during and after class when their peers comment on their laptop use. Please understand that when you make the choice to ban laptops in the classroom, you are making the choice to disadvantage the learning of students with disabilities, students who need to use laptops in order to have equal access to learning in your classroom. You may well be helping students without disabilities–but those students could make the choice to put down the laptop and pick up a pen. Students with disabilities do not have the choice, and it is the choiceless that you are disadvantaging.

    Jeff’s post is great because it takes seriously the real evidence around the practice of banning laptops. Were that evidence incontrovertibly strong in showing that laptop use is extraordinarily harmful for students without disabilities, the conversation might be different. But if the evidence is as nuanced as Jeff suggests, what is the justification for saying that the small benefits to some students that come with a laptop ban are worth the great harm to others? I would hypothesize that the justification is that faculty, even faculty supremely sensitive to other forms of inequality, still think (even if unconsciously) that the students in their classrooms who have disabilities do not deserve the accommodations necessary to let them engage in the classroom on a level playing field.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. For the record, my policy is that laptops are banned as a subset of the “no alternate activities” rule. The exception requires no paperwork, just that the person introduce themselves to me by name and also to the TAs and understands that the “no alternate activities” rule applies. The same punishment (zero for the day) applies to being caught doing Facebook on the laptop as to playing with your phone or doing a crossword puzzle your French homework in class. I also ban laptops during films because the glow from the screen is distracting to others when the room is dark. But I also don’t give tests (so detailed note-taking is not needed) and require that people’s brains as well as their bodies be present in class. As I say, they must be at risk of learning something. Most of the disability accommodation requests I field are about the required attendance policy, which has been rendered easier with the advent of lecture capture, for which I do require an official letter. But, as I said above, I’m now worrying that my decision to start using Top Hat will work against the relative peace I have gained with the no laptops policy.


  8. I don’t require disability paperwork for the exception. If course I have students who request disability-related exceptions that make them visible them to others, usually more time for assignments and tests.


  9. For what it’s worth, even as an outspoken white man who knows from a dozen years’ experience that I function and engage better in class with a laptop, I usually did not ask to be the ‘exception’ who was allowed to use one. It was usually too intimidating, even as a graduate student. I don’t claim to have the best policy for every class, and this isn’t the research based evidence I think we need to develop, but I do want to caution against interpreting “few people requested exceptions” as “few people wanted / would have benefited from them” (as Mikaila already said).

    Liked by 1 person

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