There is no doubt that having a desktop computer or laptop in school is useful for writing papers, gathering information and learning how to program and use software.
But, as would seem obvious, surfing the internet during class – and connecting with friends, shopping or streaming movies – could also prove to be a source of distraction and hinder learning.
I am an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. Over the past few years, I have noticed an increasing number of students who bring laptops to class.
So, I decided to use my research expertise in memory and attention to investigate: How do students use their laptop in class? How does it relate to their learning of class material?
Here’s what I found.
Multitasking in the classroom
Certainly, there have always been distractions in the classroom. Less high-tech distractions such as passing notes, doodling or reading the newspaper can be easily noticed. Even smartphone use is easy to tell, as there is a downward lap gaze.
In contrast, it is difficult to tell what students are doing on a laptop.
Indeed, studies have shown that laptops are a source of distraction in the classroom – not only for the student themselves, but also for those sitting near. Even if a students did not bring a laptop to class, the laptop screen of other students could be a source of distraction for those sitting in near proximity.
However, it is legitimate to ask: Could surfing the internet for academic reasons lead to better learning? Are some students smart enough to multitask in class?
We sought to answer these questions, among others, in a recent study in which we tracked internet use in a large introductory psychology course.
Our classroom internet study
For our study, we used a proxy server to track internet use. Out of a class of 507 students, 127 agreed to participate. The proxy server recorded all internet requests that students made during class so that we would know what websites students were visiting and not have to rely on their memory. Not all the participants remembered to log in to the proxy server. So, we ended up with 84 students who logged into the internet regularly.
We were surprised by how much these students used the internet for nonacademic purposes. On average, over a third of the class time was spent on the internet in activities not related to the class.
We then calculated each student’s internet use and compared it to their final exam grade. We found that students who surfed the internet more during class were also more likely to have lower scores on the final exam.
To make sure that this relationship between internet use and exam scores wasn’t related to students’ lack of interest in the class, motivation or intelligence, we conducted some further analyses.
Interest, motivation and intelligence are big predictors of exam scores – the largest being intelligence. We measured intelligence by gathering students’ ACT scores that were used for college admission, as they are highly related to intelligence.
As can be expected, our results show students’ class time surfing the internet for nonacademic purposes is related to lower grades. This is so even after accounting for all these other factors. If one imagines a pie chart representing all the reasons that students do well or poorly on the final exam, internet use would explain about 5 percent of performance.
Benefits of browsing?
What if students used the internet in class to browse academic material related to the class? Would it be beneficial to their grades?
Some students browsed the class website and searched for materials being discussed in the classroom on Wikipedia. For example, some students searched for more information about classical conditioning, a learning procedure taught in psychology. We wanted to see whether this type of internet browsing would be beneficial for exam scores.
We found even when internet browsing was about such academic content, it was not associated with higher exam scores. In other words, even when students were browsing for class-related information, there was no related benefit to the final exam.
It’s way too tempting for students
Nonacademic internet use predicted lower exam scores, and this was so regardless of motivation, interest or intelligence. In other words, these factors did not explain why students surfed the internet during class.
When a laptop is being used to take notes or download class slides, it may become tempting to check email, catch up on homework for another class or see who won the game the night before.
In fact, avoiding nonacademic internet use might require a great deal of behavioral control. A recent study found people who had a greater tendency for impulsive behaviors engaged more heavily with mobile devices. The ability to avoid the temptation for a 100-minute class could tax the abilities of many students.
There are other other downsides as well of laptop use in class: Taking notes on a computer has even been shown to be less effective for learning than writing them by hand. Researchers have found that writing notes by hand forces students to think more deeply about the material because they have to paraphrase what has been said. Students are more likely to type information verbatim when they use a laptop.
In classes with no computer-based assignments, how about asking students to leave their laptops behind when they come to class?