Our world is rapidly moving towards more and more technological advances. It’s affecting all aspects of our lives, and it has now made its way directly into many of our classrooms. Tablets, laptops, and computers are commonplace not only in the college setting, but it’s becoming the norm in elementary classrooms. With so many advances, tools, and information at our disposal, it’s easy to believe that technology is supporting our students in their educational goals. Is this true? Are they really making us better students? Is technology propelling us forward in this arena or crippling us in ways we didn’t anticipate? Some schools are arguing that they want technology at the center of their programs to “ensure academic success.” However, a growing body of evidence is showing that computers don’t guarantee anything. In fact, it might be the exact opposite.

Evidence in the Negative

Technology can be an interesting beast, and it says different things about different students. For example, some students find themselves increasingly distracted by an onslaught of notifications and possibilities. On the other side of the spectrum, we find students who are obtaining tablets and laptops because they’re making serious investments into their future. When we’re looking into college classrooms at random, you can find both kinds of students. To say that technology has only hindered us is not true. There is evidence that they can be great tools, but it depends on how you handle what’s given to you.

Experiments on Taking Notes on a Laptop

First Round

Researchers from Princeton and the University of California performed a series of experiments on students to study the efficacy of taking notes on a laptop while at school. Students were randomly assigned to note taking on pen and paper while others were given technology to take notes. 

computers in the classroom

After listening to a lecture, the students were all given the same standardized test. Students who took notes with pen and paper consistently outperformed those who took notes on their computers. Though students who were typing often found themselves with longer notes and more details, researchers started to hypothesize that the information never paused long enough in the brain for any kind of real processing. The students who typed their notes took “better” notes. Meaning, they kept up with more details and practically transcribed the entire lecture. Students with pen and paper often found themselves having to process the information in order to better summarize as their writing simply couldn’t keep up with the lecture. Though there weren’t as many details, these students soaked in the lecture more often than the students who typed their notes.

With this in mind, let’s not forget that this experiment wasn’t exactly true to reality. Obviously, students aren’t going to find themselves taking their standardized final right after hearing a lecture; there’s time to study which means details in notes can be helpful. However, there are some principles that these experiments can teach us which will be discussed in a later section.

Second Round

Another fascinating note came in with the second round of experiments performed by these two universities. In the second round, researchers gave away the secret to success to the students who were given technology to take notes! They were specifically instructed to try to summarize and process the information as opposed to taking down as much information as possible. The effect? Nothing. The margins were the same. The students who took notes on pen and paper still consistently scored higher than those typing their notes.

Third Round

computers in the classroom

The third round of experiments brought in even further startling results. Once again, students were randomly selected to take notes on pen and paper or technology. But some students were also given some tasks to perform while they were taking notes. For example, some students were assigned to look up movie times while listening to the lecture.

All students were given the standardized test at the end. It came as no surprise to anyone that students who had to multitask during the lecture scored eleven percent lower than students who did not have to multitask. What came as a surprise (though it makes sense in hindsight), is that the students who were near the multitaskers scored seventeen percent lower than those who were not given multitasking instructions nor were in a path where they could see someone else multitasking. Let me repeat that. Students who were not voluntarily engaging in other tasks during the lecture but were being distracted by their peers scored even lower than those who were doing the actual multitasking.

Last Round

All of these experiments were highly controlled, and that’s crucial to understand. These were not real world examples. However, the researchers performed one last round of experiments on students in their real classes. These researchers took a college that required economics from all of its first year students. The researchers imposed limits on different sections in the classes making sure that the professors all had different classes with different limitations so the study wouldn’t be biased off the skill sets of the professors themselves. Some sections were allowed no technology. Other students were allowed technology without restrictions. And the last few sections were allowed technology as long as the screen was face up on the desk where the professor could see it. 

Across the board, students who were allowed to have technology scored lower than those who were not allowed to have technology. And these scores were statistically significant (which basically means, the difference was substantial enough that researchers were able to pull implications out of the study). One other interesting note: students who had restrictions placed on their technology use scored the same as those who had no restrictions on their technology. It didn’t matter whether the professors could watch the students; they still did not measure up to their good old-fashioned pen and paper peers.

Evidence in the Positive

How To Use it Effectively

So now that we’ve discussed some of the pitfalls and studies behind technology in the college classroom, let’s look at a couple examples of how to use it effectively. I know that despite all this information, technology for note taking is still very appealing to me. Maybe it’s the idea that I can keep all of my information organized in one place. Maybe it’s the idea that it’s simply easier to type than it is to write. There are plenty of reasons for wanting technology in the college classroom so we might as well come up with some ways to use it effectively rather than trying to pretend that students aren’t going to use it.

Teach students to summarize instead of transcribing their lectures. 

We looked at an experiment which some colleges performed, where researchers literally told the college students to summarize the lectures in comparison to transcribing it. We still found technology-aided students struggling to keep up with pen and paper notes.

However, I know that if I had been placed in their situation, my mind might not even have registered that piece of advice. Sure, it sounds good to make sure I’m summarizing and processing as I go and I can acknowledge that, but if I had been placed in an experiment where that was put into the instructions, I probably would have mentally skimmed over the concept and listened for specific instructions like where I should turn the test in afterwards. Because of technology, our minds have learned to filter out what we deem important. I already know that it’s important to process information so I wouldn’t have paid much attention to that. That being said, if someone had showed me some of the studies we looked at in this article, it would have made a much more dramatic effect on my processing and summarizing.

Another option to consider is to transcribe in class but to review and summarize later.

computers in the classroom

This is a process that was explicitly taught to me in high school. Write the notes, and review them on the exact same day. This will allow for both processing and significantly detailed and accurate notes.

Set yourself up for success when determining where you want to sit. 

It sounds silly. You think you’ll be able to resist the urge to not stare at their computer, but I promise, you’ll stare. And you won’t realize you’re staring for a long time. Sit at the front. Be that student. It’s worth it.

Set up blocks and parental controls for yourself. 

I wish I could describe how this has affected my life personally. I’m not currently studying in a college classroom, but I found myself becoming increasingly addicted to social media. I was distracted from all sorts of life events. So I set up some parental locks on my phone. Only my husband knows the passwords so I can’t get past it. I know myself and I know I get addicted. For a while, I tried simply having self control. In the end, I cut my losses and had my husband block certain apps after specified amounts of time. It’s been awesome.

Technology doesn’t have to cripple us as students. If we know the roadblocks and we know ourselves, we can avoid some of the major pitfalls associated with laptops and tablets. Experiment with yourself. Find out if paper and pen works better for you and then have the self control to use that tool instead. We can succeed with technology. It has the potential to be a tool; we just have to use it correctly like any other kind of tool.





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