Using Laptops in Class Can Lower Test Scores

Laptops are a common sight in large undergrad lectures, where professors can’t really do much to stop people from using them. But they can harm students' grades.

A recent study by faculty at Michigan State University has some pretty unsurprising information to share: students who use the internet during class, for non-academic purposes, have lower test scores in those classes. Students went shopping, checked social media, watched videos, and responded to emails, none of which was related to the class in which they were supposed to be paying attention.

The idea that students who aren’t paying attention in class might do worse on tests isn’t at all surprising. What is interesting about this study is that a lot of students are poking around the internet instead of paying attention, and some students who might otherwise be doing well in class, based on ACT scores and personal motivation, are falling into this trap as well.

Laptops are a common sight in large undergrad lectures, where professors can’t really do much to stop people from using them. While there are classes that make use of the internet or can benefit from students having internet access, the class in this study was not one of them.

“There were no internet-based assignments in this course,” said study lead author Susan Ravizza, “which means that most of the ‘academic use’ [of laptops] was downloading lecture slides in order to follow along or take notes.”

To be sure, there are students who take notes on laptops and are actually paying attention, but there are also students, some of the same students, who can’t resist the temptation to check Facebook or visit Amazon.

Stopping students from using their laptop computers in class for non-academic purposes seems unlikely, so instead, policies of simply not allowing laptops would probably be most valuable. Some professors already ban laptops in class. However, some students with disabilities need to use them for note taking or other reasonable classroom accommodations.

Ravizza has come up with a solution of her own. She no longer posts lecture slides before class. She waits until a week before an exam to upload the slides, so there is no reason for students to bring a laptop to her class.

“I now ask students to sit in the back if they want to bring their laptop to class so their internet use is not distracting other students,” she says.

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