Laptop use is linked to lower academic performance

Lucy Cai

A recent study conducted at Michigan State University sheds some light on one of the most hotly debated topics within higher education: the use of laptops in classrooms.

The authors of the study were one of the first to employ objective measures of laptop usage rather than rely on self-reports. They found that students who use laptops and the internet more often during lecture have poorer academic performance.

In the study, students who enrolled in an introductory psychology class were asked to log onto a proxy server. Throughout the semester, researchers tracked the duration of their internet use, as well as the frequency and types of websites visited.

The researchers noted that internet use was common among students who brought laptops to class. After controlling for factors such as interest in the class, general intelligence as estimated by ACT scores and motivation, researchers also found that higher internet use predicts a lower final exam score. Interestingly enough, increased academic-related internet use was not correlated with better academic performance. 

Lauretta Reeves, a senior lecturer at UT-Austin, says that while laptops permit students to take more thorough notes, they can also divert attention.

“In my experience, a lot of students (on laptops) at some point in class will also go do something else, whether it’s playing a game or checking email,” Reeves said.

The authors of the study found that students on laptops spent an average of 37 minutes of classroom time surfing non-academic websites, with social media and shopping websites being the most popular.

Taking notes by hand has also been shown to help with information processing and retention, which may also explain the difference in academic performance between students who use laptops to take notes and students who handwrite their notes.

“You don’t process (information) as deeply, and there’s a lot of evidence that handwriting notes is better for remembering than typing,” Reeves said. “You can also distract other students, if they see the laptops.”

Amrutha Srinivasan, a biomedical engineering junior who usually takes notes by hand, says that doing so helps her focus and recall more information.

“I’m not a fast writer, so I can’t write down every word of what the professor is saying,” Srinivasan said. “Handwriting my notes makes me pay more attention."

Srinivasan also acknowledges that there are benefits to using laptops in the classroom.

“Using laptops in class can make taking attendance easier for the professor,” Srinivasan said. “Students can also more easily access online materials and do problems.”

Using a laptop or going online during class doesn’t mean anything definitive about final grades, however, and Reeves says that she’s had many students who use laptops receive As and students who handwrite receive lower grades in her class. 

On the other hand, the results of this study might encourage students to rethink their use of laptops within the classroom. Learning about the positive and negative consequences can better inform students’ decisions about using laptops during lecture.

Reeves asks that students in her class read about the pros and cons of laptop use in classrooms. 

“I have had some students decide not to use computers as a response to that,” she said.