Technology Bans and Student Experience in the College Classroom
Thomas Hutcheon, Ph.D.
Personal technologies, including laptops and cell phones, have infiltrated the college classroom. Instructors must now decide whether to implement a ban on the unsupervised use of personal technologies in their courses. Anecdotal evidence (“students always seem to be looking at their computer screens and not me during class”), and results from recent studies linking the unsupervised use of technology with reductions in academic performance, have led to declarations that the time to ban technology use in the classroom is now (Rosenblum, 2017). However, it is important for individual instructors to critically evaluate and understand the empirical evidence in favor of technology bans when deciding on the approach to take in their classroom. Moreover, the impact bans have on student’s experience within the course remains unknown. The purpose of this essay is to review the evidence in favor of a technology ban, to describe recent results, which suggest a ban can be harmful to students’ engagement and to provide recommendations for instructors to aid in the development of a technology policy for their classrooms.
Broadly speaking, two primary mechanisms have been proposed to explain the relationship between unsupervised technology use in the classroom and reduced academic performance: misdirection of cognitive resources and superficial encoding of information. First, the presence of personal technology in the classroom allows students a direct line to distracting information via social media, games, and the internet. Diverting cognitive resources towards online shopping or texting with friends necessarily draws resources away from what is happening in the classroom. This misdirection of resources means that students do not process the material presented during lecture and this can harm performance (Fried, 2008; Wood et al. 2012). Importantly, the use of technology may lead to the misdirection of resources, not only for the student using the technology, but for students sitting nearby, and even the instructor (Aguilar-Roca, Williams, & O’Dowd, 2012). Second, even when students are prevented from accessing the internet or other distractions, the use of laptops leads to a relatively superficial encoding of lecture information. Students randomly assigned to take lecture notes using a laptop perform worse on follow-up memory tests of lecture material compared to students randomly assigned to take lecture notes using paper and pencil (Hembrooke & Gay, 2003; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). This finding has been explained by differences in note taking strategies. Specifically, students using a laptop appear to adopt a verbatim strategy in which they type everything that is said during the lecture. In contrast, students using paper and pencil reframe and write down the information from the lecture into their own words. This reframing requires deeper encoding of the information and leads to better retention of the material (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Thus, despite successfully resisting temptation and devoting resources to the task of taking notes, the use of laptops is still harmful to the retention of material presented during a lecture.
However, there are three things to keep in mind when implementing the findings reviewed above as the basis for your personal classroom policy.
Broadly speaking, studies cited as evidence for the implementation of technology bans use either an experimental or correlational approach. In the typical experimental approach, participants are randomly assigned to use a laptop or paper and pencil to take notes while listening to a lecture. Learning is frequently assessed by a quiz on the material that is presented at the end of the lecture (Wood et al., 2012). Although students using laptops tend to perform worse than those who do not, this procedure is different from students learning the information over the course of a semester, as they likely enact strategies during studying to make up for distracted moments when using online resources, such as reading the textbook or asking a fellow student. The correlational approach collects various measures of student performance, such as GPA and exam grades, and correlates these with student’s reported cell phone and laptop usage. The negative correlation between GPA and frequency of technology use is commonly interpreted as technology usage causing a decrease in performance. However, due to the nature of correlational research, it could similarly be interpreted that weaker students tend to bring their laptops into the classroom (Fried, 2008). In other words, since a causal relationship cannot be drawn between the use of laptops and class performance, removing access to laptops might not lead to changes in performance.
The real-world impact of technology usage on student performance needs to be considered. What does a statistically significant reduction in performance for students using laptop mean for an individual student sitting in one of our classes? One illustrative example comes from a rigorous, large-scale study conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point. For an entire semester, first year students enrolled in Principles of Economics were randomly assigned to take notes on either a laptop, tablet, or using paper and pencil. The results from this sample of over 700 students yielded a statistically significant impact on performance. Specifically, students in the laptop and tablet conditions performed worse on the final exam compared to students in the paper and pencil condition. Although a statistically significant reduction, the effect amounted to a decrease of 1.7% on the final exam for students in the laptop or tablet condition (Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2016). Thus, despite the presumed chronic misdirection of resources and the superficial encoding of information students experience when using technology, the real-world performance benefits are small. While any improvement in performance is welcome, there are many simple techniques that instructors can implement over the course of the semester which can show improved exam performance to a greater extent, including retrieval practice at the end of a lecture (e.g. Lyle & Crawford, 2011).
To date, little research has assessed the impact of a technology ban on student experience within the class. However, recent research conducted in my lab, which was presented at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Annual Conference on Teaching (Hutcheon, Richard, & Lian, 2016), indicates that implementing a technology ban reduces student engagement. Specifically, using data from sixty-nine undergraduate students across four sections of Introduction to Psychology taught by the same instructor, students randomly assigned to a technology-ban section reported lower levels of engagement in the course compared to students randomly assigned to the technology-permitted section, as assessed by the student course engagement questionnaire (SCEQ) (Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, & Towler, 2005). Interestingly, the students surveyed in our sample reported relatively low frequency of cell phone use during a typical class (mean = 2.38) and the vast majority reported a preference for taking notes using paper and pencil (N=61) compared to laptops (N = 8). In fact, looking at the data for the 61 students who reported a preference for taking notes using paper and pencil, we observed a significant reduction in engagement as a function of laptop ban. In other words, the technology ban impacted engagement of students who would not even have used technology in the classroom. These findings suggest that students are sensitive to the structure or rules within the classroom environment, and rules viewed as limiting their choices may impact how much students engage with the material and the instructor.
In contrast to reports of Carter et al. (2016), we observed a marginally significant reduction in end of year grades for students in the technology ban compared to the technology permitted condition. This suggests that the impact of a technology ban on student’s performance in the classroom may not be the same for all classroom environments. Specifically, students enrolled in a more traditional, small liberal arts environment (Bard College compared to West Point) may be more impacted by the implementation of such bans.
Consider the make-up of your class. If you are teaching a small class in which students might not spontaneously use technology, the implementation of a technology ban could negatively impact student experience and performance in the class. In contrast, if you are teaching a large lecture class in which students might feel less engaged to begin with, the ban might help their experience and performance.
Minimize the distraction of others. If you decide not to implement a ban, you should think about ways that you can prevent those students who chose to use laptops from distracting others who choose not to use a laptop. Methods to alleviate this concern include having specific sections of the classroom dedicated to laptop and technology users (Aguilar-Roca et al., 2012).
Provide rationale for your decision. If you decide to implement a technology ban, providing students with a clear explanation as to why the ban is in place, supported by relevant research is one potential method for reducing the impact of a ban on student engagement. In conclusion, there is little doubt that under certain situations, unsupervised technology usage can negatively impact academic performance. However, full consideration regarding the type of course and composition of students within the course is advised before implementing a blanket technology ban.
Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Williams, A. E., & O’Dowd, D. K. (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education, 59, 1300-1308.
Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. (2016). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy (SEII Discussion Paper #2016.02).
Fried, C. B. (2008). In class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education, 50, 906-914.
Handelsman, M. M., Briggs, W. L., Sullivan, N., & Towler, A. (2005). A measure of college student course engagement. The Journal of Educational Research, 98, 184-191.
Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15, 46-64.
Hutcheon, T. G., Richard, A., & Lian, A. (2016, October). The impact of a technology ban on student’s perceptions and performance in introduction to psychology. Poster presented at the Society for the Teaching of Psychology 15th Annual Conference on Teaching, Decatur, GA.
Lyle, K. B., & Crawford, N. A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38, 94-97.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.
Rosenblum, D. (2017, January 2). Leave your laptops at the door to my classroom. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/02/opinion/leave-your-laptops-at-the-door-to-my-classroom.html?_r=0
Wood, E., Zivcakova L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., & Nosko, A. (2012). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.
Tom Hutcheon is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the psychology program at Bard College. Tom earned his B.A. in psychology from Bates College and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Cognition and Brain Science from Georgia Tech. Tom received the Early Career Psychologist Poster award at the 2016 Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) Annual Conference on Teaching as well as a 2017 Early Career Psychologist Travel Grant sponsored by STP. Tom’s research interests include cognitive control, cognitive aging, and effective teaching. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.