Laptops & Smartphones May be Hurting Your Ability to Learn in Class
I find it odd that society seems to embrace technology first, and asks questions later.
We only conduct psychological research on technology’s impact on our daily lives long after we’ve adopted our behaviors and habits to its use. No matter, even if that use may negatively affect our relationships, social interactions, and even our ability to learn and retain knowledge in the long-term.
We just assume something that makes it easier to take notes in the classroom, for instance, would make learning easier.
But over the past two decades, research is showing that our relationship with technology is far more complex and nuanced. It’s not as simple as, “Technology, in all forms and whatever default settings, is good.”
Here’s why using your laptop or smartphone while in class may not be such a good idea after all.
There are both benefits and drawbacks when students use technology in the classroom. For instance, in a study conducted in 2010, researchers found no benefits to social media use in the classroom while a 2011 study on virtual worlds found them beneficial to children with autism to help them with their social skills. Technology can also be helpful to teachers, identifying students who may need personalized learning attention.
Surprisingly, you don’t even have to interact with technology to experience its deleterious effects. A 2017 study found that the mere presence of your smartphone when you’re trying to learn something can impact your cognitive abilities and memory (Ward et al., 2017). Even sitting on your desk face-down, or in your purse or pocket, your smartphone can still be a cognitive distraction.
One of the researchers suggested the reason for this finding, “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”
That’s the real challenge of technology — how to make our interactions with it be a brain enhancer and not a brain drain.
A more recent study, published earlier this summer, found similar concerns regarding laptop use in the classroom (Glass & Kang, 2018). There, the researchers found “following the lessons in which cell phones and laptops were allowed, performance was poorer on the unit exam and final exam questions. This finding demonstrates for the first time that the main effect of divided attention in the classroom is not an immediate effect of selection or switching on comprehension but a long-term effect of divided attention on retention.”
In short, you may not notice any impact from using your laptop or smartphone while in class. In fact, the researchers tested the students during each class on short-term memory recollection and found no differences between those who use technology and those who don’t. But when it comes time to test your overall knowledge and comprehension of the material during mid-terms or finals, the deficit appears to catch up with you.
The Problems with Technology in the Classroom
Then the researchers discovered something even more profound — and disturbing:
Furthermore, when the use of electronic devices was allowed in class, performance on the unit exams and final exams was poorer for students who did not use electronic devices during the class as well as for the students who did use an electronic device.
Even those students who refrained from using their laptop while in class to take notes (or skim social media) suffered. It appears that just the mere presence of the devices make it harder for other students in the class to also learn. This is likely because technology in this context acts as much as a distraction as it does a learning aid:
It meant that for the few students who tried to direct attention to the instructor there was distracting activity on both sides and in front of them. The instructor often noticed two students giggling as they together viewed an image on a laptop. It seemed that such behaviour would be distracting to individuals around them.
Sure, a laptop is a great and fast way to take notes. As long as that’s all anyone is ever doing on their laptop during class.
But the reality is that many students are doing a half-dozen activities on their laptop while taking notes. Those other activities not only negatively impact that student’s own learning ability, but of those around them as well.
Divided Attention is at Fault
Divided attention has a distinct and measurable cost in the classroom. There are three reasons that research has identified for the costs of divided attention. According to the researchers:
The first effect is the selection effect. For example, when more than one person is speaking, while listening to one person speak a listener hears nothing of what the other speaker is saying.
The second effect is the switching effect. When two tasks are being performed, there is a switching time between tasks when neither task is being performed. Both selection and switching immediately degrade performance on at least one, and usually both tasks, causing an immediate effect of divided attention.
However, there is a third, delayed effect of divided attention on retention. When attention is divided between two tasks, fewer targets of a study task are subsequently remembered. Even when there is little or no selection or switching effect, divided attention reduces retention of the targets for both tasks.
In short, divided attention is bad for learning. It is the exact opposite thing you want when trying to learn a new idea, theory, fact, or skill. The more divided your attention, the less likely you are to retain the thing it is you’re trying to learn.
Putting it Into Practice
The reality is that most universities and professors are not going to suddenly stop banning laptops in class. They have become an integral part of many the way students and teachers perform in the classroom. The train has already left this particular station a long time ago.
One strategy for increasing learning while decreasing being distracted while in class includes ditching the laptop in favor of paper and pencil note-taking, and locking up your smartphone in your pocket, backpack, or purse. This eliminates one of the primary sources of distraction plaguing students today — self-distraction.1 This may be something that you need to do in increments, to get comfortable with over time. You’d be building a new habit, moving from automatically checking your phone every five minutes or when you see a new notification pop up, to checking your phone strictly in-between classes.
Another strategy to try is to strategically find a seat in the classroom that keeps your being distracted by the behavior of others to a minimum. Maybe that means sitting closer to the front of the room than you normally would be comfortable doing. Maybe it means finding a section of other paper-and-pencil note-takers and sitting there, which will eliminate the distraction of seeing other people’s laptop activities.
If you feel you must use a laptop while in class, for whatever reason, consider using a social media blocker. Such blocking software allows you to schedule blocks of time throughout the day to be social media-free (e.g., during class). Two such popular programs include Cold Turkey (both Windows and MacOS) and FocusMe (for all platforms, even mobile). While not a perfect solution, using one of these services will likely help you cut down on your distractions while taking notes.
Don’t have the money for media blocking software? Why not just disconnect from the wifi access point while in class? No wifi, no access to the Internet, which equals fewer distractions while taking notes.
Remember, the power and responsibility of staying focused on a task is in your hands. It is a skill you can learn and hone over time where you are no longer a victim of notifications and distractions.
You may find it difficult at first (since it has become such an integrated part of our lives virtually overnight), but with time and practice, you can put these strategies into use to become a person who is living more in-the-moment and who experiences the benefits of fully focusing your attention. Good luck!
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, & Maarten W. Bos. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, 2, 140-154.
Glass, Arnold L. & Kang, M. (2018). Dividing attention in the classroom reduces exam performance. Educational Psychology, 1-14. doi: 10.1080/01443410.2018.1489046
- Let me assure you that your life will not end just because you haven’t checked your social media feed for 50 minutes. In fact, you’ll likely find it improves the quality of your life in general. When we use the phone as a tool rather than as our master, it can act as an enhancement to your life, instead of your feeling like you’re tied or beholden to it. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2018). Laptops & Smartphones May be Hurting Your Ability to Learn in Class. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/laptops-smartphones-may-be-hurting-your-ability-to-learn-in-class/