In-class "multitasking": How laptops hurt learning

In-class "multitasking": How laptops hurt learning

Most instructors have had to think about the benefits and drawbacks of using laptop computers in class.  This article by Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda is an exceptionally well done study that has a lot to say about this.  The research discussed in this article looked at the impact of students having laptops in class that were being used for non-course related tasks, such as surfing the web.  It examined the impacts on learning for both the students using the laptop and the students around them that could see the laptop screen.  There are lots of details of how they carried out the study, but you can skip over that if you just want the important results.  Those are nicely summarized by the figure on page 6 and in the general discussion on page 6 and the top of page 7. 

Here are the main results:

  1. Multitasking, by using a laptop for non-class related activities while also paying attention to the lecture and taking notes, has a detrimental effect on learning of the student with the laptop. That is an unsurprising result that has been seen before, but it is confirmed here with a particularly careful study.
  2. Most important result—there is a substantial negative impact on the learning of the students that are not using laptops and are paying attention to the lecture but are able to see a laptop that is being used for non-class activities. 
  3. The negative impact on the learning of the students being distracted by other students’ laptop use is actually larger than the negative impact on the students with the laptops.  This makes some sense, as the students with the laptops have more control over the distraction and can manage it to reduce the impact.
  4. Those students using laptops to multitask greatly underestimate the detrimental effects this has on the students around them.

Carl Wieman is Professor of Physics and in the School of Education.

What's your experience of students "multitasking" with laptops in class?  Please comment below.