Laptops in the Classroom: Are They a Useful Tool, or Just a Distraction?

Twenty years back, PAW reported on a groundbreaking shift to Firestone Library’s reference room: Each desk was equipped with an outlet for a laptop computer.
“Technology is booming in the library,” PAW correspondent Ann Waldron wrote with enthusiasm, while claiming that Princeton had not”given up on the book and gone entirely high-tech.”
Nowadays, laptops are everywhere on Princeton’s campus — sometimes glowing from the rear rows at dance performances as well as the bleachers at soccer games — and more in courses and precepts. Do notebooks assist pupils take more detailed notes, or do they drag attention away from the professor and also down the rabbit hole of the web?
The argument has existed in colleges across the country since laptops became classroom fixtures from the early 2000s. It concluded that individual professors should make their own decisions on whether to prohibit laptops in the lecture hall, a coverage which stands today.
In 2014, psychologists published a research on laptop note-taking in a Princeton lecture hall. Even when distractions were controlled by disconnecting computers on the world wide web, students who used laptops performed worse on conceptual questions about the lecture than students who took notes paper. The researchers reasoned that using laptops to take notes involves”shallower” mental processing than conventional pen and paper.

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English professor William Gleason said he believes that more college have moved to ban laptops lately — but no clear information on the issue exist. (Gleason noted that he doesn’t ban laptops from his classes.)
Some students choose to rely on handwritten notesin courses where computers are allowed. “Even though I can’t write everything down in the exact same speed,” explained Katherine Ross’22,”I feel like I know concepts better and remember them without needing to update as much.”
For engineering students, this can be a sensible decision: It’s easier to write symbols and diagrams than to make them on a computer. For many others, the existence of laptops interrupts a focused environment in the classroom.
Ross added that using paper and pencil helps to preempt the temptation to multitask. “I constantly tell myself I’m multitasking, but I look up and I’ve zoned out for 10 minutes and am totally confused,” she explained.
Professor emeritus Harvey Rosen, whose Introduction to Microeconomics course frequently drew over 400 students, said he prohibited laptops for several years and received essentially no pushback. “The anonymous course evaluations include essentially no criticisms of this policy,” Rosen said.
Yet many pupils continue to find laptops useful. In big lectures where computers have been permitted, most students will be typing on a keyboard instead of writing with a pencil. Psychology professor Nicole Shelton has described her view from front of McCosh 50 as”looking over a sea of luminous, white apples.”
Laptops provide digital conveniences: the capability to compose and write quicker, to search immediately for a haul or pull up a helpful article. “If I am trying to take handwritten notes I literally cannot keep up with the professor, and so dedicate as much time to trying to write down everything quickly that I lose some understanding of this substance,” noted Camellia Moors’22.
And for students with learning or physical disabilities, tablets and laptops can be invaluable necessities for taking notes. 1 difficulty with laptop bans is that students with disabilities are either unable to take notes efficiently or, if they request accommodations, have to disclose their disability using a notebook in class.
Associate professor Casey Lew-Williams, that teaches his developmental psychology course at a large McCosh lecture hall, addresses concerns about accessibility and diversion by dividing the classroom. The left section of seats is pen-and-paper only — earmarked for students who’d be distracted by others’ displays. Students may use laptops in the rest of the room.
“I want students to take in data in a way which works for them, and I don’t want students to have to’out’ their learning disability if they in fact must use a notebook,” Lew-Williams explained. “If this means that students type continuously on a pc, fine. If they wish to download a journal article I’m describing, nice. If they need paper and pencil, nice.”

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