Laptop Zones

Laptops and tablet devices of various sorts are everywhere in college classrooms at this point. Students use them to take notes. Keying is quicker than writing notes longhand, and typed notes are subsequently easier to read. Faculty have two legitimate worries; students are using their devices for activities other than note-taking, and bright screens filled with colorful graphics can distract more than just the student who’s not taking notes. The authors referenced below think this is an especially serious problem in large lecture halls where students sit close together and it’s all but impossible for the teacher to control who’s doing what with their electronic devices.

They wondered whether laptop zones might be a solution. To test their theory, they designated laptop zones in two sections of a large, introductory biology course. Two other sections where students sat without seating restrictions acted as the control.

The authors’ analysis is well-designed and creative. It’s explained in detail in this research article. Here’s a rundown of their findings. If they are of interest, this is an excellent article that extensively references related research.

  • There was no difference in attendance rates between the unrestricted seating sections and those with laptop zones; nor was there any difference in the number of students who used laptops to take notes.
  • The percentage of laptop users who were off-task (that is, who had non-course content on their screens, as observed from the back of the room) was significantly higher in the zoned than in the control sections. Forty percent of the students off-task were using social media, including Facebook, instant messaging, and video chat.
  • The average percentage of laptops that were off-task at any given time during the lecture was 17 percent in the control sections. This observational-based percentage is lower that student self-reported percentages, as documented by other research.
  • Free-response survey questions gave students the opportunity to indicate why they selected to take notes by hand or on the computer. The most frequent response among those taking notes by hand was that the process “facilitates learning.” Those using laptops most frequently reported that it was “convenient.”
  • As for performance: “Academic performance, based on exam points earned, was not significantly different for paper users in zoned and control sections, indicating laptop use did not impair the overall achievement of surrounding students. However, there was a correlation between exam performance and note taking preference: paper note takers scored significantly higher and laptop users scored significantly lower than predicted by pre-class academic indicators” (p. 1300).
  • Students in all sections were opposed to banning laptops. Only 10 percent supported that policy. When asked about restricting laptop use to designated zones, 50 percent of the note takers in the control sections supported that policy; 82 percent of those in the zoned classes did. “After exposure to zoning the preference of both paper and laptop users shifts significantly in favor of zoning” (p. 1305).

Here’s the research team’s overall conclusion: “Although the creation of a laptop-free zone did not affect overall student performance, zoning had a positive impact on the class environment and student attitudes. Although zoned laptop users engaged in more off-task behavior, that wasn’t associated with a decrease in performance.” They offer an important caveat: “Because the variable we manipulated in this study was zoning, not laptop use, the underlying causes for why laptop users underperformed are not known” (p. 1307).

Reference: Aguilar-Roca, N.M., Williams, A.E., and O’Dowd, D.K., (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education, 59, 1300–1308.

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