Do laptops in the classroom really help students learn?

In my early days of lecturing to medical students, few things annoyed me more than the occasional student who read through the daily newspaper as I gave my lecture. Today, college professors need to contend with a much more frustrating classroom accessory: laptop computers. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to see the backs of 200+ laptops with my students half-faces or eyes alone dancing between me and the computer screen, looking down at god-knows-what!

Many college professors believe that laptops in the classroom are distracting to students. Emails and texting communications as well as extraneous Internet information compete with the professor’s words and illustrations for their attention. While studies indicate that students are aware of such distractions, most nonetheless feel that the advantages of laptop note taking exceed the disadvantages.


Note taking on laptops versus pen and paper

A recently published paper (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014), by researchers from Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles, has begun to test those assumptions. The paper, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, is based on experiments performed with college students at both Princeton and UCLA.

Preliminary experiments were conducted by having students attend a lecture and take notes. To do so, they were provided with either a laptop (not connected to the Internet) or a paper notebook and pen. About a half hour after the lecture, the students were tested on the lecture contents. Importantly, the assessment questions included both factual recall (e.g., “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”) and questions involving more in-depth critical thinking to answer (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”).

Results showed that the students that took notes with traditional paper and pen outperformed their laptop-wielding counterparts, particularly on the deeper, more thought-provoking questions. This result was obtained even though the laptop group took significantly more notes, often producing verbatim transcripts of parts of the lecture.

One obvious issue with this preliminary study was that the test was given almost immediately after the lecture; there was no time to study whatever notes were taken. In the real world this wouldn’t happen. Students take notes and assessments are given days or weeks later. Perhaps the more detailed and extensive notes taken by the laptop group might prove to be better for studying for an exam given long after the lecture.

The researchers addressed this issue with a second experiment. In this case, the students were told prior to the lecture that they would be tested on the material one week afterwards. Again, the laptop group took much more extensive notes than the notebook group. And again, the notebook group outperformed the laptop group the following week on the assessment.


What do the results mean?

The laptop students took massive amounts of notes, but their notes were transcript-like in nature. To cognitive scientists, like the authors of the study, this suggests that there was little processing of the lecture material at the time of the lecture. The slower, paper and pencil note taking method necessitated moment-to-moment selection of the most essential points, as it would have been impossible to write as fast as the lecturer spoke. These students could spend time processing the information as it was presented and seek meaning in it, and then jot down a few words to encapsulate these thoughts and ideas. They needed to synthesize and summarize content as the lecture progressed. In short, the notebook students had to process the information more than the laptop students at the time of the lecture.

Based on what we know about learning and memory, this is not a surprising result. Consider the Information Processing Model (insert). We have discussed this model in the past in terms of the importance of the “processing” of information in learning and memory. Students taking slower, hand-written notes   had to synthesize new information by retrieving previously existing content from their long-term memory and comparing it to what they were hearing to decide on its significance. Then, they had to figure out how to summarize the significant information in a few words, representing larger concepts. These students limited short-term working memory had to be repeatedly cleared to create cognitive “space” for the continual flow of new information as the lecture progressed.

In contrast, full transcription of a lecture can be committed to external storage (i.e. the laptop) with little or no deep processing. Consider the fact that computer programs and applications have existed for some time now that can “hear” words and quite accurately convert them to written text with no human processing whatsoever.


Questions for K-12 educators

Though this study measures the learning strategies of college students, it has interesting implications for K-12 education. From a developmental perspective, I believe it is important to consider Mueller and Oppenheimer’s work in discussions of if, when, and how to introduce young children to the keyboard as a learning tool. Are there points in cognitive development when technology might actually inhibit learning? Alternatively, how might programs and apps be structured to better enable young users to benefit from educational technology? One could go on and ask many, many more questions. That is what makes the paper worth reading.


Mueller, P.A., Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science. 0956797614524581, April 23, 2014. 

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