Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 www.elsevier.


In-class laptop use and its eVects on student learning
Carrie B. Fried
Winona State University, Psychology Department, 231 Phelps Hall, Winona, MN 55987, United States Received 29 June 2006; received in revised form 15 September 2006; accepted 24 September 2006

Abstract Recently, a debate has begun over whether in-class laptops aid or hinder learning. While some research demonstrates that laptops can be an important learning tool, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more faculty are banning laptops from their classrooms because of perceptions that they distract students and detract from learning. The current research examines the nature of in-class laptop use in a large lecture course and how that use is related to student learning. Students completed weekly surveys of attendance, laptop use, and aspects of the classroom environment. Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a signiWcant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance. The practical implications of these Wndings are discussed. © 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Laptop use; Classroom teaching; Post-secondary education; Teaching/Learning strategies

Computers, and especially laptops, have become standard equipment in higher education as the number of universities instituting laptop initiatives continues to grow (Weaver & Nilson, 2005). Brown, Burg, and Dominick (1998) and Brown and Petitto (2003) have coined the term ubiquitous computing to describe a campus where all students and faculty have laptops and all buildings have access to wi-W technology. But recently there has been a backlash against such programs, with faculty banning laptop use in their classrooms due to concerns about the negative impact they have on student learning (e.g., Melerdiercks, 2005; Young, 2006). There does seem to be a developing feud between those who want to promote laptop use and those who are resistant to it. For the past few years, many educational innovators have touted technological advances in general and laptops with wireless connectivity more speciWcally as the next great educational innovations. Brown and his colleagues (e.g., Brown et al., 1998; Brown & Petitto, 2003) have long advocated the beneWts of universal and constant access to computers on college campuses. Much attention has been paid to Wnding ways of roll out laptop programs and get faculty to adopt and adapt to such programs (e.g.,

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2004). Platt & Bairnsfather.g. a true backlash against laptops has begun to surface. Students and parents have begun to discuss the potential problem posed by the access to distracting material available through laptops (Jones. 2006) likewise describe the distractions posed by laptops.B. Barak. in a survey of current students. Snyder. Mitra & SteVensmeier. & Grant.g. Finn & Inman. Demb. Other researchers have found that the use of laptops in classes can increase students’ motivation. 2005. in one of the few studies that looked at non-structured classroom use of laptops. and their overall academic achievements (Mackinnon & Vibert.. 1996. Harvard (Szaniszlo. it is diYcult to assess how applicable the laptop research is to more generic classes. The press has reported on eVorts in schools from University of Kansas (McGinnis. 2004. Weaver & Nilson. BYU (Palmer. Skeele. and Lerman (2006) demonstrated that laptop use in a wi-W classroom enhanced active exploratory learning and promoted more meaningful interactions between students and with the instructor in large classes. 2005. Levine (2002b) has also advocated the use of software that will allow the instructor to monitor and control what students are doing with their laptops during class time. Many of the published papers in this area (e. 2006). One exception. thus increasing engagement and active learning. Granberg and Witte (2005) found no diVerence between laptop and non-laptop sections in overall class grades. 2005. 2004. the frustrations felt by faculty. Granberg and Witte (2005). Levine (2002a) developed a way to integrate laptops into classroom experiences and found the need instigated a laptop-up laptop-down system. though they provided no evidence that this was beneWcial to student learning. 2002). 2001). 2005. Some (e. most of the research has been done on classes that have been speciWcally designed or revised to utilize the technology. During lecture time. or how laptop use truly aVects student learning. enhanced satisfaction with group projects and overall class satisfaction. 2006). Weaver & Nilson.g. Pargas & Weaver.. their ability to apply course based knowledge. and the various fruitless eVorts to control laptop use. First. The key question for most educators is simply whether these technological innovations will have a positive impact on education. even promoted instant messaging as a beneWt. Driver (2002) found that laptops. Second. As a result. Schwartz (2003) reported on professors so frustrated by their law students surWng during lectures that one faculty member manually unplugged the wireless transmitter. Stephens. more interest in learning. Lipson. and a greater motivation to perform well (Trimmel & Bachmann. 2005). 2006) to block or ban laptop use. only to relent after student outcry. 2005. Recently. 2006). 2006. students in laptop classrooms reported higher participation rates. 2006). everyone would reap the beneWts of this educational revolution (e. Sostek. 2003. This is often done through preparing and posting discussion questions and using new devices such as response keypads to facilitate student interaction. 2006). Many have raised concerns about the distraction posed by in-class laptop use. Two issues stand out in the research on the beneWts of laptops. 2002). Fitch. McWilliams. Hall & Elliot. Even proponents of laptops have argued that the use needs to be carefully controlled. and Hawkins-Wilding (2004). 2002. 2006. & Graetz. When compared to non-laptop classrooms. thus actively preventing students from using laptops during lectures. coupled with web-based activities. Partee. 2005) have found that laptops can facilitate faculty-student interactions and in-class participation. Surveys of current students and alumni frequently show varying but generally positive levels of satisfaction with laptop programs (e. Kladko. 2006). 2000). Few faculty are fully integrating laptops into their classes (Olson. An online discussion group has even formed to air concerns about laptops and discuss the pros and cons of banning laptops in the classroom (Young. Erickson. University of Pennsylvania (Chen. 2005). much of the research focuses on student perceptions and the research often lacks objective measures of learning or a non-laptop control group. 2005. Hall & Elliot. They claimed that this technology allowed students to make comments to or ask questions of fellow students “silently” without disturbing others. found that students felt laptops had a positive eVect on their study habits and were important to their academic success. 2005.. Szaniszlo. This . students are told to close their laptops and pay attention. Perhaps because of this. One common theme seems to be that if faculty would “take to” the new technology. Others (e... Siegle & Foster. Hyden.g. There is some evidence that laptop programs and the so-called ubiquitous computing environments they create on college campuses can have a positive eVect.g. Young. and Michigan Law (Ridberg. McVay. the idea of in-class laptop use has not been universally embraced. 2005) are simply prescriptions on how faculty can adapt their classes to make use of the technology.C. 2003. Bentley College (Silva. 2000. Stickney.. Schrum. 1998. Barak et al. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 907 Candiotti & Clarke.

Wickens & Hollands. Brock. along with pop-ups. in particular. Posner. Altmann. make laptops inherently distracting (Bhave. Melerdiercks. from two sections of General Psychology taught by the same instructor. He claims that in a rush to adopt laptops as the tool-du-jour in higher education. coupled with the high cost of laptop programs. and 4 seniors. 2001). According to Weaver and Nilson (2005). and many are becoming convinced that the laptops in the classroom are interfering with learning. 1993.. All students who completed the course (i. 2005. Melerdiercks (2005). the cognitive interference posed by laptops could spread from users to those seated nearby. The campus in which the current research was conducted was an ideal platform for such research. instant messages. 2002). 2004. Robinson-Riegler & Robinson-Riegler. Recently there has been a call for expanded research into the eVects of laptops on classroom learning. appearing while a subject are performing a primary task slows performance speed and increases errors. external events and visual stimulation can result in involuntary shifts of attention (Chun & Wolfe. 41 sophomores. Wickens & Hollands. are the primary causes for the backlash against such programs. Trafton. Thus. Given this research. 9 juniors. Bailey & Konstan. 2006. The purpose of the present research is to examine student laptop use and how laptops inXuence student learning outcomes in a traditional lecture course. 1982). 2002. Participants One hundred thirty-seven students. especially research done in “real classes” and those not speciWcally tailored to laptop use (e. is playing out more in the popular press than academic journals. and new information coming in can cause attentional shifts and distraction (for general overview of attention theories. There were 83 freshmen. and the instructor assured them that all data would be conWdential and that the survey responses would not inXuence course grades. There were three primary research questions. 2006). Some schools.B. most faculty have not fully integrated laptops into their classes. such as a pop-up messages. Too many sources of information can create cognitive overload. they also pose more of a distraction to fellow students than traditional notebooks (Bhave. Several have banned laptops in their classes. research on the impact of laptops on learning has been neglected. has made an impassioned plea for such research. however. Attentional shifts and cognitive overload can prevent information from being adequately processed and can interfere with learning (Chun & Wolfe. participated in the research. 2002).. It was on of the Wrst universities to institute a campus wide laptop initiative. took all the exams) were included as participants. there seems to be good reason for educators to be leery about in-class laptop use. & Mintz. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 backlash. could interfere with learning. particularly with wi-W access. Borja. see Roda & Thomas. and the evidence against laptop use is almost universally anecdotal and subjective.908 C. and even things like low-battery warnings. 2002. such as Duke. 2002). 2001). requiring all students to lease laptops.g. although attention is often controlled voluntarily. task performance suVers (Gopher. rather than enhancing it. Altmann & Trafton. 2002). Recent research on cognitive interference (e. Inevitably. Zucker. 2006.g. At the same time. 2003) has shown that new information. Moreover.e. Computers and other high-tech equipment are likely sources of overload and distraction The orientation and visual nature of laptops. (1) What is the level and character of laptop use in the classroom? (2) How does laptop use aVect learning outcomes? (3) Do laptops present a sizable distraction to other students in the classroom? 1. Because of the vertical orientation of laptops. when attention is divided and attentional demands exceed capacities. Methods 1. movement and lighting of text. . Others have dropped programs because they have become disillusioned with the idea that the beneWts of laptops in the classroom outweigh the costs (Mangan.1. the lack of research.. Established research Wndings in the areas of cognitive science and human factors would certainly lead to the prediction that laptop use. have opted out of laptop initiatives altogether because of unanswered questions about the problems laptops pose and the dearth of evidence that they are an overall valuable learning tool (Olson. All participants signed consent forms. 1973. 2001). 2004). Human attention and capacity to process information is selective and limited (Kahneman.

2. there were 4 exams and 10 homework assignments. surWng the net. 2004). covering twenty class sessions.1. Student learning was measured by performance on objective exams and the completion of homework assignments. Students rated how much they paid attention to the lectures. whether they had used their laptops during the class. Ten of the weekly surveys.C. Survey procedures and measures Students logged in to a course Web site and completed weekly surveys on various aspects of the class. provided measures of each students academic preparation and aptitude.2. Other measures American College Test (ACT) scores and high-school rank (HSR). complemented lectures. Occasional videos. in-class demonstrations. Results 2. There were also three items (on 5-point scales) assessing students perceptions of learning. to report on any aspects of the classroom experience or the behavior of their fellow students that they found distracting or that prevented them from paying attention to lectures. and how they had used their laptops. This item was optional and students were instructed to answer only if there was something in particular that distracted them during the week. in an open-ended format. or other. or in-class activities). 89% of the possible points were based on objective multiple-choice exams. and laptop use. which accounted for approximately 25% of class time. within that approximately 20% was only covered in lectures. checking e-mail. leaving an overall response rate of . Students were instructed to check as many as applied. The options for the laptop use question were taking notes.3. 1. Many of the questions were pulled from published testbanks and slightly modiWed.2. These included “Other people’s laptop use” and “Your own laptop use” as well as items about the course structure and class environment. Response rate Only those students who answered at least 7 of the 10 weekly surveys were included in the analysis. classroom experiences. Approximately 75% of the information in the exams was covered in the lectures. All students in the class had laptops with wireless networking capabilities and both classrooms were equipped with wi-W. 1. but that they would never need their laptops. In the Wrst nine surveys. as surveys covering longer periods would have been more susceptible to memory distortions and contamination and more frequent surveys would have been more susceptible to response set bias. The Wnal survey of the semester had additional scaled items asking students to rate (on an 8-point scale) the degree to which various aspects of the class interfered with their ability to learn the course material over the semester. These exams were designed to measure students understanding of core concepts and there ability to apply these concepts. and how well they felt they understood the material presented. focused on class attendance. Materials and procedure 1. movies.1.2. obtained from the university assessment oYce. how clear they found the lectures. Course structure and assessment The research was limited to a lecture oriented class where laptops were not utilized in any organized fashion.B. Weekly surveys were used to increase the accuracy of the responses. playing games. 2. discussions. HSR was scored as a percentile rank where 100 was the top ranked student in the high-school graduating class. These 20 class sessions were lecture sessions (as opposed to other class sessions where class time was primarily devoted to exams. Lectures covered much of the material presented in the text. The required text was a standard general psychology text (Coon. Approximately 70% of class time was devoted to lectures. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 909 1. Students were told at the beginning of the course that they could bring the laptops to class to take notes if they wanted to. how much time they had spent in each class period using their laptops for things other than taking notes. The class was conducted in a very conventional manner. Nine students out of the original 137 failed to complete the requisite seven surveys. with the addition of some new information. and discussions. During the course. instant messaging.2. students were asked. The survey questions asked students to report whether they had attended class.

001 . ACT or HSR data were missing from nine participants. There were also negative correlations between level of laptop use and how clear students found the lectures. the responses were coded into 10 categories. As described in the methods section. 81% reported that they checked email during the lectures.169.214. For each participant.001. p D .84. Level of laptop use Of the total participants.92 ¡2.179 t 3.279 .024. on course performance Predictor variables Constant ACT score H.3% reported using their laptops in at least one class period.2.4%.191. r(128) D . ACT scores.14 ¡5.3. 2.0). and how well they reported understanding the course material. including in-class computer use.200 . p D .024. t (115) D ¡2.12 0. and 35% reported doing “other” activities. students who reported using their laptops every time they reported attending class had a ratio of 1.184 . Because of the low counts in some categories. As can be seen in Table 1.910 C. EVects of laptop use on learning The primary purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between laptop use and student learning.7% of the class periods on average. 68% reported that they used instant messaging.09 30. p < . HSR. and how well they felt they understood the course material. the level of laptop use was signiWcantly and negatively related to student learning.325.329.S. 15 students completed 8 surveys.001 . There were 359 total responses to this item. and 8 students completed 7 surveys. including categories like “other people talking” and “hallway noise”. p D . 43% reported surWng the net. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 93.3). Initially. p D . r(128) D ¡. r(128) D ¡.. The level of inclass laptop use was negatively correlated with how much attention students reported paying to lectures. 115) D 13. In order to control for these factors and isolate the relationship between laptop use and learning.g. the responses were ultimately coded into two Table 1 The inXuence of predictor variables.001. Users reported that they multitasked (did things other than take lecture notes) for an average of 17 min out of each 75 min class period. those who used laptops used them during 48. F(4.179. the lower their class performance.175 .300 ¡.024 Partial correlations . so they were not included in this analysis. Distraction posed by laptop use Two types of measures assessed the distraction posed by laptops.64 2.011.12 Standardized Beta . p < .B.28 p <.4. 64. Sixty-Wve students completed all 10 surveys. and class attendance were all (positively) correlated with student learning.001. r(128) D . R2 D .316 ¡.292 . 38 students completed 9 surveys. Of the students who reported their laptop uses during lectures (n D 78). Student learning was measured by the total points earned out of 100 (M D 76. D ¡. r(128) D ¡.79 1. Several other analyses were conducted to assess the impact of laptop use on student learning. ACT scores. and selfreported attendance were entered into the regression equation as predictor variables along with laptop use. The more students used their laptops in class. HSR.320. 2. There was a positive correlation between course performance and how clear students found the lectures.049.286.018 <. SD D 11. The linear combination of these variables was signiWcantly related to class performance. p < .41 3.4. 2. This relationship was analyzed using linear regression. For each subject. a ratio of laptop use was calculated based on the number of times they reported attending class and the number of times they reported using their laptops in class (e. 25% reported playing games. his or her responses for each item were averaged across all the surveys completed. rank Class attendance Computer use Unstandardized B 19. students had opportunity to report anything in the class or in the behavior of their fellow students that distracted them or prevented them from paying attention during lectures.

This was signiWcantly greater than all other responses combined (n D 130). going. Discussion This research raises serious concerns about the use of laptops in the classroom. SD D 2. which in turn resulted in lower test scores. HRS.98 2. Table 2 contains results of individual items. Results indicate that laptop use by fellow students was the single most reported distracter (n D 229). and conscientiousness. Participants rated the degree to which they felt various aspects of the class interfered with their learning. Had the full data set been analyzed as a withinsubjects ANOVA.57 1.88 1. The results of the regression analysis clearly show that success in the class was negatively related to the level of laptop use. the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. accounting for 64% of all responses. Note: Items that share a superscript do not diVer at the . the correlational nature of this research prevents drawing clear causal relationships.02 level. the exclusion of all those subjects because of the missing data would have resulted in a biased sample. HSR.001. Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. categories: (a) others’ laptop use and (b) all other responses. preparation.65.55 3.1 3.96 1. The Wnal survey of the semester contained the second measure of the level of distraction posed by laptops. The results of the second ANOVA were used only to examine the pairwise comparisons between that item and other individual items. It is possible that students who are struggling in class are more likely to bring their laptops as a diversion. N D 359) D 29.001. and attendance should act as proxy measures for variables such as academic aptitude. p < .16 2. This was signiWcantly diVerent from all other item except one.79 911 n 120 78 119 120 121 119 120 120 120 Higher numbers indicate greater reported levels of interference. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 Table 2 Degree to which students felt aspects of the class interfered with their ability to learn lecture material Item Other students’ computer usea Own computer useab Other students talkingbc Length of classc Other students coming. from the lecture format to the behavior of fellow students. .37 SD 2.95 1. The survey asked about nine diVerent aspects of the course and classroom environment.13). The inclusion of ACT scores.13 1. general social desirability pressures.26 1. After controlling for these variables. the second included the question.55.35 2. The Wrst excluded the question of subjects’ own computer use.300. p < . SD D 2. 114) D 30.65 3. Since roughly one-third of the students never used laptops. two within-subjects ANOVAs were conducted.75 2. Obviously.35) was the issue that most interfered with their ability to pay attention and learn the material presented in class. However. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material.2. Self-reported responses always raise concerns about social desirability. In order to control for the uneven response rates and make use of all the possible data points. the interference posed by one’s own laptop use (M D 3.60 1. Pairwise comparisons indicated that students reported other students’ laptop use (M D 3. t (77) D . 1 The diVering response rates of the items presented a problem in this analysis.B. 2 (1. A within-subjects ANOVA indicated that there were signiWcant diVerences between the items. p D .39. There are some potential limitations to the interpretation and application of these results. ACT scores. based on pairwise comparisons.96 1. laptop use was still negatively related to academic success.765. and class attendance should attenuate these alternate explanations to some degree and help isolate the direct inXuence of in-class laptop use on learning. F(7.C.96 1.35 . More importantly. they did not answer the question on the distraction posed by their own computers. and Wdgetingc Style of class (primarily lecture)d Time of daye Classroom environmente Instructor’s use of PowerPointf Mean 3.

and they would have had no eVect on exam scores. Once researchers and educators better understand why laptop use has a negative eVect on learning. This would avoid the problems of self-reporting and provide a more accurate measure of the quantity and nature of oV-task use. for ethical reasons. Another potential weakness.. . however. Future research should begin to examine systematically what factors in the course and classroom environment are favorable to laptop use. computers are necessary and learning may depend on immediate and constant access to computers during class time. were underreported. Although this cannot be ruled out in the present study. as well as the interference posed by one’s own laptop use on attention and learning. due to the repeated nature of the surveys. and students could not go back and review their previous responses. This in turn may raise additional concerns about the validity of the data (i. The present study shows that unstructured use of laptops in lecture courses is a disadvantage. such data collection methods would complement the self-report methods used in the present study and would improve our understanding of the nature of laptop use and its inXuence of learning. Grace-Martin. Future research may also be improved by Wnding ways to monitor laptop use directly. This is by no means a novel suggestion. or at least inform students about their pitfalls and attempt to limit the distraction laptops pose to other students.B. First. is response set bias. Gay. Faculty who tailor their classes to laptops may have an entirely diVerent experience. students may behave diVerently because they know they are being monitored). as cited in the introduction. laptop use is negatively associated with student learning and it poses a distraction to fellow students. would most likely have pushed responses in the opposite direction. is it cognitive overload caused by juggling too much information. the self-report nature of the data would suggest that the degree and variety of laptop use. why does laptop use interfere with learning? Is it distraction caused by incoming information. faculty.912 C. Response sets are also unlikely to have aVected key measures such as whether students reported bringing their laptops on a particular day. Fried / Computers & Education 50 (2008) 906–914 when relevant here. I believe students.. more strategic solutions can be developed. these results clearly demonstrate that the use of laptops can have serious negative consequences. For example. The Wndings and limitations of the present study suggest several avenues for future research. and administrators need to Wnd ways to promote the appropriate use of laptops while simultaneously reducing the negative impacts of inappropriate use. Stefanone. The primary limitation to the generalization of these results is the nature of the course used – a large lecture oriented introductory level class where laptop use was not controlled. In many classes and labs. or is it simply the lighted text moving across the screen. participants should have felt pressure to report that they were doing nothing but taking notes with their laptops. I thank Kathryn Jargo for all her assistant in data coding and data entry and John Johanson and Peter Miene for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper. These results suggest that the negative inXuence of in-class laptop use is two-pronged. Obviously. students would need to give consent for such monitoring. One or two weeks passed between survey administrations. Faculty who do not use laptops in an integrated way should consider ways to limit or control their use. & Hembrooke. However. Students recalling how they answered many of the questions and automatically responding the same way seems doubtful. 2006. This type of data would undoubtedly give a clearer picture of why and when laptop use interferes with learning. 2001). which can be summed up as asking “why” and “when”. Still. when do the costs of laptop use outweigh the beneWts? Previous research. If anything. has demonstrated that laptops can be beneWcial in courses speciWcally designed to utilize them. Ultimately. it is unlikely that is had a signiWcant eVect. Several other researchers have likewise suggested that laptops should not be used in classes where they are not integrated into the course (Barak et al.e. Second. and what factors are associated with laptops interfering with learning. Acknowledgement This research was supported by a summer research grant from Winona State University. these results are not applicable to every classroom experience.

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