Study: Laptops in the Classroom Can Distract, Hinder Learning

Contrary to the belief that laptops must serve as useful tools in class, they may actually serve as a distraction not only to the people who use them but even to students around them, a new study suggests. Although the use of laptops has shown to produce positive outcomes in some cases, students have been self-reporting in great numbers to using laptops for non-academic purposes and making it harder for instructors to retain student attention during class.

Studies on use of personal technology in class have been contradictory. While some show that their use can be a good thing by allowing a more active approach to teaching, simplifying the process of note taking and giving access to software packages like PowerPoint, those outcomes are only possible if students are using their laptops for their intended purposes.

Based on observation and self-reporting, this is frequently not the case.

On the other hand, studies suggest that students who use laptops in class report low satisfaction with their education, are more likely to multitask in class, and are more distracted . Student self-reports and classroom observations suggest that laptops are being used for non-academic purposes, such as instant messaging and playing games, checking email and watching movies, and browsing the Internet .

Access to online entertainment makes it increasingly difficult for instructors to be “more interesting than YouTube,” especially if students aren’t intrinsically motivated by the subject materials. Moreover, time spent multitasking with these activities is significant; data from one study estimates that students multitask for approximately 42% of class time .

Research shows that multitasking while in the classroom also leads to lower academic achievement, as students who multitask don’t absorb the material as well as their single-tasking peers.

Furthermore, as the authors point out, while students should have the option to multitask to the detriment of their own learning, they do not have a similar right to distract their fellow students. Yet laptops with bright screens and fast-moving images can serve as a distraction to others in the classroom.

Disrupting one’s own learning is an individual choice; harming the learning of other students in the class is disrespectful. Laptop distractions due to movement of images and laptop screen lighting and multitasking activities may cause involuntary shifts of attention among students in close proximity to laptop users . These studies suggest that students are annoyed and distracted by laptop use. However, to our knowledge, no studies have directly measured the effects of distraction caused by laptop users on surrounding peers’ learning. Therefore, a second goal of the present study was to examine the indirect effects of laptop multitasking on student learning.