11. Mobile technology in the classroom

Smartphones, laptops and tablets can be useful learning tools in the classroom; they can also be a source of distraction. In this episode, we discuss alternative policies that faculty and students might adopt to facilitate learning. Recent research on the relative effectiveness of handwritten vs. digital note taking is also examined.

Show Notes

Coming Soon!

  • Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Williams, A. E., & O’Dowd, D. K. (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education, 59(4), 1300-1308.
  • Artz, Benjamin and Johnson, Marianne and Robson, Denise and Taengnoi, Sarinda, Note-Taking in the Digital Age: Evidence from Classroom Random Control Trials (September 13, 2017).
  • Bain, Ken (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
  • Bui, D. C., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2013). Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 299.
  • Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132.
  • Brooks, D. Christopher and Pomerantz, Jeffrey (2017). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2017.
  • Hembrooke, H., & Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of computing in higher education, 15(1), 46-64.
  • Lang, James M. “The Distracted Classroom.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 13, 2017.
  • Miller, Michelle (2017). Addiction, Accommodation, and Better Solutions to the Laptop Problem. Dec. 8, 2017 blog post.
  • Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168.
  • Patterson, R. W., & Patterson, R. M. (2017). Computers and productivity: Evidence from laptop use in the college classroom. Economics of Education Review, 57, 66-79.
  • Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning. Psychological science, 28(2), 171-180.
  • Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.


John: Today in Oswego, it is approximately six degrees and we’ve had about four feet of snow in the last couple of days. We’re going to talk about a topic that comes up often in many of our workshops at the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching here, which is student mobile device use in the classroom.

Rebecca: Today our teas are:

John: Blueberry green tea

Rebecca: …. and Jasmine green.

Rebecca: So, in 2017 an ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology report came out and indicated that laptop ownership is up to 95 percent amongst undergraduate students and smartphones device use is up to 97 percent. I’m sure Chromebooks and other inexpensive devices have certainly increased the amount of technology… but they’re everywhere… and I definitely feel that in my classroom I don’t think I’ve had a semester yet where a student doesn’t have a smartphone or a laptop with them.

John: Another thing that the study noted is that tablet use is actually declining a little bit over the last couple of years. Still, though, about 50 percent of students that have a tablet computer as well… and most students report owning multiple mobile devices. I’ve noticed the same thing, that over the last three or four years more and more of my students in my large intro class (with about 360 or 400 students) are coming with computers. I’d say probably about 60 to 70% of them show up in class with them now.

Rebecca: Do you have any sort of policy on using these sorts of devices in your classroom?

John: I actually do encourage the use of them for specific purposes. One of the main concerns that faculty express is that computers provide a very convenient source of distractions, and I do observe that…. because I wander around the classroom quite a bit and it’s not uncommon to see students doing things other than what we’re working on in class. So that’s an issue, I think, which is at the heart of most people’s concern.

Rebecca: How do you discourage that distraction in such a large class?

John: I remind them that their time in class is limited and that it perhaps might be more effective for them if they were to use them for class related activities, which could include note-taking… or it also includes frequent use of polling. I use i>clickers in class and many of the students, probably a third to a half, are now doing the polling using either a laptop or their smartphones. What’s your policy on computers in class?

Rebecca: I teach web design courses, so obviously having multiple devices on any given student is convenient because we do need to test our work on multiple devices. So we certainly use them, in that respect. When we’re going over new material, I encourage students that want to use their devices to sit in the periphery of the room, so that they don’t necessarily distract other people who aren’t using devices… and then a lot of times we’re doing things that require diagramming and what-have-you… and so it’s just more convenient to take notes… not using a computer… unless they have a device where they can draw really easily, maybe a tablet that has a drawing application or something on it. So that’s usually my policy and most students are fine with that… and I also include in my syllabus that if you are distracting people around you then I might ask you to put it away… which I generally don’t have to do… but I have had to occasionally.

John: One of the concerns is that there’s a number of studies out there that find that when students are using computers in class, in a manner unrelated to the class, it not only harms their learning… but it also harms the learning of those around them. One of the studies on that was done by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda in a 2013 article in Computers & Education and there have been other studies that have found the same sort of results. So I use it, actually, as a learning experience because we talk about externalities in my introductory economics class, where externalities involve side effects of your actions that either provide benefits or harm to others…. and I know that when you have something that’s distracting others around you, that’s going to harm their learning as well… and perhaps we should discourage such negative externalities.

Rebecca: I think one of the things that also comes up is… distraction is one thing…. so if you’re distracted, how do you change from being distracted to having focused attention, right? ….and so… obviously the polling that you do in your classes is a great way to get students to refocus and regain attention. Are there other things that you do in your other classes that aren’t so large?

John: In my econometrics class, I will often have students work on problems in class where I’ll give them them a problem… they’ll pull up their regression software… run some results… and then we’ll talk about it in class… and generally there’s much less of an issue in upper-level classes, because the students tend to have more intrinsic motivation. They tend to be more focused on the topic in those classes as well.

Rebecca: I’d say my one class is an upper-level class but it’s still an introductory class. It’s an introduction to web design and I have a wide variety of students from first year students to graduate students that are all in the same room at the same time, but they’re all beginners and it’s an elective, so there’s a tendency to want to be there in the first place. They have some sort of motivation for wanting to learn that, so I don’t feel those same kinds of strains about focused attention that other faculty do in a general education class. But there is a lot of information out there, or strategies that you can use to start thinking about how those general education classes connect to individual majors, right? So the more you can help students find how it’s relevant to them, the more likely they will be to engage in the topic. So I’d recommend for faculty to really think about that at the start of the semester, and make that a good sell at the beginning… and connect back to that over and over again throughout the semester, so that students recognize that the general education courses really do matter to whatever it is that they’re gonna do as a professional.

John: …. and I do the same sort of thing the first day of class. I’ll generally ask my students why they’re taking this course and I’ll take responses from them sometimes I’ll do it on a poll and the results will come up… other times I’ll just have them say why they’re there and very quickly someone will say “Well, I’m here because I have to be here.” I said “ Well, why do you have to be here?” and they’ll respond “It’s required for my major.” So then the next logical question is “Why is it required for your major? What about this course is it that people think is so essential for your major that you all have to take it?” … and then that helps them think about why perhaps the things they’re learning here are relevant for their future careers…. and then I’ll tie it to that a little bit. I’ll ask them “So, what are you going to learn in this class that will help you in your future jobs that come out of this major?” and I remind them of that periodically as well… and try to make connections between what we’re doing and what their educational and career aspirations are.

Rebecca: ….This is really related to the idea of the “promising syllabus” that both Ken Bain and James Lang talk and write about quite a bit, where you’re really defining what are the big problems that the class is going to address…. and coming back to them over and over again… and that might be a strategy to really provide that focused attention.

John: mm-hmm. So, more broadly, in terms of policies, there’s three broad sets of policies that people seem to be using: one is to completely ban all mobile device use in the classroom (and we have quite a few faculty here that choose to do that), others have more of a laissez-faire policy, where students are encouraged to use computers productively… and that’s the approach I’ve generally tried to use. and others where mobile technology is is required for specific tasks… and that’s also true in my classes to a large extent.

Rebecca: Although that can be challenging, if you happen to have equity issues, right, at your university? ….and students, that three or five percent that don’t have devices, you need a way for those students to have devices.

John: Well, actually, I think the three to five percent would be with any one device that they don’t have. Virtually all students have at least one device. It’s been many years since I’ve had a student who didn’t have either a laptop or a smartphone. Most of the students come with at least one, and many of them come with both. When I teach in a summer program at Duke, for example, there are some students who may not have it. I generally bring some spare fifty-dollar Android tablets and pass them out if they forgot to bring their device. It’s not that they don’t have it, but sometimes they forget to bring it with them…. And you can do lots of activities where people share their device, as well. So the equity issue is much less of an issue than it would have been a decade or more ago. It may be in some other institutions. In lower-income areas or in some community colleges, device ownership is a bit lower, but we don’t really have much of that issue here.

Rebecca: I usually discover that the first day of class when I do a survey of my students to see what devices they have and then knowing that information, I can design activities and things that take advantage of those devices or avoid using certain devices if students really don’t have them. But I’ve also noticed, in keeping with the recent study, that my students have had more and more of those devices available to them in every class period. People who decide to have a ban on technology in the classroom… if they phrase it like that in the syllabus, and talk about that, I sometimes fear that that just sets up like rules and regulations sort of philosophy for the classroom. That sometimes doesn’t set up a classroom environment or climate that is welcoming and open. So I think if you want to discourage that use then you have to be really careful about the language that you use around that… so it doesn’t feel like a penalizing system.

John: One strategy that some faculty have used is…. you could invite students perhaps to refrain from distractive use of technology, because it could be in their own interest.

Rebecca: …and explaining that, and explaining why you might want them to put it away, I think, it can be helpful. So, rather than having a strict policy, maybe having those minor discussions here and there about when it becomes distracting, or not useful, it could be helpful.

John: … and they’re going to be living in a world where mobile technology is not going away. They’re going to be in a workplace using mobile technology and perhaps learning how to use it more productively might be useful.
One of the reasons faculty give for banning devices is that there have been some studies suggesting that students who take notes by hand perform better, or recall more information, than students who take notes on computers. One of the problems, though, with those studies (and there have been many of them) is that generally it was based on situations where students self selected, in terms of whether to take notes on computers or to take notes by hand… and those studies generally didn’t control for self selection. The most common explanation of the finding that note-taking by hand was more effective than note-taking by computers was that when students take notes by hand they don’t write as much… so when they looked at notes taken by hand and by computers, students who took notes by hand tended to write much more condensed notes, and the argument is there’s more cognitive processing going on in the note-taking… because they have to think about what the key concepts are and the additional learning is really coming from that part. The people who took notes by computers generally type much more and it appeared when you looked at the number of words typed, for example, that they were attempting to transcribe everything that was being said… or everything that was projected onto a screen (for people who were using PowerPoints, or Prezis, or Google slides, or Beamer).

Rebecca: That was one of the issues that I had with some of the studies… Specifically was that the way that they were measuring whether or not the notes were effective was whether or not they had everything that was provided copied down basically verbatim plus some as the highest score… and I would argue that that’s not very good note-taking in the first place.

John: Well, I think most of them… they actually focused on performance on some type of tests. In terms of recall, some of them were controlled experiments where there was an experimental lecture provided, and then students were tested on it immediately after, or a day or two later. But the analysis seemed to suggest that simply transcribing everything that was said is not very helpful, as you suggested there.

Rebecca: Yeah, and we know from evidence-based practices, that simply copying down, without doing any cognitive processing about what is important or what’s not important about that content…. and how does that content connect to other things, isn’t very useful. …and just reviewing your notes, in general, is also not a useful studying technique. So, if you’re only looking at those kinds of features, you’re not necessarily observing whether or not the laptop or device is inhibiting learning.

John: So, the argument for banning it is that it will reduce the number of distractions and it will force students to take notes perhaps in a more effective manner. The only problem with that logic, from my perspective, is that I remember when I was a student… I didn’t have a laptop or a mobile device, and I was perfectly able to distract myself when I found a class to be boring. There was always a notebook that I brought (I actually had only one notebook throughout my undergraduate career, I was not very good at taking notes back then) and I used it to play hangman, to write down notes to make plans for going out after class, and other things with friends around me, and I really didn’t need mobile technology to provide distractions.

Rebecca: The equivalent of texting, right? You’re still communicating with your friends by a notebook instead of through mobile devices, right? I had perfectly colored biology diagrams, I recall.
JOHN… hence, the art major thing…
….but one thing that these studies did not do is…. they found these very strong results… but they didn’t control for self selection. They observed that students who chose to take notes on computers did less well in remembering things than students who chose to take notes by hand.
There was an interesting study, though, released on September 13, 2017, by Artz, Johnson, Robson and Taengnoi (not sure of the pronunciation on those) in which there was a randomized controlled experiment conducted in, I believe, five economics classes… and they sorted students by their ID numbers. Students who had odd numbered student ID numbers were placed in one group, students with even numbers were placed in the other. A guest instructor was brought in who provided a very structured presentation in each of the classes. Half of the students, roughly, were required in the first sequence to take notes by computer and the other half were required to take notes by hand…. and then they reversed that a month later…. where they had the same groups but they switched the odd and even numbers. When they were tested on the material two days later, there was no significant difference. What this result seems to suggest is that the earlier studies were subject to sample selection bias, and the basic problem is that students who were more likely to choose to take notes on computers were students, on average, who would do less well whether they took notes by hand or by computer.

Rebecca: Students who weren’t as strong necessarily academically would be the ones who are more likely to choose to take notes on a computer… maybe that’s because they weren’t as interested in the subject matter…, maybe they didn’t really understand the subject matter and they were choosing that device, in particular, because they could “multitask.”

John: …and one of the things we do know, and this this has been found in many studies, is that none of us is very good at multitasking. The students dramatically overestimate their ability to multitask and they underestimate the amount of time they actually do multitask… and pulling away your attention to look at a text… to respond to a text… to jump to a website… to respond to a Facebook, or an Instagram ,or other notification… has a fairly strong adverse effect on your recall… on your ability to remember things… and students significantly underestimate how often they do that, as measured by studies where they’ve they were using a proxy server to actually track students’ use of mobile devices.
The main conclusion of the study is that it really doesn’t matter whether students take notes by hand or whether they take notes on a computer.

Rebecca: That leads me to kind of question whether or not students are just not very good note takers, right? We don’t spend a lot of time, especially at the college and university level, teaching students how to take good notes… and they think that copying verbatim whatever they see on the board, or what have you, is how to take notes, rather than taking the time to reflect, process, and figure out what things mean and putting it in their own words. So, I wonder how many faculty actually take any time to discuss note-taking or what might be effective in a particular class. I remember in Small Teaching that James Lang suggested using an outline and providing students with outlines that the students could fill in with blanks to follow along and focus their attention but also structure their notes in a way that might be useful. So, that’s one technique faculty could use.

John: Right, it could be an outline, or it could even be distributing… for those who use PowerPoint slides or other types of presentations …distributing those with some gaps, because if you provide students with too much detail then they tend not to use it very much… they tend not to annotate it quite as much. One of my former colleagues, Bill Goffe (who was on the show a few weeks ago), when he shares PowerPoint slides (or at least in the past when he shared PowerPoint slides) he’d leave the graphs off of it. So, he’d have some text there and some basic outlines, but then students would have to fill in part of it. So he’d share the notes in advance, but there would be things they’d have to fill in… which fills that same sort of purpose, of having a broad outline but then requiring students to make some connections on that as well.

Rebecca: Similarly, I think students generally don’t have very good metacognition, right? ….and so I find that using quizzes in class and going over those quizzes is a good way for students to fill in their notes. What I do is a series of review questions most class periods at the start of class that interleave different topics that we’ve had throughout the semester. Students take those quizzes and then I have them self grade it in a red pen… in a different color… and we go over it… and I require them to take notes about why their answer is incorrect and what the correct answer is. So I’m forcing them to do that reflective piece about what the thing means, and put it in their own words, essentially. If they just regurgitate something that I had said, and they can’t actually explain what that means, then we take that opportunity during the review questions… time to figure that out or take the time to do that.

John: In my class, probably more than half the time… sometimes 60 or 70% of the time, I’m giving students problems where they have to solve them, and I use Eric Mazur’s think-pair-share type of methodology with clickers, where they first answer the questions individually and they give their responses… and then if about half of them get it incorrect (I try to aim for questions where about half of them will get it correct the first time) then I have them discuss it and work on it and then they vote again… and generally there is some significant improvement and it’s that retrieval practice that’s probably much more effective than just simply lecturing to students. I do give some short lectures in class for 5 or 10 minutes at a time and students will often comment that they need more time to write things down and I’ll remind them that perhaps what they should be writing down is not every word that I say or every word that they may happen to see but the things that would be most helpful for them and making those connections… because I share any slides that I use with my class, so they don’t really need to try to transcribe everything. If they really want a transcription of everything, I record the class. They could watch it. We use Panopto here. They could watch it later if they need to go back and review something. They don’t really need to use the notes for that and they should be focusing on trying to use their time more effectively to help them understand the things that they don’t understand as well… and the retrieval practice that’s being done helps them… or at least the goal is, to help them understand what they don’t know… to improve that metacognition as you mentioned.

Rebecca: One of the things that I started doing after we’ve had our reading groups on campus, is spending more time in class talking about evidence-based practices, so that students are more aware of how they learn so that they can be more effective… But one of the things that this study is encouraging me to think more about, is to maybe spend a little bit of time in class to go over note-taking strategies… and when I’m finding that students are struggling with that, to kind of review those again. I do the evidence-based stuff frequently when we’re doing review questions because I often ask “Now, why do we do review questions?” before we do them to encourage students to take advantage of that opportunity… and remember that it’s not really a penalizing thing, but really about learning. So I think the note-taking is something that I want to take on maybe this spring and think about how to help students get better at that because every time I’ve asked a student who’s asked for help on something… and I say ”Well, where is that in your notes?” …their notes are like a disaster and they’re not organized. They’re in multiple notebooks, they’re in random scraps of paper or whatever. So I think finding methods to help students do that more effectively is worth the time and effort and I’d encourage other faculty to think about taking that on.

John: Normally, ask our guests what they’re going to do next, but now we’ll ask each other. What are you going to do next, Rebecca?

Rebecca: So, related to laptops and things in the classroom, I think that I’m going to be a little more cognizant about actively having students use their devices. So if they have them, that we’re taking advantage of the fact that they’re in class, and I’m definitely gonna find a way to spend some instruction time talking about note-taking. How about you, John?

John: I’ve been expanding, gradually, in talking more about why I’m doing things and to help motivate the methods that I’ve been using in class with retrieval practice, spaced practice and interleaved practice. It doesn’t always get through to students, but I’m gonna keep working on that… but I’m also going to be trying a couple of new things this spring semester. One is following up with the discussion we had with Jeffrey Riman, which came out in episode 10, I’m going to be using VoiceThread in at least one of my classes this spring, and I’m also going to flip my econometrics class a bit more than it has been flipped in the past… and I’m also going to write a couple new chapters for the book that we’re using. So I’ve got a lot of plans for this semester. I hope I manage to get them all together before the semester starts.
Thanks for joining us.

Rebecca: Catch you next time.