Laptops and Student Learning – Katherine Lithgow

tux_dell_laptop_11I was involved recently in an interesting email “discussion” prompted by a query from a professor interested in how other profs manage student conduct in class.  The professor had been experiencing a significant number of students using their laptops, cell phones, and iPods during the lecture and was asking for suggestions on how other instructors were addressing situations where students were using laptops during classes to answer emails, look at unrelated web sites, play games etc.  

The request clearly hit a nerve – responses began coming in within minutes. Instructors’ responses to the issue varied.  Some took the attitude that if students wanted to play games etc. during class, that was their choice and the behaviour was tolerated as long as the students were not distracting others. One instructor had dedicated the back of the lecture hall for personal work (checking email, playing games, studying for other courses, etc.) Other instructors voiced their frustration describing the behaviour as distracting and disrespectful.  Some had taken the step of banning laptops in the classroom unless it was necessary for learning.

Still another group described students as ‘multi-taskers’, and shared how they had adopted teaching strategies which engaged the students during class by having students work in groups to discuss concepts, solve problems, then calling upon students randomly to share the group findings.
Personally, I find it frustrating when I see students using their computers to visit websites, answer emails, play games etc. during class and believe that this behavior is distracting to others around them, and has a negative impact on learning. Hembrooke & Gay (2003) found that “the sustained distraction, regardless of content relevance appears to be the nemesis of the multitasker; if one is adroit at staccato-like browsing, processing multiple inputs simultaneously may not suffer to the same extent” (p.14). Fried (2008) found “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” (p.906). Both articles suggested that class structure, class dynamics, measures of learning, etc. impact computer use.
Nancy Pearce, Health Studies & Gerontology Faculty of Applied Health Sciences is interested in pursuing this area of research and would like to connect with others who share a similar interest. She can be reached at []
In the short term, if you’ve found useful strategies for addressing laptop use in the classroom, I hope you’ll share them here.
Fried, C.B. (2008). In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning. Computers & Education, 50(3), 906-914.
Hembrooke, H. and Gay, G. (2003). The lecture and the laptop: The effects of multitasking in the classroom. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 6-65.

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Katherine Lithgow

As Senior Instructional Developer, Integrative Learning, Katherine Lithgow facilitates ePortfolio and Integrative Learning initiatives, supporting instructors across campus with the design and implementation of activities that help students integrate learning in academic, workplace, community and social environments. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Katherine taught Cytology at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences. She received her BA from the University of Toronto, and a Master’s in Educational Technology from UBC. In what seems like another life, Katherine worked as a cytotechnologist graduating from TMI’s Cytology program.

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