Laptops hinder classroom learning for both users and nearby peers

Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda

General Abstract: Laptops are commonly found in university classrooms. Thus, students will inevitably use laptop applications, such as games and social networking, during class time. To investigate whether multitasking on a laptop impedes in-class learning, we conducted two experiments in a simulated university lecture setting. We found that students who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to students who did not multitask, and students who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to students who were not in view of a multitasking peer. The results suggest that multitasking on a laptop is a distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to learning of classroom materials.

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Article FAQ

  1. I am a teacher concerned about the issue of laptop multitasking. Should I prohibit my students from using their laptops during class time?
    • Concern about laptop multitasking is valid. However, decisions about banning or restricting use of laptops in classrooms must be considered with caution. Some students rely on computer technology to assist with learning disabilities. Placing a ban on laptops would put these students at a disadvantage. Conversely, allowing only learning-disabled students to use laptops may highlight their disabilities to their peers.
    • Because of individual differences among students, prohibiting laptops altogether is not the best solution. Instead, we suggest a few alternatives:
      1. Discourage laptop use if your course does not require technology for learning. For instance, a course where information is generally presented in textbooks and on lecture slides does not require a laptop to the same extent as a course that is designed to teach specialized computer software. For these types of courses, in which laptops facilitate student learning, consider restricting use of the Internet to course-based websites only.
      2. Have a discussion with your students about counterproductive uses of laptops in the classroom. Explain the research behind multitasking and impairments to learning, and, as a class, come up with a few rules of technology etiquette that are enforced in the classroom throughout the semester. For example, you might set up a laptop zone at the back of the classroom where users will at least not be a bother to their peers who desire to be free of laptop distraction. Simply making students aware of the issue may allow them to make informed choices rather than assuming they (and their peers) are immune to multitasking outcomes.
      3. Consider how you as an instructor can creatively incorporate laptops into your teaching regime. In many ways, the laptop is an extremely useful tool for learning. For example, laptops can be used to search for online academic content in the form of websites and videos and can be used to participate in discussion threads and complete pop quizzes. We have also heard from some instructors who host websites to collect information from their students during class time, for example, ranking the difficulty level of concepts learned during lecture. Difficult concepts can then be re-iterated before the end of class. All of these activities encourage active and exploratory learning, which have been shown to increase engagement, satisfaction, and motivation to learn among students (Barak et al, 2006; Driver, 2002; Finn & Inman, 2004; Stephens, 2005; Trimmel & Bachmann, 2004). We encourage teachers to try out these techniques in their own classroom. The goal is to keep students busy on their laptop with course-related content.
  2. Smartphones are ubiquitous among students and they offer the same distractions as laptops. What are your recommendations in terms of cell phone use and learning?
    • We agree that any sort of activity or gadget that is off-task can impair learning, likely including cell phones. Cell phones in classrooms are more obviously used for off-task activities, for example, texting or games. In other words, we speculate that fewer students are taking lecture notes on their phone compared to on their laptop. For this reason, we deem it more appropriate for teachers to enforce a "no cell phone rule" in their classes (rather than a "no laptop rule").
    • In terms of peer distraction, related research has confirmed that cell phone sounds interrupt and disturb classroom learning (Shelton et al, 2009). However, it may be the case that a student sitting nearby a cell phone user whose phone is on silent mode may be less distracted than if this student were sitting nearby a laptop user. One hypothesis is that silent cell phones are less salient both visually (smaller screens) and auditorially (touch screens instead of keyboard presses), and for these reasons, they may be less bothersome to others. To our knowledge this hypothesis remains unexplored in research.
  3. I am working at a school that is moving towards computer-based learning. My students have access to computer tablets to complete some of their assignments. Based on your findings, is technology-enriched learning a step in the wrong direction?
    • As computer technology continues to advance, so will its influence on the education system and educational policy. Therefore, we must work with technology and adapt it to suit the goals of teaching rather than try to work against it.
    • In terms of tablets and deterring tablet multitasking during class time, we recommend the same suggestions as laptops (see Q1). Tablets may deter learning to a lesser degree for two reasons:
      1. Many current tablets are designed to have one application open a time. This makes it more difficult to engage in self-multitasking.
      2. Unaccessorized tablets sit flat on desk and are therefore less likely to be visible by nearby peers.
    • For these reasons, tablets may be a more desirable classroom learning tool than laptops, even though both are Internet-accessible. As with the comparison of cell phone and laptop use, we are unaware of any research looking at relative distraction level of tablets versus other devices.
  4. I want to design an educational app that fosters student learning during my lectures. What are important things I should keep in mind when designing my software?
    • Based on our findings and psychology theory related to attention and multitasking, we recommend that an app:
      1. Takes measures to prevent multitasking. To deter self-multitasking, the app could lock itself so that the user is unable to exit the app until they reach a checkpoint. To deter peer distraction, the app could ask its user where they are working (alone, with others, around others) and use this information to adjust the app's display (e.g., dim/brighten the lighting, make the screen smaller/bigger, turn on/off sounds).
      2. Be offline friendly with occasional online opportunities. At certain time points, users could be prompted to investigate pre-selected websites that are related to the app activity or essential to completing a question, keeping all other browsing privileges prohibited until the next checkpoint.
      3. Be interactive. Students have high demands in terms of entertainment and engagement. The app should be stimulating enough to dissuade students from other tech activities. Ultimately, users' performance could be saved and aggregated so that the class can review the activities/answers as a group.
  5. Your results speak to short-term retention of classroom materials (students were quizzed immediately after learning the lecture). How might technology use influence long-term retention of classroom materials?
    • This is an important question. While our data cannot speak directly to long-term retention, we speculate that multitasking may also hinder delayed test performance. This hypothesis is rooted in the quality of notes participants took during our lecture. Indeed, students take lecture notes for the primary purpose of reviewing these notes in preparation for a later test. Students who have incomplete notes will not benefit as much at re-study as students who have complete notes. Incomplete notes may also mean that the student never conceptually understood the material, thereby resulting in gaps in their knowledge.
    • Participants who multitasked during our lecture had lower quality notes compared to non-multitaskers. Participants who were in view of multitasking peers during the lecture maintained note quality similar to their not-in-view counterparts.
    • These findings suggest that self distraction rather than peer distraction is more problematic for note-taking, which likely translates to poorer performance in terms of long-term retention. That said, the issue of long-term retention deserves further study.
  6. Your experiments included participants taking notes by typing on a laptop (Experiment 1) and writing notes using pencil and paper (Experiment 2). I am wondering whether note taking via writing versus typing leads to different learning outcomes?
    • Research on this topic is divided. Early studies (e.g., Quade, 1996) suggest that when laptops are used strictly for note-taking purposes, there is no difference in learning outcomes between students who type their notes compared to students who handwrite their notes. Our work has confirmed this no differences finding in a series of lab- and classroom-based experiments. We also confirm this finding in the current study; that is, we did not see any striking differences between participants in the no multitasking condition of Experiment 1 (participants who typed notes) and participants in the no view of technology condition of Experiment 2 (participants who wrote notes) in terms of quality of notes and subsequent comprehension test scores.
    • That said, more recent work suggests that the method of transcription may influence note-taking style. A recent psychology conference presentation we attended suggested that students are more likely to take notes verbatim via typing and more likely to take notes that reframe the concept being learned in their own words via writing. This difference affects how the information is encoded into memory and may favour memory for information that is written (Oppenheimer & Mueller, 2012).
    • While our data do not accord with the result of this more recent work, it is important to remember that note-taking styles will also be influenced by a number of other factors such as the amount of content being learned, its level of difficulty for the learner, and how it is presented to students.
  7. Do your results generalize to students of grade levels other than university undergraduates (e.g., primary or secondary students)?
    • Our data were collected using university students as participants in a mock classroom lecture setting. While we feel we represented a typical lecture setting well, and therefore our data should generalize to real-life university settings, we are more limited in terms of the generalizations we make to younger students.
    • We speculate that laptop use and multitasking is more likely to be a concern for university and college students because, at this level of education, students have more freedom in terms of how they choose to learn. With large class sizes, university professors are less likely to monitor and/or attempt to control how their students engage with the materials being taught. It is expected that with less individual contact and fewer restrictions, post-secondary students are more likely to engage in distracting behaviours.
    • On the other hand, primary and secondary students learn in smaller classes, are more closely monitored by their teachers, are more likely to be follow a set of classroom rules and be penalized for breaking these rules, have greater interaction with their teacher, and may be given more specific instructions in terms of how to spend their time in class. Thus, younger students might show fewer distraction effects simply because they are less able to engage in distracting behaviors. If younger students are given more freedom in the classroom, we expect them to show as many difficulties with multitasking as college-level students. In fact, they may be more at risk, as children's attentional control abilities are still maturing. This question demands further exploration.


  • Barak, M., Lipson, A., & Lerman, S. (2006). Wireless laptops as means for promoting active learning in large lecture halls. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38, 245-263. pdf
  • Driver, M. (2002). Exploring student perceptions of group interactions and class satisfaction in the web-enhanced classroom. The Internet & Higher Education, 5, 35-45. abstract
  • Finn, S., & Inman, J. G. (2004). Digital unity and digital divide: Surveying alumni to study effects of a campus laptop initiative. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 36, 297-317. pdf
  • Oppenheimer, D. M., & Mueller, P. A. (2012). The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Longhand and Laptop Note-Taking. Talk given at the Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting, Minneapolis, MN. pdf (see p. 34)
  • Quade, A. M. (1996). An assessment of retention and depth of processing associated with note taking using traditional paper and pencil and on-line notepad during computer-delivered instruction. Proceedings of the Annual National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. pdf
  • Shelton, J. T., Elliott, E. M., Eaves, S. D., & Exner, A. L. (2009). The distracting effects of a ringing cell phone: An investigation of the laboratory and the classroom setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 513-521. pdf
  • Stephens, B. R. (2005). Laptops in psychology: Conducting flexible in-class research and writing laboratories. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2005, 15-26. abstract
  • Trimmel, M., & Bachmann, J. (2004). Cognitive, social, motivational and health aspects of students in laptop classrooms. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20, 151-158. abstract

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