The Case Against Laptops In The Classroom (Plus Phones And Other Distracting Devices)

  • Melissa Doyle
  • 28 November 2017
  • 10:43 PM

As the holidays approach, so does exam season for students across North America. By now, educators hope (and expect) that students have learned everything needed in order to succeed, which means that they must comprehend the course material in addition to the notes they took throughout the semester. But for most students nowadays, these notes live on a laptop, and there is growing evidence that typewritten notes may not be what's best for students. 

So, we ask — are your students really as prepared as they could be?

Handwritten Notes are Arguably Better

In 2014, Scientific American reported that writing notes on paper and typing notes on a laptop are two significantly different cognitive activities. The article cited the now widely popular study, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, by Princeton and UCLA researchers, Mueller and Oppenheimer, which found that less information is retained when typing notes instead of writing them by hand. As well, researchers found that individuals who are simply near another student with a laptop open are more easily distracted than if a laptop were not present.

 Scientific American reported that writing notes on paper and typing notes on a laptop are two significantly different cognitive activities.

Three years later, and the conversation continues to grow. Another study earlier this year, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, found that the mere presence of a smartphone reduced an individual's available cognitive capacity, sounding the alarm on yet another digital distraction. It seems that researchers are consistently finding that one cannot retain information as successfully when using a laptop or cell phone while trying to focus in class.

While the phsyical landscape of a classroom might be changing, learning as an activity has not. Brain-science expert and York University professor Dr. Brynn Winegard emphasizes that learning is not a passive but an active experience — whether the class is history, art, or economics, one must be engaged and fully present in the class in order to learn effectively. 

How Students Might Be Disadvantaged By Technology

As technology advances, students are beginning to use digital devices for social, entertainment, and educational purposes at a much younger age. And while it may be beneficial in some cases to use technology to engage students, a recent study at MIT found a relationship between lower exam performance and the use of laptops. It found that students performed much better in a classroom where laptops and other devices were prohibited, as opposed to students in a classroom where these same devices were permitted. 

Educators from across North America have been discussing this topic for some time now. Professor Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan, for example, shared a collection of recent observations and research in the New York Times. “Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them," she says. "It is not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings."

"Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It is not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings." 

- Professor Susan Dynarski for the New York Times

nullNew York Times comic by Peter Arkle, further illustrating the significant difference between handwriting and typing lecture notes.

What Educators Should Consider

It’s critical to acknowledge that, while laptops are certainly beneficial, there must be a balance between activities performed with devices and those performed using more traditional methods. Much like an employer might expect their employee to participate in offline experiences such as brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions, classrooms should be no different.

This isn't to say that technology should be avoided entirely, but rather, to know when and where it might be most appropriate to use technology. For example, Dr. Josie Ahlquist, Digital Leadership instructor at Florida State University, recommends that educators take the time to thoughtfully evaluate technology before integrating it into their course. “Technology needs to be purposeful,” she says. “It should be tied to the learning objectives of your course and even to the mission of the university. Not every department needs a Twitter account.”

What We Suggest For Students

With exams soon approaching, it's best to review notes and rewrite them on paper in order to retain the most information. We also recommend using Flipd to unplug from digital distractions and recharge until it's time to reconnect.

Technology can indeed help our lives in a multitude of ways, but it's counter-productive when these technologies become a nuisance for when it's most important to focus and pay attention. After exams are done, you can get back to scrolling through Instagram or Reddit — but just like going away to the cottage for the weekend, it never hurts to recharge and spend some time away from screens. It is about balance after all.


Educators seeking to promote tech-life balance in their classrooms should consider trying Flipd. The platform uses behavioral economics to nudge students away from distractions, while giving educators engagement data that helps them make more informed teaching decisions. Find out how psychology professor, Dr. Alicia Drais-Parrillo, uses Flipd in her class or click below to register a free account. 

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