Hi, I’m Danny Oppenheimer. If laptops are banned in your child’s classroom, you may have heard of me. That’s because it was my lab that showed that students perform better when they take notes by hand than when they use laptops. Before I knew it, those studies were used as justification for laptop bans in classrooms around the country.
I receive a lot of angry emails berating me about these policies—which is unfortunate, since I don’t actually advocate for blanket laptop bans, and never have. In fact, I don’t even ban laptops in my own classes.
Let me explain. In my research, we showed students TED Talks and had them take notes either on laptops or with a pen and paper. Because most people can type faster than they can write, students using laptops transcribed the talks nearly verbatim. But students who took handwritten notes could not, so they took notes in their own words. Writing by hand required students to understand, synthesize, and summarize the content. Deeper processing of the information, in turn, led to improved learning. As a result, students in the longhand condition scored higher on tests.
Teachers around the country started banning laptops in their classes. But what actually interfered with learning was mindless transcription of a lecture. Laptops merely enabled that by allowing students to take notes more quickly.
Like most technology, laptops are not universally helpful or harmful in the classroom; they are helpful or harmful for specific purposes. The value of a laptop in the classroom depends on the goal of a lesson plan, the nature of the material, type of students being taught, and more.
For instance, a lesson on how to find and evaluate information on the Internet might be better when students have access to laptops. A lesson on algebraic expressions, on the other hand, might not be. Students with certain disabilities may need a laptop; other students might be unable to use one. If a lesson requires exact quotes, then laptops are ideal. But if the goal is conceptual understanding, laptops can create temptations for verbatim transcription, which is counterproductive.
Don’t ignore context when deciding whether or not to allow laptops in your class. The answer to the question, “Are laptops good or bad for learning?” is: it depends.
Do encourage students to take notes in their own words. Think about the goal of a lesson and whether or not the presence of laptops will help or hinder it. Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all mode to learning, the same goes for decrees about technology.
With rigor and nuance,
Daniel Oppenheimer is a professor of psychology and social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.
Originally published by Character Lab.