Bag That Computer, Retain That Material

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A recent study at West Point has shown that using computers in class for whatever purpose harms performance, and the more intelligent the student, the worse the problem:

Now there is an answer, thanks to a big, new experiment from economists at West Point, who randomly banned computers from some sections of a popular economics course this past year at the military academy. One-third of the sections could use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture; one-third could use tablets, but only to look at class materials; and one-third were prohibited from using any technology.

Unsurprisingly, the students who were allowed to use laptops -- and 80 percent of them did -- scored worse on the final exam. What's interesting is that the smartest students seemed to be harmed the most. [bold added, link dropped]
The story blames the devices for distracting students and concludes by cautioning that, "multitasking doesn't work." Based on other results concerning how computers might actually hamper note-taking, I'd say taking one to class is generally a bad idea.

-- CAV


Jim S. said...

I blame the teachers, not the students (or worse, the technology). Computers are incredibly versatile, and have been used to improve human activity in pretty much every area.

Teaching is not an exception. Obviously, if it's just used to replace a pen and paper, then that's not very helpful. Pens work fine for note taking. But if the teacher was to actually construct his classes in a way that benefits from the technology, there are plenty of great uses for it.

For starters, instead of forcing students to take the notes, it's the teaching staff that should be providing a full record of all the materials being taught, in electronic format. And part of the classes should be spent teaching students how to use those materials efficiently.

And that's just the very basics. Computers and the Internet are being used in incredibly creative ways in employee training and professional development. Video tutorials, live interaction with teachers, interactive software tools, full blown simulations, etc. are being deployed in corporate environments (and at seminars, , conferences, etc.) all over the world.

The fact that many university classrooms are still limited to a teacher standing at the blackboard and talking for two hours every week, forcing students to write down what he has to say, is just sad. That's not how teaching should look like, in the 21st century. Schools should be ahead of the corporate world in deploying these technologies, not decades behind (because, unlike corporations, schools are supposed to specialize in teaching).

Gus Van Horn said...


If you follow the second link, you'd see a plausible theory as to why computers aren't great for taking notes: The student isn't engaging his mind and essentializing, but just acting like a scrivener. (And perhaps verbatim notes from the lecture would have a similar problem.)

Computers are great tools for many things, but they can't do everything, especially think for us.


Jennifer Snow said...

I've been in training the past couple of weeks for a new job and I have to say that computers DO definitely excel in ONE area of learning--they enable you to actually "do" the thing you're learning about, and they have basically infinite versatility in this regard.

For lectures they're useless, because that's not about doing. But for PRACTICAL applications they are PRICELESS. When your goal is not merely to retain information but to AUTOMATIZE it, give me a computer!

Gus Van Horn said...

That's true, and they definitely speed up content creation, when properly used.

Scott Holleran said...

I found this post very helpful and interesting.

As an adult education instructor in writing and social media, I've also found that students that generally focus on technology lose interest in the lessons, which I present with slide show presentations. Those taking notes by hand do best. The best students tend to be those who focus on the entire, whole presentation, including the portions of each class which permit guided one on one instruction on applying the lessons to the technology.

For example, when I work with a student on improving a profile on LinkedIn, using best practices and principles we've covered in lecture and visual reinforcement, it sticks better with one who has been focused on taking handwritten notes and really listening in class. Students that use tech as a crutch - to substitute for thinking - are more easily lost and can become disruptive. So I think this has to do with one's methodology in using the technology strictly in the context of being an attentive student under guided instruction. Thanks for posting this.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, which I think others will also find helpful, in part because it comes from an experienced instructor.