Academic Articles 3: Laptop Use

Laptops are incredibly useful in debate. From the organizational and card cutting resources of verbatim, to the research opportunities enabled by easy internet access, to the ability to share content with one another by email, to small time-savers like text expanding, laptops save time, increase the quantity and quality of a debater’s output, and are all around awesome.

However, pervasive laptop use also raises some challenges at debate camp. Most of these center around student distraction. I was curious how robust the evidence of laptop caused distraction was and so did some research. In this article, I will talk about the two most interesting studies I found.


Fried, Carrie B. “In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning.” Computers & Education 50.3 (2008): 906-914.

Sana, Faria, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda. “Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers.” Computers & Education 62 (2013): 24-31.

1.1: Brief Literature Review

No one reading this post will be surprised to find that students on laptops tend to multitask.  When I was a student at debate camp I spent far too much time playing Dolphin Olympics 2, and Run 1 and 2. Further, I am sure many of the cards I cut while at camp were cut while I was supposed to be listening to lectures.

Now, I’ve been told by my friend pursuing a PhD in psychology that multitasking is, functionally, impossible. When we think we are multitasking we are actually just switching our attention between two different tasks, with the net result of poorer performance on everything. However, it is not obvious that multitasking seriously impedes student performance. Perhaps, student switch over to Facebook only when hearing content with which they are already familiar. Similarly, perhaps laptop don’t increase time spent distracted, they just change what students do while distracted (so they check Facebook rather than count ceiling tiles).

It turns out laptops definitely increase distraction, and not just for the student multitasking. I want to first discuss some of the interesting components of the Fried article.

First, the study tracked how often students used a laptop to take notes during class (at the beginning of the course students were told they could use a laptop in class but that a laptop was never required in class) and found used that data to find

the level of laptop use was significantly and negatively related to student learning . . .. The more students used their laptops in class, the lower their class performance. Several other analyses were conducted to assess the impact of laptop use on student learning. The level of inclass laptop use was negatively correlated with how much attention students reported paying to lectures . . .. There were also negative correlations between level of laptop use and how clear students found the lectures, . . . and how well they felt they understood the course material . . .. (910)

Now, you might worry that the students who would choose to use laptops just tend to be a poorer student, resorting to laptops because of limited past success with standard notetaking. So, Fried looked at both the past ACT scores and the high-school ranks of participants and found that “[a]fter controlling for these variables, laptop use was still negatively related to academic success” (911).

A second interesting result from the Fried study is that Fried also asked students to self-report what they found to be the most distracting element in the class. Somewhat disturbingly, Fried found “that laptop use by fellow students was the single most reported distracter (n = 229), accounting for 64% of all responses. This was significantly greater than all other responses combined” (911).

In other words, laptop use was reported to be more distracting for one’s neighbors than for the student using the laptop.

Now, there are limits to this sort of self-reporting because it fails to quantify how much an impact that distraction makes. So we need to look at the second study which dedicated an experiment to assessing the difference in information retention between those who could see the laptop screen of multitasking students and those who could not. The results of the study were that “[t]he main effect of condition was significant, F(1,36) = 21.5, p < .001, ω2 = .36. Participants in view of multitasking peers scored significantly lower on the test (M = 0.56, SD = 0.12, n = 19) than participants not in view of multitasking peers (M = 0.73, SD = 0.12, n = 19)” (29). This was determined by a test that followed a college lecture.

The results seem clear. Laptop use by students causes student distraction, not only for the students on the laptop but for other students nearby who may be trying to focus. This is worrisome. We don’t want students to lose out on learning opportunities due to the actions of others.

1.2: Implications for Debate Camp

Now, banning laptops from any instruction period is the wrong response. I am dyslexic, the result is that I am unable to take effective notes if I do not have access to a laptop. If I were unable to use a laptop while at debate camp to take notes, I would have gotten a lot less out of camp.  Additionally, the ability to look up sources and fill in background information can be a valuable tool to improve student learning.

That said, there are contexts where it seems appropriate to require students to put away laptops and phones. When I ran a seminar on political philosophy last summer I printed out all the readings for students and offered my own typed notes for anyone who wanted them. Then I had students put away all phones and laptops (I left my phone out in case there was an emergency and the office needed to contact anyone in our seminar). This seemed to significantly improve student engagement with the seminar, and I plan to continue this policy in the future. This policy seemed especially important in a discussion driven seminar, as it avoids disrespect caused by some students multitasking while other students speak. Similarly, there are lots of contexts in lab and modules where it makes sense to have students put away laptops to encourage distraction free engagement with the material.

Another useful technique is to allow laptop use, but find ways to hold students accountable. My favorite suggestion is to split lab leaders between different sides of the room. This can be very effective in helping students stay on task.  Even if you cannot see every screen, you can always see students angling their laptops away from instructors which clues you into student distraction. Indeed, there is something nice about seeing when students are getting distracted. I often use that as a diagnostic to tell me when we need to take a break or switch up our activity. Tracking distractions can sometimes be more helpful than eliminating them.

Finally, there are some contexts where it is impractical to try and discourage multitasking. Take certain optional evening activities with large groups. These are optional, and often fun discussions, and so it seems like students should be allowed to multitask (the alternative is often that they just leave and go do their work elsewhere). In those contexts, it would seem appropriate, however, to ask that students who expect to multitask sit behind the other students, to avoid distracting others.