Evidence continues to mount in support of the once-fringe policy of banning laptops, tablets, and cellphones in classrooms and conference rooms. More and more, studies are showing that people absorb less of what’s being discussed when they have access to computers during lectures, training, and even meetings in the workplace.

The effect isn’t limited to the individual using the laptop. Rather, studies now indicate that the classmates and colleagues in proximity to the laptop user also remember less of what was presented, even if they were taking notes the old fashioned way.

Susan Dynarski, professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan, recently cited three different studies in an article for the New York Times that confirm something many professors and instructors have believed for years — that allowing laptops in classrooms negatively affects learning and knowledge absorption.

In each of the studies, college students who were not permitted to use laptops or tablets performed significantly better in courses and on standardized tests than students who had access to computers during class. Dynarski goes on to say that, based on the results from these college classroom studies, she expects laptops and tablets similarly hurt productivity in meetings of all kinds in the workplace.

Why Using Laptops During Lectures Hurts Student Outcomes

1. Humans are terrible at multitasking. Our brains aren’t designed to absorb new information while simultaneously typing notes. Instead, we switch our attention from listening to typing and back again at astonishing speed. This task switching derails our focus and prevents the retention of important details.

2. The pen is mightier than the keyboard. People process information better when they take notes by hand. In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students who used laptops had a substantially worse understanding of the lecture compared to those who did not.

With pen and paper, a student can’t keep up with a lecturer. This is actually advantageous for learning, as writing notes by hand forces people to process and summarize the ideas they’re hearing. Conversely, when taking notes on a computer, information often goes in one ear and out the other as students mindlessly transcribe what a presenter is saying.

3. Screens are distracting and block us from connecting. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that simply having a cell phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce the rapport between two people. And establishing rapport through eye contact is critical to engaging an audience in learning or absorbing new information.

4. Screens distract others, too. Perhaps the strongest argument against allowing connected technologies in learning environments, according to multiple studies, is the negative impact computer screens can have on others in the room who aren’t even using them.

The use of laptops and tablets in classrooms and conference rooms can usurp the attention of others nearby. Dynarski notes this as a “negative externality”, not unlike pollution or smoking. For the human brain, the light, color, and activity presented on-screen are simply too tempting, distracting not only the laptop user but also others nearby. This means a single open laptop may hinder learning for several other people in the room.

Removing Technology To Activate Learning

Banning technology in the classroom doesn’t mean instructors are removing technology from learning entirely. In fact, some of today’s most popular learning methodologies, like the flipped classroom, rely on the use of technology to improve in-class learning and comprehension. In the flipped classroom, students watch recorded lectures outside of class and spend time in class engaging directly with the instructor and other students through activities or discussions.

Many instructors believe that removing the distraction of laptops and tablets is a major step towards activating learning in the classroom. Bronwyn Bleakley, an evolutionary geneticist and professor of biology at Stonehill College in Massachusetts says, “I use technology in my classroom to get technology out of my classroom.” By flipping her classes, her students are engaged in other types of active learning while in class. And because they are engaged in group discussions, Q&As, role-playing, and other hands-on learning activities, they don’t even miss their computers during class time.

Watch how Bleakley activates learning in her classroom:


Bleakley has found a smart way to remove distracting technology that can compromise learning, while simultaneously mitigating the pushback students often give to instructors who ban laptops and tablets in class.

And while some professors who chose to ban technology from their traditional lecture courses have been met with natural resistance from students, they’ve consistently seen critical attitudes soften when students realize how much more they learn without the distraction of laptops. Jim Steyer, who began banning technology in his classes at Stanford University as early as 2000, asserts that students often express gratitude for the policy at the end of his courses.

Overcoming Student and Attendee Objections

Recording lectures and meetings is one way to reduce the initial panic people may experience when separated from technology. Video capture software like Panopto makes it easy to record lectures and meetings that can be referenced and reviewed later on-demand. These recordings then serve as a much-improved version of traditional notes — complete from end to end, with every piece of information discussed ready for review.

Best of all, when students and employees are confident that the video will be available should they need to revisit specific details, they’ll be able to engage and participate more actively in listening and learning, making your classroom and meeting time more productive for everyone.

Learn more about how Panopto’s video platform can help improve learning and communication in your organization.

Published: November 30, 2017