Computers In The Classroom

Note: This essay first ran as a series on the Heideblog (2007–12).

I’m developing a(n) hypothesis about laptop computers in the (seminary) classroom. My theory, based on my observations of college and seminary students since 1995, is that student reliance upon notebook/laptop computers for taking notes is not helping them to learn.

Since I began teaching at WSC in 1997 the use of laptop computers has become more common among students. Only a few students used them at Wheaton when I was there. When I first came here in 1997 most but not all students used them to take notes. Now, in a typical lecture, virtually all the students are taking notes by computer. At the same time computers have become more prevalent grades on short-essay mid-terms and final exams have dipped.

Can I prove a cause-and-effect relation? No, not yet. My theory is that students are so busy hearing the lecture so that they can transcribe it verbatim that they are not actually listening to what is being said. I theorize that the sound goes into their heads, through their finger tips, as it were, and onto the keyboards. As result, for some students, they seriously engage the material for the first time when they began reviewing their lecture notes.

Of course this means that instead of reviewing familiar material before an exam, some students are learning new material in the days leading up to the exam. I have other evidence that suggests that this theory may be correct. Last Spring I asked the students in Medieval-Reformation history to take notes by hand. Some even went so far as to buy a fountain pen from Steve Baugh! Those who took notes by hand said that they thought that they learned more and engaged the lectures more completely (i.e. they heard and analyzed them, made decisions about what was and wasn’t important to know) than they normally do when taking notes on the computer.

My concern isn’t the computer. My concern is that students listen and learn. The ease of the modern computer keyboard leads students to try to create a complete transcript. There is a transcript of some of Bob Godfrey’s courses floating around, named after the student to made it some years back, that even includes his jokes! Presumably one who takes notes by hand cannot transcribe everything. So he has to make a decision about what to write down and what to ignore. He has to prioritize and analyze information. As a result of this initial engagement with new material on the front end of the learning process, as it were, when he comes to preparing for the final exam he should be reviewing familiar material and refreshing his memory rather than learning material from scratch.

As a consequence of last Spring’s experiment–I confess I failed to follow through and have the handwritten note students mark their blue books so I could develop some sort of correlation–and as a consequence of grading this fall’s Doctrine of God exams, I think I am going to require my Medieval-Reformation students to take notes by hand, unless they can demonstrate to me that they can achieve the same level of initial engagement with the lecture material by using their computer.

–I mark my exams. If I don’t know which notes were done by hand and which were done by computer, how can I generate a correlation? I don’t expect this to be strictly scientific and I think I can be objective enough. I don’t care which they use so long as they learn. My concern is that they may not actually be learning as well as they should/could.

–I agree that, ideally, the classroom should be more than data transmission. i fear that’s what students want to make it, hence the transcript. I discourage them from making a transcript. i encourage them NOT to regard the lecture as mere transmission of data but as a construct for understanding data. Naturally the lectures include data, sometimes quite a lot of it. I hope that by taking strategic and selective notes the student will be able to jog his memory when it comes time to review.

–I wonder if all the stimuli to which students are subject (TV, web, email, cell phone, text messages etc) teaches them that they don’t really have to pay close attention to anything. A lecture or classroom discussion becomes just another ephemeral bit of data in a constant stream.

–Then there is the phenomenon of students refusing to answer the questions asked in the exam. I’ve had students answer the questions that they consider more important. Sometimes students answer the questions that they hoped I would ask. I understand that phenomenon. The technical name for it is “lazy student syndrome.” That some students seem to think that they get to decide what they should learn makes me de Zengotita has a point. Students are convinced that they are the arbiters of what they should have to learn. When I demand that they learn what I think is important, we’re actually engaged in a kind of battle of the wills. They’ve been conditioned to think that they are autonomous “deciders” (to quote the president) so they don’t cotton to being told that they have to learn things the immediate value of which they cannot see. They don’t believe me when I tell them that someday they will realize the value of what they’re being made to learn and they will be glad I made them do it.

–I also suspect that students can’t or don’t distinguish clearly enough between what is important and what is ephemeral. For example, students who read assigned readings online do not seem to read them closely enough to learn the material. Because I’ve noticed this, I tell them to print out the assigned online reading but apparently only a few do because only a few are able to demonstrate that they’ve actually done the reading they tell me they have completed.

Thanks to the good offices of Dennis Johnson, I see that the latest news on this front is from The Chronicles of Higher Education 54.40 (June 13, 2008): A1, A18. The headline reads, “Law Professors Rule Laptops Out of Order in Class.” Reporter Andrea L. Foster quotes Don Herzog, professor in the University of Michigan Law School as saying, “Not only I was stunned by how much better the class was, the students volunteered that it was much better.”  

What began as began as an experiment for Prof. Herzog has become a policy. According to Foster other profs are also trying out the “no-laptops” approach to teaching at Georgetown Law, Harvard Law and the University of Wisconsin Law school. The profs who support the ban argue that students tapping out their notes (or worse, shopping, playing games, or emailing) are not able to participate in the Socratic dialogue necessary to law-school education. The profs who support the use of laptops in the classroom argue that banning them now is like trying to put the horse back in the barn and cutting students off from important learning opportunities.

The cynic in me wants to answer the latter by saying, “Yes, like who is dating whom or what the latest updates are on Facebook?”

This year in Medieval-Reformation Church History (CH602) I guess about 50% of the students voluntarily gave up their laptops. I didn’t impose a ban but I did try to persuade them to take notes by hand. As I’ve argued before, my main interest is in getting students to pay attention.

After grading the latest crop of blue books it’s clear to me that only about 10% of students pay close attention in class. About 10% of the class ignore me (so 10% nail it, 10% fail it and the rest are distributed across the middle) I suspect that a good number of them are distracted. I suspect that at least some of them are distracted by their computers. Others are still caught in the trap of trying to transcribe every word of the lecture/discussion. The anecdotal evidence from my experience thus far suggests that those students who’ve gone back (or begun) to taking notes by hand (preferably using a decent fountain pen from Steve Baugh our resident fountain pen guru—let the record show your honor that counsel brought back two fountain pens from the UK and tried to interest Dr Baugh in them many years ago at which time he was told, “Bah, humbug!”) testify that they now prefer to take notes by hand.

I haven’t established a correlation and I don’t know that I ever will but I am more convinced than ever that students need to pay attention, take judicious notes that will remind them of what was said. This business of making a complete transcription to be reviewed de novo at the end of the semester doesn’t work. It’s too much information to process (and memorize) in too little time. Regular reviewing is more effective.

Neither am I excited about study groups. Every year, despite my warnings, I get several answers that are virtually identical and often wrong. Why? I suspect that students succumb to the most confident and assured voice in the study group. Other students must defer to that voice, even if it’s wrong. What some students don’t seem to understand is that there are a variety of ways to answer the questions correctly and there are a variety of ways to answer the questions incorrectly but what is essential is to learn to listen, to learn to pay attention, and to learn to discern what is important.

This is been a thread on the HB since 2007. Since that time enthusiasm for technology in classroom (“teach-nology”?) seems only to have grown. I have had opportunity re-consider my concerns but those concerns haven’t dissipated. Since I began encouraging students to put away their laptops in favor of pen and paper most have responded well. In some cases students have special needs that require the use of computers but most students do better to listen to the prof, make a decision about what is being said, what is most significant, what needs to be remembered, and to take notes to help stimulate the memory.

I’m encouraged by this report (HT: William Jacobsen’s College Insurrection) about NYU Prof. Vincent Renzi’s decision to ban laptops from his classroom. He does so for three reasons:

  • Laptops create a physical barrier between the instructor and the student
  • It encourages students to think that the point of note-taking is to take transcription rather than taking notes
  • It tempts students to aimlessly browse the internet instead of paying attention

These are the very reasons why I’ve discouraged students from bringing laptops to class. I’ve sometimes used a laptop to teach—my notes wouldn’t print or I was away from a printer before class but I usually teach from notes.

The second is the greatest problem. I first noticed it about 6-7 years ago. Students were transcribing everything I said in class, even the dumb jokes but they weren’t listening as carefully and critically as needed. Then, when time came to study for exams, they were overwhelmed with material they had not analyzed before. Those who’ve chosen to take notes by hand report that they’re getting more out of class.

In this connection I’ve also observed a clear correlation between the medium in which a text as read and the ability of students to be able to discuss it well in exams. Students used to answer an exam question based on a printed article and did very well. When that same material went online scores on the same question dropped significantly. The rest of the readings did not change. The exam question did not change. Only the medium changed (onscreen vs. paper).

It’s true that students have always daydreamed and doodled during class but there is a qualitative difference between doodling and shopping, texting, tweeting, or updating a Facebook status. The distractions available via a laptop are far more enticing and varied than those presented by pen and paper.

At first students were anxious about closing their laptops. Some students insist (see the comments) that it’s more efficient to take notes by computer. Perhaps, if the goal is a transcript but that’s not what a good teacher wants. What we want is for students to pay attention. We understand that this is increasingly difficult. We also understand that teachers and students probably work with different definitions of “pay attention.” Students are tempted to think, “I’ll pay attention when he’s saying something that interests me.” Working through this challenge wants another post but suffice it to say for now that the premise behind the complaint needs to be challenged. Learning is often interesting but it isn’t always entertaining and if we don’t learn the difference we shall lose the art of learning altogether as it is swallowed up by the entertainment monster.