Is the pen mightier than the mouse?

Are laptops in the classroom a helpful tool, or a digital distraction? A new research study suggests that using (or not using) a laptop or tablet in class has measurable results on students' test scores.

How technology in class impacts learning

Do laptops in the classroom help or hinder the learning process? (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers at the United States Military Academy at West Point wanted to better understand the impact of laptops and tablets in the classroom. In particular, they were interested in whether or not classroom computer use makes a difference to students' grades.

How did they study the issue?

They set up an experiment. They took an introductory economics course and split the students into three groups. One group was allowed to use a laptop or tablet in class to take notes or to use an electronic version of their textbook. The second group was allowed to use tablet computers, but only if the tablet remained flat on the desk, face-up during class. And the third group, the control group, was "technology-free": no laptops or tablets were allowed.

One group was technology-free. (CBC)

All three groups got exactly the same syllabus, the same textbook, the same homework, midterms and final exams. The only difference was their access to computers in class. And at the end of the semester, the researchers compared the students' performance on the final exam.

What did they find?

The researchers found that "permitting computers negatively impacts scores." In other words, the students who were allowed to use computers in class did worse on the exam. Just how much worse depended on the type of question: whether it was a multiple-choice, short answer or essay question.

The researchers concluded that on a grade-scale where you get a mark out of 100, using a computer in class results in about a reduction of 1.7 points. Not a huge impact, but a measurable one. And students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers, had average final exam scores that were 18 per cent of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers. 

Researchers found that permitting computers negatively impacts scores. (Shutterstock)

The study does recognize that laptops and tablets can offer academic benefits, both inside and outside the classroom: for research, studying, and collaboration with teachers and other students. But in the classroom, this study shows technology can also negatively impact learning, at least when you're measuring grades.

What accounts for the lower exam scores?

One possibility is students take better notes on paper than they do on computers. Another possibility is laptops and tablets make it easier to be distracted by surfing the web or messaging friends, when students should be focused on what's happening the classroom.

The other possibility is professors actually teach differently when they know students are on their computers. The researchers make it very clear that the data they have for this particular study doesn't point to any particular cause for the lower test scores. 

The presence of laptops could impact how teachers teach. (CBC News )

How does the West Point study fit into other research about laptops in the classroom?

There's been quite a lot of research into the role of technology in the classroom, particularly connected devices like laptops, smart phones and tablets. One of the most cited articles in recent years is a piece of Canadian research, out of York University, by Faria Sana and her colleagues.

They looked specifically at digital devices as a source of distraction in the classroom. They found students who multitask on a laptop in class scored lower on a test than students who did not multitask, similar to West Point's results. But the most striking finding was that students who didn't multitask, but were sitting next to or behind someone who was multitasking, also scored lower on the test, which suggests it's important that students choose wisely when looking for a place to sit.

Laptop use in the classroom also had an impact on students sitting near the screen. (Pigstick1/Flickr)

This study took place at West Point, one of the most elite schools in the U.S. Are the findings generalizable?

West Point is different from a lot of other colleges and universities. For instance, it has a lower female-to-male ratio than other schools. And all students are required to play competitive sports, so the students are more physically fit, on average, than other universities. But academically, it's similar to many other universities.

In the conclusion to their study, the researchers wrote, "there are reasons to believe that permitting computers in traditional lecture-style classrooms could have similar or even more harmful effects than those found in this study."

This isn't the final word on laptops in the classroom, but I think it's an important part of an ongoing conversation to which students and teachers should be paying attention. 


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.