Laptops, Learning and Losing Focus

by Nelly Mendoza-Mendoza | 5/3/16 5:05pm

Source: Alison Guh

You’re sitting in your 9L, absolutely exhausted and totally unable to pay attention to the subject that your professor is lecturing about. The notes on your laptop screen begin to blur as your eyes droop. Maybe you should check your email — that will give you something to do, to keep you from falling asleep.

You see that your friend sent you a link to a funny video of cats dancing. Well, you have to watch that. Nobody will be able to tell you’re not paying attention — you sit in the last row, after all. The professor is too engrossed in the intricacies of game theory to notice if one of his dozens of students is a bit distracted.

We’ve all seen students like this in class, or perhaps we have been that student. It’s hard not to get distracted when using laptops in class — one moment we’re innocuously checking our email, and the next we’ve spent the whole class period online shopping. We might think our actions are inconspicuous, but as it turns out, they’re often pretty obvious — not only to the students around us, but also to our professors.

Perhaps avoiding eye contact with professors, sitting in the back of the room despite plenty of empty chairs in the front or laughing at random times during lectures are less subtle than we thought.

Education professor Michele Tine explained that our short attention spans make it difficult to stay on task all the time, which can engender students getting easily distracted in class. Students daydream whether they are typing or writing, she explained, but the difference lies in our potential to get further distracted. If we have a computer in front of us, the possibilities are endless, but if all we have is a paper and pencil, our options are to doodle or simply go back to paying attention.

Some students have been taking notes on their computer for years and this system might work for them, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the optimal system.

“For a long time, people assumed that taking notes on your computer would be more cognitively beneficial because you can type more notes,” Tine said.

There are some benefits of taking notes on laptops; Tine pointed out that since we can type faster than what we can write, students tend to note down every single word the professor says, verbatim.

Psychology professor John Pfister said that he can often tell what a student is distracted, since he teaches statistics, a class that can sometimes be dry and serious, despite his efforts to infuse humor into his lectures.

“I teach statistics, so I can always tell when they are doing that. I’ll be talking, and I think that I am really engaged, making a great point. I want to get something they can copy down; I am even modulating my voice. I am really hitting all my things,” Pfister said. “And there will be people on the computer, and they will be laughing out loud.”

Pfister said this is an immediate tip-off that students are not paying attention to the lecture.

“Now, I have given some great lectures in my life, but I guarantee you that I don’t make too many people laugh out loud when I give a statistics lecture,” Pfister said.

Government professor William Wohlforth expressed a different sentiment, saying that if students are clearly not paying attention it doesn’t bother him too much. He attributed this to his lengthy experience teaching.

“When you have been teaching as long as I have, you don’t necessarily freak out if you can see that a student is not clearly paying the slightest bit of attention and is looking at their computer,” Wohlforth said. “I can take it.”

When students seem to be more interested in their computers rather than the material, professors are more likely to feel that what they are doing is not sufficiently interesting or engaging. Pfister pointed out that students might not realize how many hours go into preparing just a single lecture.

Professors’ initial enthusiasm at the beginning of the term might wane if students pay more attention to their computers than to the class. As exhausting as we might consider going to class, professors have a much tougher and more cumbersome job in leading the class.

Pfister said professors can tell if a lecture is successful if students are nodding their heads and making eye contact, but they can also clearly tell when they lose interest. The latter scenario can be tough for lecturers, Pfister said, and they might lose confidence.

“You can see some of their wind go out of the sails because that’s the feedback they are getting ­— ‘Oh good, I am not very interesting’.” Pfister said.

Pfister and Wohlforth expressed differing opinions on which classroom settings are best suited to computer use. Pfister said that in seminar-style classes, computers can serve as a useful resource.

“It’s like having an additional person or additional resource available for students real time,” Pfister explained.

He said he allows but does not necessarily encourage the use of computers in seminars.

However, unlike Pfister, Wohlforth does not allow computers in seminars. Ostensibly, students can still get distracted, which is more problematic in a class based on discussions.

“I don’t think that having all of these laptops open is conducive to the seminar setting,” Wohlforth said.

Wohlforth also said that distracting laptop use can be more unfavorable in some classroom layouts than others. In classrooms with stadium-style seating students are more likely to see what others are doing and get distracted, whereas in flat lecture halls, other people’s screens are less visible.

If one person is reading BuzzFeed listicles or shopping for new sneakers during class, then, it is very likely that the people around will also be paying attention to that screen, whether or not they want to. Thus, many people are indirectly distracted, which can be very annoying if students are trying to pay close attention to a lecture.

Pfister said that big lecture halls tend to be the ones where students get distracted the most. He said he sees students checking Facebook, or sometimes catching up on homework for another class.

Tine explained that handwriting notes is a more effective method than typing then, as it minimizes the risk of getting distracted and leads to better information retention. She said handwriting notes sets a cap on how much we write, because we write slower than we type. This forces our brains to listen closely and then summarize the main points, which requires synthesizing the material. Thus, we’re actually processing the information rather than just transcribing it.

"While one might think that [longer notes] are beneficial to later learning, it ends up that having to summarize in the moment while listening to a lecture and write down what you find to be the most important in the moment has the most learning benefits,” Tine said.

Tine said that studies comparing the academic performance between students who take notes on their computer versus those who handwrite them show that the latter group had better recall of the information. She explained that we sense information we hear and see in a lecture, which causes it to move into our working memory space, which is temporary storage. In order to transfer this information to our long-term memory, we have to process it. This processing occurs when we synthesize and summarize information in order to write notes down on paper. Thus, this forces the material to go into our long term memory, which makes it subsequently easier to retrieve in the future.

“That active processing in the moment allows for that information to be put down your long-term memory in a more organized structure,” Tine said. “Therefore, it is easier to retrieve later.”

Wohlforth also referred to similar studies that showed students who took notes on laptops learned less effectively because trying to write a lecture verbatim slowed them down.

Alexis Castillo ‘19 also said there are certain classes in which computers are very helpful.

“There are some classes, if they are more lecture based and if they don’t have all the information of their slides, and they don’t post up their slides,” Castillo said. “I feel like I need to use a laptop because I know I won’t be able to get as much information as I need to study later on.”

Moreover, Wohlforth said that sometimes when students go into office hours and take out notes printed from their laptops, those notes are sometimes excellent.

“They pull out the notes that they took and they are unbelievably good notes. Beautiful notes. I look at those notes, and ‘My God, those notes!’” Wohlforth said. “Some students are clearly getting some benefits.”

Knowing all of this, why do students still surf around? Wohlforth attributed it to our need to communicate with others at all times of day — even during a 65-minute class.

“People feel this compulsion to communicate with other people,” Wohlforth said.

Castillo said, though, that whether or not people get distracted by their laptops is largely dependent on whether or not students are engaged with the material at hand.

“I think laptops can be a distraction pending on how much you really enjoy a class,” Castillo said.

Pfister noted, too, a student who is on his or her laptop isn’t always distracted during class.

Ostensibly, we seem to be easily distracted by everything that technology has to offer.

Pfister attributed this to our misconstrued ability to multitask. Because of advances in technology, we think we can multitask more efficiently than we actually can. What ends up happening, Pfister said, is that we are not doing the best we can on any of these given tasks.

“There is this misshaping belief that there is this multitasking ability,” Pfister said. “Like, I can still listen to you but I can also do this online as well.”

However, at least according to Wohlforth, this isn’t something unique to our generation.

“It’s inevitable,” Wohlforth said. “If I go to a faculty meeting everyone is [doing] the same [thing].”

So next time you’re tempted to surf the web, shop, scroll through Facebook or use iMessage, perhaps you should think twice about opening up a new browser.