Laptops prohibited

Lecturers ban computers and tablets

More and more lecturers refuse to compete with Facebook, online shops and even football matches during lectures and are banning laptops, tablets and smartphones.

"You can tell by students’ eyes when they switch from their notes to a shopping site", explains Yra van Dijk, Professor of Modern Dutch Literature. "I’m actually shocked that they are not at all embarrassed about shopping online or checking Facebook during my lectures. They’re not even aware that they shouldn’t. It’s downright rude. We need to teach them some electronic manners. Students think that they’re very good at multitasking, but they don’t know how to concentrate properly. Besides, they distract the people behind them too."

Van Dijk introduced a drastic measure: from now on, laptops, tablets and smartphones are banned from her lectures.

The Law Faculty is also trialling a laptop prohibition for the "Introduction to Criminal Law" tutorial. "There’s another aspect, specific to law, to consider as well as distraction and effectiveness", says lecturer Bas Leeuw. "In exams, students need to be able to look things up quickly in their collections of legislation; they’re not allowed to use tablets or laptops."

At Psychometrics on Tuesday afternoon in the Gorlaeus Building, almost half the benches in the lecture hall have open laptops on them. Party photos and pictures of intricately plaited hairdos pop up and down on Facebook while other people use chat and email services. One student is actually viewing a Leiden University page, but is clearly working on an assignment for another course. Nonetheless, most students are carefully typing notes on the lecture in Word or have the same matrices on their screens as those on the large screens at the front of the hall.

"As a lecturer, you do your best to tell them things that hold their attention, but the Internet is tough competition", Marjolein Fokkema, a university lecturer who teaches Psychology, responds afterwards.

"I’ve turned off the lights during a lecture as a joke before", says Armin Cuyvers, a university lecturer who teaches European Law. "I noticed a good many places glowed Facebook-blue. Everyone’s tempted; it’s not just students who are affected. It happens at conferences too: you check your emails while a colleague delivers a talk. It’s so easy to lose your concentration", admits Cuyver. "And research has revealed that it takes ten minutes to restore your focus. If you are distracted six times an hour, it means you haven’t really been focused for the entire hour." Yet he doubts whether a prohibition would do any good. "How would we enforce it? That would be quite tricky, I think."

"I’m not yet convinced that a prohibition is the right way to go about it", says Zef Faassen, who teaches the laptop-free Introduction to Criminal Law tutorial. "Opinion was much divided at the department. We shouldn’t need to police the lectures and technology is an integral part of our lives now." His colleague Leeuw is not a very outspoken opponent. "Of course I understand the arguments that this prohibition is a bit outmoded. We need to discuss the right way to go about it within the faculty."

"I can imagine that it upsets some colleagues", says Beerend Hierck, a university lecturer who teaches Anatomy and Embryology.

"But it’s madness to ban them. I give plenty of lectures to first-years. Their secondary schools would probably not have allowed the use of phones or laptops during class, and now they may use them. It’s not really fair on them. And yes, I’ve seen students watching a football match during a lecture – it is pretty obvious."

Distraction is not the only reason why Van Dijk has banned laptops, she explains. "Research has made it clear that you can’t remember the information very well if you use a laptop (See box, ed.). Moreover, the quality of your notes isn’t as good. You write everything down if you use a computer: you literally take minutes. And that’s exactly what you shouldn’t do at a lecture. You should filter the information and make connections. You can structure your thoughts more easily with a pen. Everything shouts: get rid of those things!"

Faassen is familiar with the research. "I explained to the students quite clearly why we want to try not using laptops. Mind you, I noticed that some of them left the paper they were using completely blank. I don’t think they’re used to writing by hand anymore."

"These are my personal rules", explains Van Dijk. "I haven’t asked the Board’s permission. I think I can decide how we work during lectures. You’re not welcome here if you have a laptop. If you’re not happy with it, lodge a complaint."

"There’s no faculty policy that says you can or can’t ban things", Egbert Fortuin of the Humanities Board replies by email, "which implies that lecturers can decide what’s allowed. Students who disagree must take it up with the lecturer."

"I think laptops should be allowed", says student Chris van Seters, just before Van Dijk’s lecture starts. "We’re at university, we’ve paid to be here, so what you do during a lecture is your own responsibility. If you don’t want to pay attention, then don’t."

"I’m so glad there’s a ban", says his fellow student, Lotte Hondebrink. "My generation really lacks the skills to focus properly. Laptops encourage laziness and are bad for your concentration."

Vincent Bongers & Marleen van Wesel

What does science say?

Mare looked up what the academic literature has to say on laptops in lecture halls. "There is little evidence that technology improves learning while there is evidence that it can impede learning."

By Bart Braun

The big problem with laptops is that you can do so much more than just make notes. In every lecture, there’s a time when your attention wavers and Facebook, Japanese tentacle porn or computer games are only a click away.

You might think you’re good at multitasking and that a message between notes can’t hurt. And in that case you would almost certainly be wrong, as several studies on laptop use reveal.

On average, laptop users have lower marks than people who make notes on paper; not much, but it is a significant difference that’s turned up in several studies. And even if you really were immune, it still disturbs your fellow students. A Canadian study revealed that people who could see a screen with Internet windows scored, on average, a full mark lower on a test about the lecture. Option: ban the laptop users to one side of the lecture hall.

However, we have a few things to say about those studies. For instance, quite a few of the laptop studies were done at the beginning of this century, when special laptop classes were set up to make the best possible use of the new technology. But this research doesn’t tell you much if you’re here in Leiden instead of one of those classes. Not much has been written about the use of tablets, although it would seem that students with iPads are less inclined to go surfing the web than laptop users are.

It’s also quite possible that there’s a difference between students with laptops and students who use paper and that this difference explains the lower marks. Other studies are based on self-reporting ("What percentage of your time do you spend on Facebook?") while others had very low numbers of test subjects; the Canadians mentioned earlier had 39. The overall conclusion, nonetheless, is that distraction distracts people, and we’re inclined to believe it.

Imagine, though, that we’re dealing with a special type of students who are completely immune to the temptations of laptops, and only use their devices to make notes? Strikingly little experimental research has been done on that.

The most well-known study was conducted by Princeton psychologist Pam Mueller in 2014. She let the draw decide which students used laptops and which used pens and compared the differences. What were the results? The laptop users wrote much more but scored lower marks on the tests. Presumably that was

because they wrote more down; they literally wrote down what the lecturer said. In other words, they were acting like typewriters, instead of learning and actually thinking about what to write.

And if you were to tell laptop users that they should remember that and try to make real notes? They still make the same mistake. "There is little evidence that taking notes digitally helps you learn more effectively. But there is evidence that it can impede learning," Mueller sums up the state of affairs in a 2016 review on the subject.

And that seems to be right, if you look at the studies. The results also match the nostalgic feelings of lecturers and other oldies who think students back in the day had far fewer distractions. If pen and paper were good enough for them, it’s good enough for these modern brats too, right?

The match is just a bit too smooth, though. Exactly how much lower are the marks of computer users? In a study at the University of California in Irvine, students with laptops scored exactly average marks and people who used paper scored a little higher: 0.1 standard deviation higher, to be exact. In Mueller’s test, the computer users scored - 0.1 and the pen men scored +0.2 standard deviation from the average.

It’s difficult to convert a z-value like that into a figure. In fact, The main reason that researchers talk about z-values instead of figures is precisely because you can’t compare a 7 out of 10 at Irvine one-on-one to a B- at Princeton. The idea behind is not difficult, however: if you put all the students’ marks into a graph, with the mark on the x-axis and the occurrence of that mark on the y-axis, you would expect a bell curve.

Most students have average marks, outliers with high or low marks are rarer. The bottom of the bell rests on two whole standard deviations – three, if you want to be accurate. One tenth standard deviation is, considering the exam results for most courses, not a shocking amount. In visual terms: the computer users are, on average, a little left of the top of the bell and the pen men are more to the right.

If you get bad marks, there is probably more to the problem than can be solved simply by leaving the computer at home. Do you get good marks with your laptop? Then keep up the good work – unless, of course, the lecturer bans it.

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Laptops prohibited

More and more lecturers refuse to compete with Facebook, online shops and even football …