Do you take notes on your laptop?

A couple of days ago I came across a study where researches examined the use of laptops to take notes in class. Did they help or did they hurt the student? And what about those students around the laptop user? I’ve come across multiple write-ups about this study, but here’s a link to the one from the Globe and Mail (as I read about it there first).

So the general results are that laptops don’t help you take notes and that they negatively affect those around you. I found the results not all that surprising, personally. I remember trying to use a laptop in class during my undergrad (first year) and thinking that it made it that much harder to pay attention. However, it turns out the negative impact is enough to potentially change your grade by two letter grades (B+ to B-)!

If I have a notebook in front of me, I may end up making doodles or scribbling. I may even pass notes if I know the person next to me. But, for me, I found that doodling, at least (not so much the passing notes unless we were talking about the course), was just something to keep my hands busy as I listened to what was being said.

With my laptop in front of me, I was always tempted to check email, or read the news, or play a game. It provided a zillion ways to do something else besides pay attention, and it usually required me to actually focus on attention on the laptop. Smart phones are similar, and I find myself gravitating towards it when I’m bored (since I rarely take my laptop with me to talks).

There are two grad courses I took (over my entire selection of grad courses) that involved using my laptop in class. However, the first was online (so you couldn’t access the class without a computer) and the second was an interactive class where we spent most class time working together on a large coding project (computer also required). For any of the lecture style classes, I never bothered to bring my laptop (or if I happened to have it with me, it stayed in my bag).

And, after trying to use my laptop those few times first year, I never used it again for the rest of my undergrad. It just wasn’t worth it. If I was going to bother to going to class, then I wanted to be able to pay attention to what was going on. If I wasn’t going to pay attention, why go in the first place (which also happened first year :)).

Now, I also know that there are often discussions within my discipline about encouraging people to bring laptops, especially to first year classes, so that everyone could program together. And, while I think the idea might be good, I also think it’d be very difficult to do so in practice – unless you do the flipped classroom design.

So, next time you attend a seminar or class or whatever, before you yank out your laptop or smartphone, decide how much you really want to pay attention.

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