Students Stop Surfing After Being Shown How In-Class Laptop Use Lowers Test Scores

Professors increasingly frustrated by students who use laptops for non-class activities—like updating their Facebook pages—may be heartened by news from the University of Colorado at Boulder. A professor there has found that educating students about the negative effect that frivolous laptop use has on their performance reduces class time spent going walkabout on the Web.

Diane Sieber, an associate professor, teaches writing and ethics to engineering undergraduates. She told the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper that last semester, she identified 17 students in one of her classes who were using laptops most frequently. After the first test, she told them that they did 11 percent worse, on average, than their peers who did not have their faces in their computers as much.

Lo and behold, the number of laptop-nosed students dropped to a half dozen, and the test scores of those who stopped using their computers during class went up.

Ms. Sieber says she also tries to tell students about the effects their behavior has on others in the class. Students “ask their classmates, ‘Please don’t watch movies on your computer, because if I’m behind you I can’t focus,’” she told the newspaper.

As the number of wireless-enabled classrooms increases—at Boulder it has gone from about 15 percent to about 85 percent in the last several years, according to the report—the laptop-related challenges facing the people up at the front of the room has gone up as well. Several law-school professors, The Chronicle has reported, have banned laptops from their classrooms. Laptop-free zones have been ordered by law-school instructors at Florida International, Georgetown, and Harvard Universities, and the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin.

But other instructors find bans hard to enforce, and also find that Web access can enrich classroom discussions. A recent survey of 29,000 students at 85 law schools supports this notion. It may be that treating students as grown-ups and letting them see for themselves what helps and what hurts them in class, as Ms. Sieber has done, results in students who make smart decisions. —Josh Fischman

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