Current topics explained by RUG experts

Ban on laptops

UG lecturer Martin Boisen recently called for a ban on smartphones and laptops during classes. All those screens make it difficult for him to make contact with his students, he says. On top of that, the students are easily distracted by social media or e-mails.
By Jurgen Tiekstra / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Klaas van Veen

Professor of Education

‘I recognise the problem and I couldn’t agree with him more. It’s my experience that a small contingent of students actually uses their laptops to take notes, but that the rest of them use to check Facebook or Marktplaats. It happens in all classes.

People tend to think that using a laptop during class is productive, but generally speaking, that’s just not true, unless you only use them to take notes during class. When you use a laptop or smartphone in class you’re basically multi-tasking. Students take notes and think they’re capable of both listening to the lecturer and checking WhatsApp or Facebook. But research calls this a ‘switching penalty’: making that switch in your head takes time. You have to restart processing information every single time. People who multi-task have a harder time remembering things, have trouble focusing, and their work is often worse than that of other students. Another problem is how distracting laptops and smartphones can be. There has been an increase in people who are addicted to social media. Research has shown that the average person checks their phone 221 times a day. That’s more than three hours a day.

There are simply very few arguments for why we should allow smartphones and laptops in class, although students with limited motor skills are an exception, because they have trouble writing by hand.

Lecturers who take their own classes seriously and want their students to actively listen and participate should ban laptops and mobile phones. I personally haven’t done that yet, but I do call out students on their laptop behaviour when I see it. But when I read Martin Boisen’s piece, I thought, that’s a good idea.’

Jasperina Brouwer

Assistant professor of Education, developmental and educational psychology

‘As far as I’m concerned, laptops are a means to an end. It’s up to the students themselves to use them properly. It has its drawbacks, but there are advantages as well. Studies show that on the one hand, there’s the advantage of external storage: laptops allow us to store and read back large amounts of information, because people can type faster than they can write by hand. On the other hand, the way information is processed is also important (encoding). Mueller and Oppenheimer studied the difference between taking notes by hand and on a laptop in 2014. Afterwards, students who took notes by hand had a better conceptual understanding than the students who’d taken notes on a laptop. They feel this is because when you type your notes, you do so verbatim. But when you take notes by hand you have to summarise the information, which means you process it.

The advantages of taking notes on a laptop is that you can easily find them again, even if you want to have another look at them long after you’ve taken your exams. Another advantage is that you can collate different kinds of information into one document.

I don’t think we should be dictating what students can or can’t do. The studies that have been done only focused on groups, so they say nothing about what it’s like on an individual level. Students can make their own decisions.’

Ine Noben

Studies effective lecturer behaviour in a university setting

‘My first response would be, yes, laptops offer a wealth of possibilities, but it all depends on how the class is set up. But I am a big fan of students taking notes by hand. Research has shown that when you have to condense information, you can remember it better. Basically everyone can type out what the lecturer is saying without looking at their screen, but that doesn’t allow them to cognitively process the information. They might as well not even come to class.

So the opportunities are there, but the technology is often not used correctly. This is a distinction most people forget when debating the issue. There are several ‘voting tools’ that are often mentioned: online programmes where lecturers ask a question and their students can answer anonymously. Lecturers often use these tools as a fun little extra, and to add some interaction to their classes. But these tools aren’t meant to be fun. They have to be functional. Using them should lead to discussions, to stimulating students, and to embedding effective interaction among students and between the students and the lecturer. It has to be an integral part of the class and not just something you use for a fun little quiz. Classes aren’t theatre plays, they are educational activities.

I always tell lecturers to make PowerPoint presentations. They can always give their students a printout for notes and tell them they don’t need to write everything down. Lecturers can also put their PowerPoint files on Nestor. This allows more room for debate during class. It does, however, lead to more work for lecturers, and the current educational climate doesn’t always allow that.’