Evidence-Based Instruction: Laptops in the Classroom


Not many technology-related topics elicit as much passion from faculty as laptops in the classroom.  Opinions range from outraged rejection to enthusiastic acceptance.  But what does research show about the effect of laptop use on teaching and learning?

The University of Michigan recently published results of a study they conducted on this very topic.  In fall 2009, researchers recruited sixteen faculty members to participate in the study.  Participating classes represented various disciplines, including political science, nursing, education, biology, and interdisciplinary courses.  Half of the faculty courses studied had a structured plan or regular  use of laptops in their classrooms of a locally developed “Lecture Tools system.”  The control group taught classes that were similar in size, level and discipline. While the control group did allow some use of laptops –  the frequency was substantially less (about half the amount of the other group), and these classes had no specific strategy or tool for laptop use.

Students were questioned about their own sense of whether the laptops provided benefits in engagement, attentiveness and learning.  The structured laptop users reported that they perceived an increase in engagement (60%), learning (53%) and attentiveness (37%) as a result of laptop use.  In contrast a smaller number of those students whose classes used laptops in an unstructured way perceived benefits in these three areas —  25%, 40%, 39%, respectively.  This difference may in part reflect that “multitasking” — i.e., what students are often doing in their unstructured use of laptops — does not work.

Of course student perception is not all that matters!  (Perhaps students would also say they were pretty darn engaged if you offered them cake every class session.)  Other studies provide evidence both for and against laptop use.  This 2010 University of Michigan occasional paper offers a quick summary as well as references to recent empirical research in the area.  A quick search of Google Scholar provides many more.  As stated in the paper, it is important to note that “studies showing a positive association between laptop usage and student learning or grades involved courses in which the integration of technology had received significant attention from faculty” (emphasis added). In other words, if you allow your students to use laptops in the classroom without providing rules or structure, any benefit is likely to be minor at best.  The bottom line is that, based on existing research, we can say that use of laptops in the classroom for specific structured tasks and purposes can increase student engagement and likely achieve benefits in improved learning.

If you’d like to explore proven methods of increasing student engagement and accomplishing learning tasks in your classroom with laptops or other technologies, make an appointment to consult with one of ATIG’s instructional designers.


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