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I simply could not pay attention in a lecture if I brought in a laptop. I always take notes by hand, especially since that's supposed to be better for learning.

A professor of mine stated that laptops are distracting to other students and moved them all to the left part of the lecture hall.

I'm curious, what are the pros and cons of using laptops in a lecture, from both a note taking and teaching perspective?

I would like to teach someday and I can see myself banning laptops (I also hate the typing noise but that's just me).

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If the typing noise is your issue, then what is your stance on tablets or other devices that have a touch keyboard? – NoseKnowsAll Jan 14 at 21:18
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Learning styles are very individual. Do not assume that what works well for you works for everyone. For example, I have to choose between writing on the one hand and listening and thinking on the other. Having to take notes in class is a disaster for me. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 14 at 21:39
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Great article on this subject: Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away – Dan Romik Jan 15 at 4:16
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I take notes using a laptop in all of my courses, and I would absolutely refuse (save institutional requirement) to take a course with an instructor who bans laptops in class. I learn much better from digital notes than handwritten ones, and in my opinion, an instructor who bans laptops is actively preventing me from learning the course material as effectively as possible. – David Zhang Jan 15 at 7:55
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@DavidZhang Good thing you were not born 50 years ago! Schools longa, laptops brevis. – no comprende Jan 15 at 14:54
up vote 20 down vote accepted

I think due to increasing lecture sizes, and in complex or technical courses, having something like a tablet or laptop is considerably useful!

There's something to be said of classroom etiquette, however, in that not everyone is equally courteous. Some big no-no's for most of my lecturers were:

(1) No recording via the built-in camera, especially without permission, and no holding things up and taking photos. People learn in different ways, but we have to standardize the classroom somewhat, because not everyone can idly sit by and concentrate while 10-20 people are holding up their tablets, taking flash photos, or doing something otherwise weird/distracting to copy lecture notes.

(2) If you have the slides up on your personal device, make sure it's the only thing you have up unless otherwise specified. No one wants to see someone elses Youtube, Facebook, etc. during the lecture.

Beyond that it is distracting to hear the tapping of many keyboards vigorously trying to take notes all-at-once. I think that these people do themselves a disservice by taking word processor notes, however, and that to a great extent hand-writing the notes even if you have a personal device helps to enrich you in the material. My personal method was laptop set to slides, write notes on paper. But again, not everyone learns the same way. At that, for some complex courses I constantly search terms I didn't understand or concepts I might have forgotten about so I don't get utterly lost in the process. To me this decreases the amount of hand-raising and review questions.

I think that having some ground rules, and a little talk about common courtesy in the beginning of the term is good. It's penalty enough for some people to get called out for being discourteous in front of the class, so a ban? Perhaps not. And like I said in the beginning, lecture sizes are up there and not everyone has choice hearing/vision, so laptops/tablets help supplement those people who can't see the presentation or can't hear the lecturer.

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I respectfully disagree with your statement on Facebook. If I am not interested in the lecture, but would be forced to attend, leave me to myself and my Facebook. Take away my laptop and I'll get bored; you don't want that to happen in your classroom. – Stephan Bijzitter Jan 15 at 8:13
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@StephanBijzitter: I strongly agree with Kendall's point on Facebook. Your way of passing the time in class is up to you as long as you don't distract the attention of the classmates behind you (unless you're part of the back-bench). Having FB open in front of a lecture can really disrupt the attention of students behind and next of you. – Ébe Isaac Jan 15 at 10:58
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@StephanBijzitter Take away my laptop and I'll get bored; you don't want that to happen in your classroom. How is the outcome "The student is distracting other students by browsing facebook during the whole lecture" better than the outcome "The student is bored during my lecture"? – Najib Idrissi Jan 15 at 11:18
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@StephanBijzitter Having a bright screen with moving stuff on it (when you scroll, look at a gif/video) is distracting whether you're staring at it or not. The egoism of your comment is astounding... University students are supposed to be adults, not children. If you're bored, suck it up and realize you're not the center of the universe. – Najib Idrissi Jan 15 at 12:39
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@StephanBijzitter Times sure have changed. It wasn't all that long ago that if one was bored in class one had only maybe three options: A) Try not to fall asleep; B) Try to surreptitiously read a book; or C) Do homework for the class you are in or a different class. Of course (C) was a lot harder back in the day when you couldn't do a research paper outside the library or do Physics homework in English class without obviously having a huge Physics book open on your desk. WIth a laptop, a boring class would be the best thing ever for my grades in other classes. – Todd Wilcox Jan 15 at 15:32

Recent research by psychologists (paywalled) suggests that you will learn material better when taking notes by hand than when using a laptop.

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What about people who write with a stylus (not type) on a laptop? – Federico Poloni Jan 15 at 7:47
    
@FedericoPoloni: Good question, and not one directly addressed by the research as far as I know. I'd guess writing with a stylus is more similar to writing on paper. – Mark Meckes Jan 15 at 12:23
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Having audited a course with an iPad and stylus, I can say it is pretty awesome for the tablet user (you can hit the internet to see if you can clarify a point without interrupting the lecture, copy-paste, etc., etc.) but I did feel a little self-conscious about the slight tap-tapping sound made when the style hit the screen as I wrote. I think it was quieter than a keyboard but louder than a pen on paper. – Todd Wilcox Jan 15 at 15:36
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I found a non-paywalled PDF of that paper. – Anko Jan 15 at 22:56

I can only provide a STEM-course perspective of the issue.

Personally, I find writing my own notes on a laptop a more efficient way of note-taking than written. I took some effort to learn to write lecture notes in LaTeX, but in the end, that turned to work very well for me. I can write text, add equations and paste pictures from lecture slides on the fly. I still resort to handwritten notes for graphs and plots, but I hope I'll master Mathematica some day to produce plots equally fast.

Electronic notes are superior to handwritten also in terms of re-reading them in a couple of years (you don't have to decode your sloppy handwriting) and sharing them with others.

That said, I'm advocating for laptop use in classes, but there are caveats. Firstly, learning styles differ, and there are surely people around who will find taking notes distracting. Secondly, I did find that I had poor retention of textbooks read from screen as compared to paper. Writing my own electronic notes, however, provided me with a high enough level of engagement to retain the information.

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When I was a student, I did not take notes. I had a traditional (i.e. paper based) notepad which I used strictly for doodling. If you do the assigned reading beforehand, you can show up listen, watch, and ask clarifying questions. – emory Jan 15 at 12:58
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@emory, as soon as you move to research-based STEM classes that have no tried-and-true textbooks, you won't have any assigned reading and you'll have to take notes to make use of them in the future. Otherwise, your approach is reasonable. – svavil Jan 15 at 18:55
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Or when textbook contains way more material then is actually going to appear in the lectures. Also the lectures are often not structured according to any text-book, even if one or two options are mentioned in the course references. – Vladimir F Jan 16 at 9:27

Way back during the summer before my senior undergrad year, I interned at a company where I was put to cleaning out an old IT supply area. I salvaged an old 286 laptop from that space, back when Pentium III's were still new, and was able to get it working (in part by installing OS/2 on it!).

I would have to sit at the back of the room in classes, in order to use the power outlets. The laptop wouldn't hold a charge even through half a class period. The idea of any internet access from this machine would have been crazy. I took some notes on the laptop, but rarely referred to them later. It was more about engaging my brain a second time to process and organize the info that seemed important. I've heard that hand-notes would have been even better, but I believe the typed notes still improves over no notes at all.

More than notes, though, I'd sit there in the back of the room and use the laptop to play card games. It might not be a popular view here, but I found the practice of playing games during class to be incredibly valuable. No one is able to be fully alert every day for a full day of classes, and I would do this when I felt myself starting to disconnect from the lecture. The notes would still be open in another window, but I feel like having the card games available allowed me to switch gears a bit without fully disconnecting from what was going on in class, as I would otherwise have done. I credit this practice with improving my grades nearly a full letter grade in every class where I was able to use the laptop (not all my classrooms had good outlets).


As a separate point, I've seen many students these days at the college where I work choose not to purchase physical textbooks whenever possible. They'll have a kindle or tablet, and get their books in electronic format. I remember helping one student break up a large PDF textbook so that each chapter was a separate file, in order that it would load and respond more quickly on her device.

The point is that, in many cases, the electronic device is the textbook. A blanket policy prohibiting devices in cases when the textbook would be available seems unwise.

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Since nobody has covered the issue as to whether one can actually ban laptops (and other mobile devices) in a classroom - and with the standard IANAL caveat - I will put forth that it may not be possible to blanket ban laptops at least in cases of certain disabilities.

For instance, I know of a fellow veteran who is a double-amputee who has great difficulty writing quickly but can type at a reasonable rate - and would not have been able to attend college if not for his laptop. Here in the US, ADA and other laws required that he be able to use his laptop - no matter the policy of the professor. In this case his disability was obvious, as was the aid a laptop gave him, but there are many others who have less obvious disabilities for which electronic devices, for note taking, are key to their ability to simply attend college.

If one instead attempted to apply a policy of "banning laptops to anyone without a reasonable need due to a disability" - one may run into other problems. As some universities such as The University of Washington and The University of Waterloo see such a policy as being a very visible accommodation of a disability that is tantamount to our disclosing to our disabled students' classmates a disability that they might not wish to be made public

So if one's university policy, national regulations, or regional regulations essentially force one to allow laptop use - I would call that a fairly strong pro.

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This is a very good point. – Azor-Ahai Jan 16 at 4:37
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Thanks. I was going to write a reply about equal access and anti-discrimination requirements in many places that many educators seems to ignorant of. Thanks for flagging that in a well worded contribution. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Jan 16 at 11:06

Here's a community wiki to summarise points. One sentence each.

Pros

  • Network-connected laptops can be used to find supplementary material, for additional context and detail.
  • Digital notes are much easier to store, share, search, and collaborate on.
  • Instructors can use online tools such as Socrative (which is like a clicker that works with a browser) to validate comprehension.
  • May be required by those with certain disabilities which make hand written note taking difficult

Cons

  • Anything irrelevant on screen may distract other students, and some students find screens themselves distracting even if material is supposedly relevant.
  • Typing notes has been shown to reduce content retention versus handwriting.
  • Drawing diagrams by hand is faster than on a laptop, except with touchscreen devices.
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Bit of a wall of text coming up...

As a physics student I find taking notes by hand to be unbelievably superior to typing along. We follow derivations and other maths through about a third of our time per lecture, copying diagrams many times too, and I find it very useful to have a combination of each step written out explicitly and additional notes with pointers to specific components or demonstrating links between lines. Doing this on a laptop would be so much slower that I think I would actually lose out on some content if I tried. Furthermore the flexibility of taking notes by hand far outstrips laptop, from intuitive formatting to speed of note taking.

Now, I'm not saying that notes produced on a computer are inferior to notes produced by hand, in fact typed up notes I also find to be very effective, but not making them during the lecture. Typing the handwritten notes up afterwards is a great way of re-reading notes and processing the information a second time, thus making effective revision.

This, of course, is all from my perspective as a physics student. I can imagine if one were taking notes that were entirely in strings and sentences, with no diagrams or equations, and one were to be a very good typist then laptop note taking could be more efficient, and allow for increased focus. However, for myself personally it makes no sense to move away from handwritten notes.

On the subject of other students using laptops in the lectures, it depends. If everyone were exclusively using their laptop to type notes or follow along the lecture slide show then that's totally fine, not even a hint of any issue. However, as soon as other students begin to stray, opening facebook or youtube or playing games then many students, myself included, do get distracted. I am of the opinion that if the user thinks that going on facebook or playing hearthstone (to be fair, the guy was really good) is more worth their time than making notes and focussing on the lecture then they shouldn't be there, especially if their actions taken through boredom distract other students, doubly so when our lectures are recorded and made available to us as video podcasts. At that point it's rude and disrespectful to the lecturer and the other students.

tl;dr: depends on what you use it for, notes by hand are more flexible to produce, notes on laptop are easier to archive and re-read. Laptops carry more risk of negatively influencing the folks nearby than handwriting.

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Different people are different. Some of my students have the class notes (much more detailed than my scribblings) open and pay attention to the class, others write down what is on the whiteboard, yet others just pay attention. Others don't show up, and read the notes instead. – vonbrand Jan 17 at 1:09

Just a note, this is a bit long for a comment so I'll be posting here. I don't intend to adress the whole question but just to explain why I did find using laptops to take notes useful in my case.

We used to take note on laptops during my master CS degree. For us the main advantage was that we used shared notes (using Google Docs), this way several people could work on the same document at the same time. This allowed us to have a more complete document because even when the course's pace is fast, there are different people who can work on different parts. For exemple someone is the main note writer, while someone else draws any schema (which is usually fastidious / long), while someone else writes down the oral comments of the teacher or the questions asked by a students and the answer given by the teacher. The roles were switched several times a day and were mainly on a voluntary basis. This was put in place rather spontaneously without

Google docs features a chat which also helped in case of conflict, errors, or any kind of problem without disturbing the class. The chat (and the ability to comment on a part of a document) was also useful after the class when people were studying on their own, because thay could talk to people who were doing the same.

Aside from the note keeping aspect, we also used a shared folder to share any document used by the course (documentation, the course's slides when available, source code used for exercises, logos used for official stuff, past years test subjects, related websites, wikipedia articles, any loosely related stuff).

I feel this helped me a lot because I'm usually not good at taking notes and this way I always had something correct at the end. Even when you aren't fully following (you're tired, sick, bored, sleeping, absent or whatever) you can stop taking notes, just listen to the teacher and you know you won't be missing anything. There were foreign students who used this as a way to check their notes by comparing the shared one and their own (the documents were most often written in English even if we were not in an English speaking country ... in CS most if not all of the documents and some of the courses were in english anyway).

There were times, obviously, when it was used for fun. Someone often shared funny pictures this way. In our case it was always minor and never in a way that bothered the ones taking the notes and cleaned up afterwards, but I guess it depends on the students.

Some context : We were about 35 students taking this degree. Everyone had a laptop, though not everyone used it to take notes. There were usually 2 concurrent shared documents done by different people (between 3 and 8 people were participating on each document). Both documents were shared freely with all students, whether they participated or not. In some case the documents were also given to the teacher at the end of the semester (at their request).

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