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In my class (for undergraduate students) I do not allow students to use laptops so that you can focus more the lecture. (I do allow taking notes on tablets or using mobile phones.) Most students comply without any complaints. However, I noticed one student keep turning it on even after I have reminded them twice. I am not sure how should I deal with it. Should I talk with the student and see if they have any special reason? Or should I simply ignore it since it's just one student?

Update: The reason that I allow tablet instead of laptop is the research on the negative effects on their use to other students sitting nearby: On or off task: The negative influence of laptops on neighboring students’ learning depends on how they are used


Update 2: There seems to be quite a lot interest in this question. I didn't realize this is such a controversial topic. I suppose that I have met quite a few colleagues and my own teachers who do not allow laptops in classrooms, so I did not see it as out of ordinary. A little bit Googling shows that I am far from alone in doing this:

Also I teach math instead of something like programming. There is really no need for students to use laptop in the room. If they want to take notes, paper notebook and tablet with stylus pen would be much faster than typing on a laptop. And from my experience when students on laptop are called upon to answer questions, most of the time their answer is "Sorry, what is your question?"

As for the distinction of tablet and computer is that students usually use them as a notebook and write on them using electronic pens. And yes, most of our students, if not everyone, have a tablet computer. Mobile phones are not really possible to ban anyway. They are too small.

End of story: I made a compromise with the student and suggested them to sit in the 3rd row in the room. Out of consideration for fairness, I also told other students they can do the same thing.

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There is no meaningful difference between a laptop and tablet as far as distraction. Students today take notes on these devices more often than paper. You shouldn't expect them to purchase the exact combinations of devices you find acceptable; if a student has only a laptop they should be able to use one for notes. A phone is far less convenient for note taking. I'm old now compared to an undergrad but I would definitely prefer a laptop I can type on to a tablet that has no keyboard or a finicky one.

I would do nothing and I'd reconsider the policy so that it's fair to everyone and students who are obeying the current rule aren't disadvantaged.

Remember also that these students are adults and it's in large part up to them to find what is and isn't distracting for them. You should only consider intervening in a case where it's hurting other students.

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    +1. The common theme on OP's questions seems to be "your students are adults; don't try to micro-manage them." If there is really such concern about students sitting nearby, I would instead ask students using laptops to sit in the back of the room.
    – cag51
    Mar 19 at 3:16
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    @cag51 To be fair to the OP, the study they cite claims that laptops have a detrimental effect even to students sitting in front of the laptop. The validity of the study, of course, and whether its purported results warrant a complete ban, is a different matter.
    – DavidH
    Mar 19 at 12:09
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    @DavidH It made me really curious what their results actually show. Like if everyone performed worse, what controls do they have in place? I mean surely they have some way to rule out students doing worse on those questions even without distractions, but the abstract made it sound like they didnt.
    – JMac
    Mar 19 at 18:09
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    @cheersmate The study compares laptops to no device at all, not laptops to tablets. The laptop users were not real students, they were planted by the experimenters so their behavior is not necessarily indicative of the average behavior of laptop users in a classroom. As far as I can tell, the context of the study is also an artificial class held solely for a research purpose, so the students likely didn't have much motivation to actually pay attention - they're not getting a grade for the class, they're not in the class because they're specifically interested in drought, etc.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 20 at 13:28
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    There is a huge difference between laptops and tablets in terms of the noise generated by typing keys and clicking buttons versus tapping a screen with a finger or stylus.
    – barbecue
    Mar 20 at 14:21
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To be honest, I think you've got it backwards. I also think you're potentially discriminating against students with accessibility needs or those without much money.

A phone is a major source of distraction. Note-taking on a laptop allows far more concentration of the subject matter than having chat notifications pop up while you're trying to type on a tiny screen, let alone if your note-taking ever requires a sketch.

I'm older than an undergrad, but I, my postgrads and my (school-age) daughter all seem to agree that a phone is only really useful for taking notes if you have nothing else, i.e. paper beats phones.

Tablets are nice if you can afford them, but to take legible notes on one at any speed requires a keyboard, and at that point you've got something functionally equivalent to a laptop. Laptops are often required equipment, and poor students can often get support to rent/buy one. I've never seen such support for tablets.

The reason I really think this needs to stop though is that assistive technology is far better on laptops than phones, for many conditions. As an example, consider simply large text for the partially sighted. On a phone you may not even be able to see an entire sentence at once, with sufficient text size to read it, and if you have more complicated notes than just text (such as equations) they often don't get scaled - if they can even be done properly on a phone. LaTeX (for which options on Android and iOS are limited and a problem in the context of assistive tech) can be used by people who are completely blind, and now that Word uses LaTeX equation syntax, laptop users can have both large-print equations and a format that can be read by screen readers. Similarly students using text-to-speech because they struggle to hear you have more options on a more powerful device with a bigger screen.

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    Touchscreen are for consumption of work. Production of work is for mouse and keyboards. It was so frustrating. I nearly threw my tablet through my PC computer screen at work when were instructed to work with a tablet-based app of such a nature .
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 19 at 19:38
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    @DKNguyen yes. OTOH I've had some success typing notes on a tablet screen, but the brief sort of notes you might take at a conference, not lecture notes, and a tablet is better for sketching than a laptop, though far behind paper. I'd wind up the OP by folding my touchscreen laptop back on itself ("it's a tablet, honest") then unfolding it to actually do some work
    – Chris H
    Mar 19 at 19:50
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    The laptop itself might be an accessibility tool for students with fine motor/graphomotor difficulties that make it difficult to take notes on paper, too (where a phone, due to size, really doesn't cut it, and tablet keyboards are a pain to type on). Mar 20 at 7:58
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    I would add regarding the accessibility component that @KeyboardCat mentioned - this is also true for the visually impaired or blind students, who may be relying on a combination of a screen-reader software like JAWS and/or a braille keyboard. Sure, they can probably go to the effort of getting an official accommodation request document to you to prove they need it, but...you're probably better off just allowing laptops in general. Mar 20 at 9:43
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    @ChrisH I agree that it depends. I would always prefer a keyboard device as my handwriting is not great, and a slow tablet is no fun to use with a stylus. My wife admittedly has an iPad Pro and uses GoodNotes, so it is a major investment but a very satisfying experience for her.
    – Dubu
    Mar 20 at 10:01
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Why do you decide which device (laptop, tablet or smartphone) students should use? The goal of lectures is transfer of knowledge and student's notes is important part of this process as long as it doesn't bother others. Why do you create an artificial obstacle in this process? Many scholars prefer laptops to other devices and work more productively.

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    "...as long as it doesn't bother others." This is in fact the exact reason given by the OP.
    – barbecue
    Mar 20 at 14:22
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Enforce your rules, however arbitrarily they may be chosen (*)

The best recipe for chaos is setting up rules and then not enforcing them. IF you want your students to follow your rules (any of your rules), at the minimum you have to call them out on breaking them. Repeat and escalate, mild but firm:

  1. mention generally ("I would like all laptops to be put away now")
  2. warn generally ("I see there are people using laptops against my instructions - please put those away")
  3. notify specific person ("You there at the second rank, please put that laptop away")
  4. warn specific ("I am sorry, but if you do not put away your laptop, I will have to ask you to leave")
  5. "Allright, you had your warning, now please leave the room"
  6. Call security and have them escort the person away.
  7. Call their mom. (no, just kidding - but you can take a minute to reinforce your rules to the group)

(*) As others have mentioned, the gap between premise and conclusion in your argument is probably larger than what you like. I wouldn't make such a distinction between tablet or laptop, nor would I conclude it is disturbing other students without further (direct) evidence or complaint. But, rules are rules and it is your room for as long as the lecture lasts.

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    Seems overly harsh. Teacher as bully.
    – Buffy
    Mar 19 at 19:19
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    @Buffy <shrug> Rules are meant to be enforced. If you don't want people to follow them, don't have them. The absolutely worst thing would be presenting rules and then willfully ignoring those who break them. Thats disrespectful to everyone, but yourself the most.
    – Stian
    Mar 19 at 19:32
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    @Stian - stupid rules are stupid to enforce. College students these days use their laptops (or tablets) to take notes. Thinking a "tablet" is any different from a "laptop" is not realistic. Sure, I think paper and pen is better. My son disagrees and seems to be doing more than fine with his laptop.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 19 at 21:14
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    Certainly, having stupid rules is stupid. A somewhat worse thing is not only pretending to plan to enforce them, but really following through to the bitter end ("calling security...") The real point here (given what the follow-through does seem to entail) is to not have rules so stupid that the follow-through is visibly crazy. :) Mar 19 at 21:30
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    @JonCuster I must have had a stroke while writing, if that is what you caught from my answer. I agree the rule is stupid. I would not recommend having such a rule. I do recommend following up the rules you do set, always. Never angrily, never losing patience, just always reacting on it, and escalating it. What I recommend for rules is that you spend your very first session (session zero) at setting only the absolute most basic of rules, and then let the class decide on the rest. People arriving 10 minutes after shouting hello and making a ruckus fine for you all? Its fine for me then.
    – Stian
    Mar 19 at 21:38
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At the risk of being labeled as draconian by other Academia SE users, I admit that I "ban" laptops (but not phones and tablets) in most of my courses. That said, such a rule must be supported with good reasoning.

Some context:

  1. I teach undergraduate mathematics at a small liberal arts college in the US.
  2. I encourage any students who feel that they could benefit by using a laptop during class to speak to me about accommodations.
  3. I provide printed or PDF "outline notes" for students to fill in by with a pen/pencil or on a tablet during class.

The outline notes make laptops unnecessary for note-taking purposes, except for the previously mentioned accommodation cases. (Although I'm sure there are occasionally students who don't ask for accommodations that should, sadly.)

While I agree that students are adults and should be able to decide if they wish to be distracted or not, I am not ok with students distracting those sitting around them by watching soccer matches, playing games, or streaming Netflix. (All of these things have happened in my classes.) If they want to do that during class, they're welcome to do that on their phone.

So, how do I enforce this? I explain the "no laptops" rule and the reason for it on the first day of class, and I find students are generally pretty agreeable about the rule. Each class day comes with a simple "classwork" assignment that students complete in assigned groups for a participation/attendance grade. Students who ignore the "ban" receive a tiny penalty on this classwork grade and an email reminder that laptops should be put away during class.

I have gotten very little pushback with this system, and many, many students have told me how helpful it is for their learning to have the notes outline to fill out, whether on paper or PDF.

That said, without outline notes AND a willingness to provide exceptions, I think it is unreasonable to ban laptops--there are simply too many students for whom it is the most effective form of unstructured note-taking.

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    If students distracting others is the problem, then why not ban that?  (Would you be happy with students making and flying paper aeroplanes, or drawing large rude pictures, simply because it was on paper?  No?  Then why is it fair to ban students using laptops in a completely legitimate and non-distracting way?)
    – gidds
    Mar 21 at 11:51
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    I am thoroughly confused as to how a laptop is more distracting than a tablet. Also, where do you draw the line? Is a Microsoft Surface a tablet or a laptop? Mar 21 at 23:36
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    Technically, my rule is this: If you want to use a computer in class, you should be writing on it with a stylus. If you feel that you can take better notes by typing than you can by writing on my PDF/paper handouts, talk to me. No one ever does though, because the number of undergraduates which can capably type mathematics is minuscule. As such, laptops rarely serve a useful purpose in my classroom and are mostly a distraction device. Again, I have no problem with students using laptops legitimately, and I encourage them to talk to me if they want to do that. Mar 22 at 0:47
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I'm unconvinced by your premises:

  1. Your linked paper (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0360131520301007) does not seem to support your conclusion.

It is examining the effect of screens on nearby students, not the effect of typing on nearby students.

Specifically, its finding is that internet browsing (which is not a keyboard activity!) to look at off-topic stuff on the screen is deleterious to those nearby.

Other sources claim about 40% of lecture time is spent on off-topic multitasking per student, which as your linked paper shows will also affect others. But there's an implicit assumption in these studies that it's "laptop vs no screens present" rather than "laptop vs phone and tablet".

  1. Your claim "If they want to take notes, paper notebook and tablet with stylus pen would be much faster than typing on a laptop." does not seem backed by evidence, and seems contrary to reality.

Average WPM (words per minute) is 40, for normal computer users. 60 for touch-typists. 80 for advanced touch typists.

By comparison, the average handwriting speed is 8 WPM, with variance up to perhaps 20WPM for very skilled writers. Call it a quarter of the speed.

  1. You write "I do not allow students to use laptops so that you can focus more the lecture. (I do allow taking notes on tablets or using mobile phones.)" yet with touchtyping you can watch the lecture and keep notes, whereas with stylus or pen, you're forced to look at what you're writing and ignore the lecturer.

However, your experience of laptop users being more distracted counts for a lot.

And in support of your position, I'd add that there is also debate on whether handwriting, by being such a terrible way to take notes, actually forces people to memorize things better, eg https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24760141/ claiming that "We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers' tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning". That's definitely open to argument, though. Does length of time of recall matter? Do verbatim notes improve recall at exams because you can study them? And so on. Feels more like something to warn students about, than pass a rule on, though, as not everyone learns the same way, and in general they should find what works best for them.


Overall, though, and to finally answer your question: if you have a rule, I'd argue you should never ignore because it's just one student, or you will not only foster resentment among the non-rulebreakers, but also imply to others that rulebreaking is OK. So you pretty much have to engage, either to lay down the law, revise the rule, or discuss with the student involved.

So, while I might be somewhat skeptical of your premises, I feel you did the exact right thing.

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It's been 15 years since I was an undergrad, but I went completely paperless halfway through my degree, and learned quickly how to take advanced mathematics notes on my laptop. I seriously doubt I would've been able to take accurate Linear Algebra notes on a tablet or phone, since using the keyboard (and keyboard shortcuts) was absolutely fundamental to being able to type out stuff like this on the fly. Due to the large amount of social media apps these day, without having read any recent papers on the topic, I would hypothesize that a tablet or phone would be more distracting to the individual than a laptop. At the time (this was circa 2008), the majority of my classmates were taking notes on paper, so I did once have my professor call me back after class demanding proof that I was actually taking notes and not gaming or otherwise distracted. I showed him my Word document containing that day's notes and he never again questioned my laptop. Looking back, I hope that it had opened his eyes to expect this possible of other students he would encounter after I was gone.

Screenshot of linear algebra notes from circa 2008

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    While this anecdote is interesting, your answer does not provide an answer to the question. See How to Answer for details, then consider editing your answer.
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 20 at 17:29
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    This is a very important answer, as a lot of people in math (the OP's context) really do not think it is very easy to do this. You have to be a special kind of wizard at the keyboard (kudos to you StalePhish), and most professors (let alone students) are just not, especially in undergrad. Mar 21 at 3:17
  • These days, it's not impossible for a phone to have a keyboard…
    – gidds
    Mar 21 at 11:46
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    @mathishard.butweloveit Unless I am also a wizard, I have to respectfully disagree. Once I learned Latex I could type notes in my math classes much faster than I could handwrite them and the notes were MUCH more legible. While we were a minority, I was hardly the only one taking notes on my laptop in those math classes. Mar 21 at 23:51
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    @TimothyAWiseman Feel free to respectfully disagree, but notice in your own comment you stated that you were in the minority of students taking notes on their computer. I did not say all math people find it difficult to take technical notes on the computer, I said many. I even know people whose note taking method is not to take notes at all, and this is because they cannot focus on the content and write it down at the same time. So they get notes from classmates later. To each his own, some of us are better wizards at the keyboard than others (again, kudos to you too then :) ). Mar 28 at 17:40
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Your students are adults and should be treated such as.

You bring here some evidence about a research done on a single experiment about the effects of laptop on attention in a classroom.

Students are attending your class because they willingly decided to attend university (or because of social pressure to attend university). They have enough intellectual capability to read the paper and understand it, so share the paper with them (great lesson for them, research can have a direct impact on their life, a part from dubious economics paper) and set a rule that students using a laptop should preferrably sit in the last row or in the last seat of a row, to minimize the possible impact on others.

Regarding your experience,

from my experience when students on laptop are called upon to answer questions, most of the time their answer is "Sorry, what is your question?"

I suggest to call upon any student, not only the ones on laptop, and please share the statistics.

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Introduction

Existing answers that discuss this rule mostly discuss about the effect of using a laptop or not on students. Therefore, I want to start by stating that, if the use of laptops affects the lecturer negatively, then it is arguably reasonable to enforce such a rule. Then, I will give an example of that situation in real world and describe how the rule had been enforced in that example to answer the poster's question.

As some other answers have pointed out, university students should be treated as adults. Therefore, even if not using laptops is truly beneficial to students, or in general, if there is some way to learn better, I believe a professor still should not force a student to use that way, because a student has freedom to choose how to learn. On the other hand, if using laptops can be proven to affect the professor's performance, which in turn affects all students who listen to his lecture, then that could be a good reason to ban laptops.

Example

I am not a professor, but I have experienced lectures of a professor who enforced a no-laptop rule there, and who arguably had good reasons. That is the example that I will give in my answer.

Last summer I was self-learning 6.034 Artificial Intelligence by Prof. Winston (R.I.P. Prof.) at MIT OpenCourseware. He published the recordings of his lectures, and in the first lecture where he did an introduction to the course, he emphasized that one of the class rules was no-laptop.

"..., and conclude with some of the covenants by which we run the course. One of which is no laptops, please. I'll explain why we have these covenants at the end."

Unfortunately, he probably had forgotten to explain why no laptop was allowed at the end of that lecture. Nevertheless, his gave his explanation elsewhere. But instead of directly going there, I want to sequentially narrate the events.

When I heard this rule, I was quite skeptical of the benefit of it. Partly because I didn't know the professor before, partly because I had been taking notes in a paperless way --- in classes I used to take notes by my keyboard attached tablet, on which I can both type in LaTeX and draw. Yet only after completing a few more of his lectures, I noticed they were really enjoyable, which meant they took great efforts to prepare and the prof. cared about his lectures and his students. So I was quite eager to know his reasons behind that laptop rule.

Throughout the whole course of 23 lectures, there were three times when he took action for some student(s) violating this rule.

Lecture 8, before starting, he was showing a program that was performing a task in a computationally impossibly way: "We're going to wait till either all the laptops are closed, or this program terminates, whichever comes first." He sounded quite firm from the recording, but he didn't actually pause the lecture for that. Because it is a recording, I don't know if the students obeyed or not.

Lecture 11, When he noticed an open laptop, probably. "Can you put that laptop away, please?" No further action. Also unclear if the student obeyed.

Lecture 14, "Could you close the laptop, please?" Same as in Lecture 11.

To conclude, he probably only took action when he noticed open laptops and only took action verbally. He fully explained this no-laptop rule instead at the start of his How to Speak talk.

"Now, in order to do that, we have to have a rule of engagement, and that is no laptops, no cell phones. So if you could close those, I'll start up as soon as you're done. Some people ask why that is a rule of engagement, and the answer is, we humans only have one language processor. And if your language processor is enga-- could you shut the laptop, please? If your language processor is engaged browsing the web or reading your email, you're distracted. And worse yet, you distract all of the people around you. Studies have shown that. And worse yet, if I see a open laptop somewhere back there or up here, it drives me nuts, and I do a worse job. And so that ensures that all of your friends who are paying attention don't get the performance that they came to have. So that's it for preamble. Let's get started."

He explained why the language processor he mentioned was important near the end in Lecture 19, by mentioning a series of experiments conducted in Harvard University (link to paper), which he remarked as "in my way of thinking, is the most important series of experiments ever done in cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, actually", and which basically demonstrated the language processor played a vital role in the difference between the intelligence (mostly spatial capabilities in that research) of a human adult and that of a child below 5 or a rat.

Conclusion

Putting all these together, Prof. Winston believed using a laptop in lectures could

  1. negatively affect the student, especially by jamming the student's "language processor"
  2. more importantly, distract surrounding students
  3. most importantly in his opinion, affect him as the professor, which implies all students would be affected.

And he had enforced such rules only verbally by

  1. Before the start of some lectures, warning that he would not start until laptops were gone, although he didn't actually seem to stop for that
  2. During some lectures, asking the student who he spotted to have opened a laptop to put that away.

, which may not have good effect on some students who regularly ignores your ban, but at least respects the students' freedom as adults. On the other hand, I believe you could use Prof. Winston's reasons to persuade these students.

As I have only been a student, I don't personally know if a professor's performance will really be affected by seeing a laptop. But I hope Prof. Winston's reasons and how he enforced the rule could help you.

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While it may be better to have compliance by your students than to forcibly hold them to certain events. These are adults we are referring to here.

Perhaps the single student prefers take notes more efficiently with a physical keyboard.

Subjecting them to personal opinion or research based on what is more helpful is circumstantial, and may be harmful rather than helpful in this situation.

However, I'm glad you made the decision to allow students to utilize their hardware. In this case the more the merrier, when it comes to taking notes with the diversity is a good thing.

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