Yet another article on the adverse impact of multitasking in the classroom. In general I agree that any distraction that increases the likelihood of multitasking (phones, laptops, tablets, etc.) in the classroom can limit engagement, but I have some questions about this study.
…thanks to a big, new experiment from economists at West Point, who randomly banned computers from some sections of a popular economics course this past year at the military academy. One-third of the sections could use laptops or tablets to take notes during lecture; one-third could use tablets, but only to look at class materials; and one-third were prohibited from using any technology.
Unsurprisingly, the students who were allowed to use laptops — and 80 percent of them did — scored worse on the final exam. What’s interesting is that the smartest students seemed to be harmed the most.
First of all, I’m not sure how reflective students at West Point are of students in general. We’re talking about a very specific set of students in terms of school culture (strict and conservative), intellectual ability (already a high-achieving group), and in terms of diversity (the school is nearly 70% white, and not that diverse). I’m more than willing to concede that multitasking is bad, or at least has adverse effects on students, but the results of this study aren’t necessarily a good indication of our wider population.
Secondly, the way they define “smart” may indicate other causes of poor performance:
Among students with high ACT scores, those in the laptop-friendly sections performed significantly worse than their counterparts in the no-technology sections. In contrast, there wasn’t much of a difference between students with low ACT scores — those who were allowed to use laptops did just as well as those who couldn’t. (The same pattern held true when researchers looked at students with high and low GPAs.)
These results are a bit strange. We might have expected the smartest students to have used their laptops prudently. Instead, they became technology’s biggest victims. Perhaps hubris played a role. The smarter students may have overestimated their ability to multitask. Or the top students might have had the most to gain by paying attention in class.
Students who perform well on the ACT or other standardized tests may in fact be the most susceptible to distraction, and at the very least are more prone to “superficial thinking.”
Studies of students of different ages have found a statistical association between students with high scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking. (source)
I think what all of this research really highlights is the need to be intentional and thoughtful about when and where technology is used in education. Having a no-laptop policy in a course isn’t going to solve the distraction issue for students, but tying their use to specific activities, which address measurable skills or outcomes, and are limited in scope, will go a long way.
What do you think?