Surprise: Using a laptop in the classroom lowers students' grades

Students at West Point fared better in classes without any digital distractions

In-class laptop use may inhibit students' academic performance, according to a new study conducted at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). 

Three economics faculty members at the school divided students in one course into three sections with varying access to technology to determine the effect of Internet-connected devices on students' academic performance.

One section did not allow students to use any technology, a second allowed students to use laptops and tablets (although professors could discipline "blatantly distracted" students), and the third allowed students to use tablets as long as they lay flat on the desk with the screens visible to instructors. The study did not account for cell phone use.

Students in the last group used tablets much less often than those in the group with full access to technology. About 80% of students who could use all technology used a device at some point during the semester, compared with just 41% of students in the tablet-only section.

Learn about eReaders and eTextbooks in the classroom

According to the researchers, "By way of comparison, this effect is as large as the average difference in exam scores for two students whose cumulative GPAs at the start of the semester differ by one-third of a standard deviation."

However, students with devices do not seem to bring down those who do not have devices; classes that had more students using electronics did not have lower overall grades.

Only the individuals using the devices scored lower grades. Students in the section allowing some use of devices scored 18% of a standard deviation lower than those in the device-free section on a final exam. On a test with a maximum score of 100, students who used devices in class scored 1.7 points lower than those who did not.

The researchers acknowledged that West Point does not reflect most students' college experience, being a male-dominated military academy. However, its academics are comparable to those at other small, selective four-year institutions. The researchers called for further investigation into in-class technology use.

Integrating mobile technology in the classroom

"We further cannot test whether the laptop or tablet leads to worse note taking, whether the increased availability of distractions for computer users (email, Facebook, Twitter, news, other classes, etc.) leads to lower grades or whether professors teach differently when students are on their computers," the report reads. "Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis of using technology in the classroom, additional research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted" (Strausheim, Inside Higher Ed, 5/13). 

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