Talking Teaching

August 31, 2015

should we stop students using laptops during lectures?

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete*) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. 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.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…**) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.


I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?*** While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?


* I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)?

** no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

*** and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?


August 28, 2015

does powerpoint make students stupid & professors boring?

The author of this article certainly thinks so. He kicks off with this:

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter?

I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester.

Well, first up, that’s a leading, and loaded, question. And secondly, I’d be surprised if anyone really believed that. Yes, I’m sure that there are lecturers who simply read off their powerpoint slides (which really is a no-no!). And what did we use in the days Before Powerpoint (BP)? Quite likely overhead transparencies, either printed or handwritten, and yes, some of us almost certainly had lecturers who simply read all the information off the transpareny. (I know I did!)

In other words, the header ignores the fact that Powerpoint is simply a tool. Nothing more, and nothing less. It cannot make anyone boring. That’s done by the person using it; similarly,  the way the tool is used will have a flow-on effecct on learners. Indeed, this was the focus of a post I wrote some time ago, and if you haven’t already read the 2008 paper by Yiannis Gabriel that I discussed therein, you should do so now.

A better question would be: how do we help professors to use powerpoint (& other technologies) in ways that better support student learning?

That, of course, requires that we are able to measure student learning in meaningful ways. And here I definitely agree with the author of the article:

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn’t.

Isn’t it time that we got serious about doing this?



August 24, 2015

riffing on the national standards

Over on Facebook, a friend of mine shared a post (from a friend of hers) about National Standards in the NZ primary education sector. If you’re on FB I recommend reading it; it certainly gave me a bit of food for thought. In his post the author, Jamie Strange, identifies what he sees as problems with the National Standards as they currently exist.

His first, that they “[narrow] the curriculum… [placing] extra emphasis on literacy and numeracy, to the detriment of other subjects”, is something that I’ve commented on previously in the context of teaching & learning in science. Back then I said that

the introduction of National Standards appears to have focused attention elsewhere, away from the delivery of science. (I know that it should be possible to address the Standards within the context of science – or pretty much any other subject – but the risk is that this won’t be recognised by many teachers without opportunities for further training.)

It would be nice to think that things have moved on in 5 years, but Jamie’s post suggests otherwise :(

Later on he states that “National Standards limits [sic] creativity in the classroom”, in terms of restricting teachers in the methods they use to help learners gain mastery. At a time when there is increasing use of innovative teaching techniques in tertiary classrooms, it would be a pity if we really are losing that at the other end of students’ learning experiences. There’s a fascinating interview with educator Sir Ken Robinson in which he discusses why creativity is something that we really, really need to foster.

And he quotes the Labour Party’s education spokesman, Chris Hipkins:

A conformist model of education that says every student has to achieve an arbitrary set of ‘standards’ at a set time in their life, will rob us. Greatness doesn’t always follow a conventional path. Students certainly need to know how to read and write, but they also need good levels of communication, self-management, perseverance, curiosity, and social skills. What can easily be measured must not become the sole measure of success.

This is expanding on something that Hipkins said in 2014:

To thrive in the 21st century, today’s students will need to leave school with a set of skills and knowledge that are quite different to what our education system has been focused on in the past. Far from ‘standardisation’ we need to focus on fostering:

  • Creativity and innovation: New Zealand is a land of boundless potential, to realise that we will need to think outside the square, try new things, and take a few risks.

  • Adaptability and flexibility: Look at how much the world has changed in the past 15 years. We can’t even imagine how it will change over the next 15 years and yet that’s the world those starting their educational journey today will step into. Equipping them with the skills they will need to adapt to whatever life throws at them is one of the most significant gifts we can give them.

  • Collaboration and cooperation: When they step out of the education system and into the workforce, today’s students will be expected to work in teams, to problem solve, to self-motivate, and to manage their own time. Our education system needs to embrace those characteristics.

And he’s right. And his words apply to the tertiary sector as well. While ‘subject knowledge’ will remain an important attribute for uni graduates too, what one might call competencies & capabilities are just as important. These are attributes that we should foster in everyone, no matter where they’re at in their journey through our education system.

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