Computers in classrooms?

The following critical thinking activity gets you to think about the research on the use of laptops in the classroom.  Is note-taking on laptops negatively influencing student learning?

Below are three modern studies which investigate the question.  First read through each study below. For each study, fill in the chart (see first box below).  Then, decide which study you think is the most convincing study with regard to the question.

Rating the studies

On a scale of 1 - 5, with 1 being low and 5 being high, how would you rank each of the following studies on the following criteria?

  • Ecological validity
  • Internal validity
  • Operationalization of variables
  • Population validity and generalizability
  • Potential confounding variables

Based on your rankings, which study do you think is the strongest?

Study 1. Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014, study 2)

Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) argue that using laptops - or other devices - to take notes may actually hinder learning.  Their argument is that when we take notes by hand, we cannot write fast enough to "keep up" with the professor; as a result, we have to process information and put what the professor says into our own words in order to get it on paper. 

The researchers used a volunteer sample of 109 undergraduate students, 27 of whom were male.

Participants were given either a laptop or pen and paper and were instructed to take notes on a series of four lectures. The lectures were films of a graduate student reading from a teleprompter.

Participants were told that they would be tested in one week on the content of the lectures - and they would not be allowed to take their notes home with them. Each participant watched the lecture on a private monitor with headphones in order to avoid any distractions.

The two conditions - handwriting and laptop note-taking - were then randomly divided into two more conditions.  In the "study" condition, the participants were given 10 minutes to study their notes before being tested.  In the "no-study" condition, the participants were immediately tested without a chance to review their notes.  There were 40 questions - 10 for each lecture. 

The results showed that in both the handwriting and the laptop conditions if the participants did not get a chance to study there was no significant difference in performance. A significant difference was found when the participants did get the chance to study. Participants who took notes by hand did significantly better than those that took notes on the computer.

Study 2. Umejima et al (2021)

Umejima et al (2021) carried out a study of Japanese university students to look at whether it is better to take notes by hand or on a computer.  Researchers say that the complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper may lead to improved memory.

Forty-eight volunteers, ages 18 - 29 years old, were recruited from university campuses. The researchers allocated participants to three groups, matching participants for memory skills, personal preference for digital or analog methods, gender, and age.

Participants read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for two months in the near future, including different class times, assignment due dates, and personal appointments.  They were asked to take notes on the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone. There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules.

Volunteers who used paper completed the note-taking task about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.

After one hour, including a break and a task to distract them from thinking about the calendar, volunteers answered a range of multiple-choice questions to test their memory of the schedule.  They completed the test inside an fMRI scanner.

Volunteers who used paper scored higher on factual questions about the schedules compared to the digital group.  In addition, they had more brain activity in the hippocampus which may indicate that taking notes by hand allows for richer spatial details that can be recalled more easily.

Study 3. Urry et al (2021)

Urry et al (2021) attempted to replicate the findings of Mueller and Oppenheimer's (2014) study. The replication below is of "study 1" in the original publication. 

142 undergraduate students participated in the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to view one of five lectures in one of two conditions: taking notes by hand or with a laptop. The lectures were TED talks - each lasting about 15 minutes. They were the same talks that were used in the original study.

The researchers provided each participant either a pen and paper or the researcher's laptop on which to take notes. The lecture was shown on a monitor. When available, participants wore headphones/earbuds to minimize distraction. Participants were asked to take notes as if they were in a class lecture.

When the video ended, participants completed a series of distractor tasks that lasted for about 30 minutes.  They then completed the quiz for the lecture they had viewed.

The researchers found that taking notes using a laptop led to a higher word count than taking notes longhand. In addition, the laptop group's notes were often word for word from the lecture. However, there was no significant difference in the number of correctly answered questions. It appears that the mode of note-taking had no significant effect on recall.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.