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Allowing the use of devices in the classroom affects academic performance

By Carl Straumsheim

Study conducted by faculty members at West Point finds students perform better academically when laptops and tablets are banned in the classroom.

When faculty members at West Point Military Academy took away student computers and tablets in introductory economics courses, their students skipped grades.

The study of the results of those faculty members, “published this month by the School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that male students and students with a high-grade average at the beginning of Their college majors are more susceptible to their grades as they suffer from device-induced distraction.

Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg and Michael Walker, three members of West Point’s economics faculty, last year separated students in the course into three sections to determine the effect Internet-connected devices have on academic performance. One section was strictly technology-free, while a second was allowed students to use laptops and tablets (although teachers were free to discipline “blatantly distracted” students). A third section reached a compromise, allowing students to use tablets as long as the devices lay flat on the table so that teachers could see what was on the screen. The study does not address cell phone use.

The different formats had a marked effect on the use of the device. The students in the third section, which the researchers created to mimic an ideal example of how the devices should be used in the classroom, use tablets much less frequently than those in the full technology class. While 80 percent of the students in that section said they used a device at some point during the semester, only 41 percent in the tablet-only class did.

However, the percentage of students who took their laptops and tablets out of class did not make a difference in the academic performance of their sections. In a computer-based final exam, students in the sections that allowed some type of device to be used scored 18 percent of a standard deviation lower than those in the section where the devices were prohibited. On a test with a maximum score of 100, that means that students who use computers and tablets in the classroom – even specifically for classroom purposes – scored 1.7 points lower than those who did not.

“For comparison, this effect is as large as the average difference in test scores of two students whose cumulative GPAs at the beginning of the semester differ by one-third of a standard deviation,” the report said.

On a final exam that accounted for 25 percent of the students in the class, such a difference can incline a pass score to fail. And in the case of West Point students, failing the final exam could mean failing the entire class.

The findings carry implications for higher education in general. By some measures, the use of devices in the classroom is on the rise, and while the study from time to time has found beneficial uses, there is plenty of literature to the contrary.

The report presents a handful of possible reasons why using a device in the classroom could lead to lower grades. It could be that digital note taking is not as effective as handwriting, which other studies have tried to explore. Perhaps teachers change the way they teach courses when laptops and tablets are brought into their classrooms. Or it could just have something to do with the endless distractions that are available to students online.

“We cannot yet check 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 if teachers teach differently when students are on their teams, “the report states. “Given the magnitude of our results, and the increasing emphasis on the use of technology in the classroom, further research aimed at distinguishing between these channels is clearly warranted.”

The co-authors were open about the limitations of the study. West Point, after all, is obviously not the image of your average college. It attracts students interested in pursuing a career as a military officer, has a gender gap of about 60 percentage points, and tends to enroll fewer minority students. Academically, however, West Point students compare both to students from smaller selective institutions, four-year colleges, and liberal arts colleges.

“Although many aspects of West Point differ from typical four-year student institutions, there are many reasons to believe that allowing computers in traditional lecture-style classrooms could have even more detrimental effects than those found in this study,” indicates the report. “West Point students are highly incentivized to earn high marks, teachers are expected to interact with their students during each lesson, and class sizes are small enough that it is difficult for students to be completely distracted by their computer without the knowledge teacher. “


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