My sophomore year, I took BIOL 0530: “Principles of Immunology” in Friedman Auditorium. Every week, as lecture started, I noticed one student take out his laptop, navigate to www.flashgames247.com and begin an 80-minute Brick Breaker marathon. Eventually, I realized that I was dedicating so much attention to monitoring this student’s high score — and questioning why he would even bother to come to class — that I had no idea what was happening in the realm of immunology.
Even if you weren’t sitting near me in BIOL 0530, you’ve probably had a similar experience of being distracted by someone else’s laptop use. A 2011 Herald poll found that 97.5 percent of Brown students own a personal laptop, and many of us use these laptops in class. For some students, the ability to type notes and instantly look up unfamiliar terms outweighs any temptations that laptops and tablets produce. But for the easily distracted among us, widespread laptop use in lectures might be undermining our ability to learn.
A 2013 study at York University in Toronto investigated the effects of classroom laptop use. Unsurprisingly, students who multitasked by browsing the internet performed worse on post-lecture comprehension tests than students who did not multitask. But the researchers also tested whether simply sitting behind multitasking laptop users affected the performance of students who were taking notes on paper. Alarmingly, students who sat behind multitaskers actually performed worse than the students who were multitasking themselves.
When you multitask in class, you can decide to “tune in” when the professor is explaining particularly complicated concepts. But if you’re along for the ride of your neighbor’s internet browsing, you might involuntarily lose focus during a crucial part of lecture. Our whole visual system is wired to home in on interesting stimuli, whether it be the motion of texts popping up on your neighbor’s iMessage account or the irresistible vacuity of the latest Buzzfeed headline. When surveyed, students seated behind multitaskers reported that they were only “somewhat distracted” and that their learning was “barely hindered” by others’ laptop use. But on comprehension tests, their performance suffered by 17 percent compared to those not in view of multitaskers. So even if you don’t think you’re sidetracked by the person in front of you, your grades might be suffering all the same.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution to this problem. In light of this research on laptop use, in NEUR 1030: “Neural Systems,” Professor Monica Linden asks laptop users to sit on the sides of the classroom, while students who take notes on paper sit in the middle. Of course, students can always self-segregate: if you’re planning not to pay attention during lecture, it’s only polite to sit near the back of the classroom where you won’t distract others. Still, it would be easy and effective for more professors of large lecture classes to adopt an official policy of laptop user segregation.
Most of Brown’s large lecture halls could easily accommodate a seating arrangement like the one in Neural Systems. If most people prefer to use laptops, this configuration could also be flipped, with laptop users in the middle and longhand note takers on the periphery. The convenience is that students can switch back and forth between laptop and technology-free zones throughout the semester. And if students who take notes on paper wish to sit with friends who use laptops, they can sit in the laptop section. Thus, segregating laptop users has zero drawbacks.
Though I have yet to try to challenge my classmate’s Brick Breaker score, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t guilty of obsessively checking my email during class. If students wish to sabotage their own learning by multitasking in class, they are entitled to do so — if you want to squander your tuition on Brick Breaker, please, don’t let me stop you. As college students, we should take responsibility for our own learning, and paternalistic policies like banning laptops altogether would harm those who do benefit from laptop use. The need for intervention arises when one student’s browsing affects the focus of neighboring students. Adopting Linden’s laptop policy in large lecture classes could drastically improve the effectiveness of our learning at no cost to students.