Let Students Use Their Laptops

Students and teacher using Microsoft Surface Pro

Surface Pro in the Classroom Source: Surface Blog

Dear Colleagues, Friends, and Fellow Teachers:

Please do not take arguments like this one too seriously.  They remind me of the classical Greek arguments against the dangers of literacy, that teaching people to read and write would impair their ability to memorize things.

Forcing students to take notes in a way that does not work for them does no one any favors. A better practice is to encourage students to be aware of the benefits of different methods for different learning styles, and try to accommodate as many different learning styles as possible. I let students record me if they are auditory, and I write bullet points on the whiteboard for students who are taking bulleted notes. I draw diagrams for the very visual.  I also talk about note-taking strategies with all of my lecture-heavy, survey-level classes, and recognize that part of my role is to teach them how to use the various tools that are available to them.  If I’m concerned that the presence of technology will inhibit discussion, I talk with students about strategies for using their preferred tech in ways that will aid rather than limit their ability to participate.

Just because studies show that on average people retain more by handwriting their notes, that does not mean that the technology of typing is flawed. It just means that the way some people use it may be ineffective.  A computer (or, even better, a tablet with keyboard and stylus) is vastly superior to pen and paper as a tool for organizing written information.  Students can quickly group ideas, correct content errors, flesh out earlier points, and correct for errors in their own (or the professor’s) organization and taxonomy.  They can bold things or color code them, and they can also hyperlink key points to web content.  They can easily back their notes up to the cloud, and review them on multiple devices.  Simply put, notes on a laptop are better-organized, cleaner, and more versatile.

Yes, some students will blindly transcribe your lecture without critically analyzing or organizing it, just as some students with pen and paper will write down random points without understanding the structure of your lecture.  Similarly, some students will instead surf Facebook, just as some students will doodle on a piece of paper instead of taking notes.  None of this is the fault of the tool.  The laptop (or full-featured tablet) is, plain-and-simple, as much of an improvement over paper as paper was over clay tablets.

Good students spend their whole academic careers learning the study and note-taking techniques that work best for them.  Do not handicap them because you don’t trust them to be able to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.

If someone asked me to handwrite notes for an hour, I doubt I could do it. I’m not sure the last time I hand-wrote a complete sentence.  Also, since I keep all my notes typed up and on a tablet, I think it would be a bit hypocritical to then deny my students access to technology because I don’t trust them to function as members of the twenty-first century.

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