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Northwestern University
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Digital Devices in the Classroom: Help or Hindrance?

When Mike Smutko, an associate professor of instruction in physics and astronomy, arrived at Northwestern University in 2003, laptops in the classroom were a rare sight. Every subsequent year, however, more and more faces disappeared behind laptop screens. Smutko began to wonder: Is this a good thing for student learning? 

“I heard some anecdotal stories through the years, but never saw anything scientific,” Smutko said. 

Hungry for an answer, Smutko approached Sara Broaders, an associate professor of instruction in psychology (“I know how to study stars, but she knows how to study people,” Smutko joked), and asked if she’d be willing to explore the impact of in-class technology on student performance. Broaders was a willing partner.

“I absolutely had the same curiosity myself,” she said.

The duo devised a study of 240 undergraduates in two separate lecture-based courses, analyzing how the use of laptops and other electronic devices influenced final course grades. Throughout the academic quarter, students in both classes were allowed to use technology at will during class meetings. The students self-reported their technology use, while Wi-Fi access logs tracked electronic usage.

The results proved eye-opening. The final grades of those who took handwritten notes during class were more than four percentage points higher than those who used digital devices in class to either multitask or pursue other electronic adventures, such as Facebook or email. 

“Whenever there is data transfer, that’s when you see the real effect,” Broaders said. “The more Internet usage, the lower the grades.”

As a result of their research, both Smutko and Broaders now segregate their respective classrooms into tech and non-tech sections, instructing those who use digital devices to sit in the back rows. Broaders, in fact, presents her research on the first day of each new class, so that her students can be educated users of technology.

“When they see that this could be the difference between an A and a B, they realize it could also be the difference between med school and no med school,” Broaders says.

Broaders said the “tech section” in most of her classes now comprises about 10 to 15 percent of the class. But in one recent first-year section of developmental psychology, the tech section was vacant.

“I take that as a small victory,” Broaders said.

Smutko noted that in many cases, devices are a useful and sometimes even necessary component of classroom learning. “But this research tells us we need to be judicious,” Smutko said. “Attention is not a limitless resource.”   

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