Study finds lecture hall internet access brings out the worst in students

As someone who currently has no less than 12 tabs open, I’m no stranger to the idea that the internet is just one giant distraction. Or more accurately, millions of tiny distractions. It’s pretty fortunate, then, that the majority of my education was at a time when laptops weren’t brought into schools and lectures, because a new study from Michigan State University confirms what we all kind of suspected: giving students stuck in a lecture theatre laptops just leads them to zone out.

To test the theory that humans are our own greatest educational saboteurs, Professors Susan Ravizza and Kimberly Fenn asked 507 students in Fenn’s 15-week “introductory psychology” class if they would participate in a study where their lecture internet usage was tracked during lectures. The 127 that agreed were asked to log in via a proxy server to give the researchers insights into how focused they were. In all, 83 students checked in for over half the course.

On average, the tracked students spent 37 minutes of each lecture distractedly browsing the internet. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that each lecture was only one hour and 50 minutes long. Students would divide this time between social media, catching up on email, online shopping and watching videos. And, of course, this is only the students who agreed to be tracked – presumably there are some who wouldn’t have agreed because of how little attention they pay.

The real kicker to all this was that internet use over the duration of the course was a significant predictor of final exam scores, even when motivation (measured via survey) and intelligence (demonstrated by American College Testing scores) were accounted for. “The detrimental relationship associated with non-academic internet use raises questions about the policy of encouraging students to bring their laptops to class when they are unnecessary for class use,” Ravizza said.susan-ravizza

And no, for the purposes of this class, access to a laptop offered no tangible improvements to student performance. “There were no internet-based assignments in this course, which means that most of the ‘academic use’ was downloading lecture slides in order to follow along or take notes,” explained professor Ravizza. And there’s evidence to suggest that taking notes by hand is way more effective in the long run, too, so even diligent note-takers aren’t necessarily doing themselves any favours.

The paper will be published online in the Psychological Science journal, but in the meantime the researchers have picked up a useful tip for bringing out the best in their students. Ravizza no longer uploads lecture slides ahead of time, meaning there’s no reason to have a laptop open in class at all.

Not that she’s enforcing a “no laptops” policy or anything, but she doesn’t recommend her students do. “I now ask students to sit in the back if they want to bring their laptop to class so their internet use is not distracting other students,” she said.

Lead image: University of Liverpool. Body image: MSU

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