Sara Brouda: Let students choose whether to use laptops in class

Last semester, I had a professor who banned laptops in the classroom, forcing students to take handwritten notes. About a week before the first exam in the class, I began reading back over my notes to prepare for the test, but they were barely legible. For the following exams, I relied solely on the readings and Google searches to memorize the information I needed for the test, because I couldn’t even read my class notes.

Now that it’s midterm season, students are starting to look back through their notes from the beginning of the semester as they prepare for exams and could find themselves in the same position I was in last year. In some classes, students can choose to take notes in the way that works for them. Other professors ban computers due to their possible distractions and studies that show taking handwritten notes help students absorb the material. But the hand writing method doesn’t work for everyone, and professors who limit the ways that students can take notes hinder some students’ educations.

Media Credit: Cartoon by Julia Korsyn
Cartoon by Julia Korsyn

Tonya Dodge, a professor of psychology, allows students to use computers if they sign an agreement to pay attention and sit in front of a teaching assistant. But Dodge says there are still issues with students using laptops.

“For me as an instructor, it is really distracting when students are playing on the laptop (i.e., smiling, typing, etc.) during lecturing,” Dodge said in an email. “It is obvious when a student is engaged in something on the laptop that is not related to note taking.”

Nevertheless, as college students, we should be able to decide how to take notes and learn material. If students feel that taking notes on computers is the way they want to learn information, and they understand the possible distractions, then they should be able to make that decision. Professors should not dictate the way students learn or study. A college education is for individuals’ personal growth, so they should be in control of it.

If students can’t read their handwritten notes, they won’t be able to use them to study, even if the professor thought taking notes by hand is preferable. Professors shouldn’t prevent students from having clean notes, which could affect students more than using a computer in class would.

Taking notes on the computer also has its own benefits: Students can transfer notes easily from person to person, in case a classmate misses a class session or wants to compare points.

At a university like GW, allowing computers in classrooms is especially important because students often have jobs, internships and other activities that take up just as much time as their classes. When students have a few spare minutes to study, they can have their notes on hand, while notebooks could easily get lost or left in residence hall rooms. Their notes could also be easily used and implemented outside of the classroom, even after the class is over.

There have been several studies that show that laptops in classrooms actually help facilitate learning among current college students. One study from Edith Cowan University argues that “[laptops in classrooms] created an environment that supported [millennial’s] needs.” In this self-reported study, the entirety of participants agree or strongly agree that they are comfortable with technology, and 66.7 percent feel it helps them in the classroom. In addition, other studies have shown that 80 percent of students feel laptops are useful and should be permitted in classrooms. Modern students usually prefer using computers over old fashioned pen and paper, and professors should recognize that.

There are some classes in which it may make sense to not have a computer because computers would hinder learning, like in small discussion-based classes. But for most classes, there is no reason for a professor to ban note taking on computers. Professors could still encourage students to take notes by hand but should not limit their choices.

Students like me know taking notes on their laptops works best for them. When professors institute bans on computers, their best efforts to facilitate learning end up hurting some students.

Sara Brouda, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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