Could ditching devices in the classroom improve test scores?


A study of more than 700 students at the United States Military Academy (West Point) found the use of technology in the classroom may be more of distraction than an aid to learning and comprehension.

In a randomized controlled trial across 50 economics classes spanning two academic semesters, 726 West Point students were divided into three groups: a control group that prohibited the use of laptops or tablets in class, a group that allowed students to use laptops or tablets at will during class, and a group that allowed tablets but not laptops.

The results, published Tuesday in the journal Education Next, reveal that students in the second and third groups performed worse on their final exam — the assessment measured in the study — than the students who did not have access to laptops or tablets throughout the semester.

The difference between the final exam scores from the first group and the two technology-involved groups was about one-fifth of a standard deviation, or 0.18. Students who were banned from using internet-connected devices during class averaged a 72.9 percent score on the exam, while students who were free to use laptops and tablets at their discretion scored an average 70.5 percent.

“Banning computers gives students a leg up, grade-wise,” the
authors write in the report. “We find that a student in a classroom that prohibits
computers is on equal footing with a peer who is in a class that allows
computers and whose GPA is one third of a standard deviation higher — nearly the
difference between a B+ and A- average, for example.”

Two percentage points may seem insignificant, but it’s enough to indicate that laptops could be hurting — not helping — students, said Susan Payne Carter, an author of the report and assistant professor of economics at West Point.

“It is a good amount of difference,” Payne Carter told EdScoop. “There’s going to be a lot of variance in grades anyway, but this is showing people are doing worse [with computers].”

The authors didn’t approach this study with preconceived ideas about what they would learn, Payne Carter said, but “I would’ve been surprised if we had found the opposite effect” — that computers improve student comprehension.

“I know as a student I could be distracted when I had my computer,” she recalled. “And I know it can be distracting, honestly, for me as the instructor. This [study] is nice because it provides evidence there’s a negative effect.”

As helpful as computers can be for note-taking and reading digital texts, they’re often misused by students — especially college students whose campuses may not block as many social or entertainment websites as a K-12 school district, according to the report. As instructors have often observed, students who appear to be taking notes feverishly may be sending texts through iMessage, shopping at retail stores online, checking social media accounts or playing games.

“This study is justification” for instructors who choose to prohibit the use of internet-connected devices in their classrooms, she added.