Shouldn't Academics Respect Empirical Evidence?: The Tech Debate


by Jennifer Vannette

Read any report or op-ed in which the author suggests that use of tech in the classroom may not be as helpful as one would like and immediately the comments section roars to life with a loud, angry protest. Recently I read a brief piece about why a professor chooses to rewrite things on a white board as opposed to using PowerPoint. Cue the angry defensiveness in the comments section telling this professor that she must be terrible at her job; there is always an assumption of incompetence if a person values a low-tech method over high-tech. Tech is associated strongly with progress, and so those who offer a contrarian view are often told to step aside. Here's one thing that is fascinating in light of academic emphasis on evidence: study after study has shown note-taking by hand leads to greater understanding and retention and yet many academics (and students) still insist that the evidence is wrong and laptops are best. Deeply troubling, it seems academics are particularly guilty of ignoring empirical evidence in favor of their own anecdotal belief that that tech is better, and that disregard of evidence runs contrary to our values as academics. Case in point, recent commentary in Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the most contentious and perpetual debates regarding tech is the use of laptops or tablets for note-taking. From students, most of the anecdotal evidence comes from those who insist that they cannot later read their own handwriting or those that have a learning disability that impairs their ability to keep up with notes during a lecture. I'm certain those are real concerns. Yet the evidence suggests that the majority of students benefit from turning off the laptops, and since there are structural supports in place for students with disabilities, I'd like to suggest we turn our focus to the majority for a moment -- most of our students can take notes by hand. Their real barrier is simply lack of practice.

The most recent and most cited study was conducted by Pat Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer and released in 2016.  Consistently they found the same results. They wanted to discover whether or not students processed and retained information better with or without a laptop. What is not in dispute is that students who take notes on a laptop tend to type verbatim notes. This means that they collect much more of what was said during lecture. Students who write notes by hand cannot keep up with verbatim notes and tend to have to process and be selective. This indicates more mental processing, but it also means less collected information. Mueller and Oppenheimer acknowledged that studying comes in two parts: the encoding hypothesis says that when we are involved in the act of taking notes we are engaged in mental processing that helps us learn and retain information, and the external-storage hypothesis that suggests notes are important for a student to look back on and study again.

The Mueller/Oppenheimer study had multiple parts so they could try to address these different components. Hundreds of students from UCLA and Princeton were asked to watch TED talks on a wide variety of topics and take notes. Some did so by hand and some by laptop. Students who used laptops took significantly more notes than students with pen and paper, so the question is whether or not that helped. The students then were tested on how well they remembered information. When it came to basic facts, both groups did well, but when it came to conceptual questions, the students who used a laptop did significantly worse. 

Okay, so verbatim notes might not help. So, in part two of the study, Mueller and Oppenheimer coached the laptop note-takers to not take verbatim notes. Use the laptop, but don't just type everything you hear. It turns out that it is difficult to control the impulse to take verbatim notes when the tool is at your fingertips. The results of the tests were the same.

But there is the external-storage hypothesis, so to make sure no stone was left unturned, the students in a third study were given the chance to study from their notes before taking the test. The idea being that because they had more collected information, with enough time to review it, they might perform better than hand note-takers who had less material to review. But, still, the hand note-takers out performed their laptop note-taking peers.

Scientific American reported that another key point in this study was that all the laptops were disconnected from the internet so as to eliminate that potential factor in the results, but in most classrooms students who use laptops can be distracted by the internet. The journal reported one study that determined 40% of all students with laptops are distracted and another law school study that showed a 90% distraction rate. The obvious implication is that those on a laptop were already disadvantaged in their ability to remember material based on their note-taking strategy so when you add in the distractions posed by easy internet accessibility, it's hard to see this as a formula for success.

Even though we need to acknowledge that students have different needs when they enter our classrooms, the evidence is clear that technology has drawbacks. No matter the fancy PR and futuristic appeal, it turns out that taking notes by hand leads to better education outcomes. And isn't that the business we are in?

Mueller admitted that it's a hard sell to get students to put down their tech devices, but she suggests that maybe with improving technologies like LiveScribe with stylus and tablet applications, perhaps the gap can be bridged. For myself, I've taken to presenting students with the evidence on day one and then I let them make their choice. In my last class of about 25 students, only three chose a laptop.