Monthly Archives: January 2011

Perspectives: Drop the laptop!

The beginning of a new semester is typically similar to the beginning of semesters past. But this semester is particularly different for me, not only because it’s my last semester at McGill, but also because it’s the first semester at the beginning of which I have resolved to only take handwritten notes in class.

After three and a half years taking notes with my laptop, listening to the pounding sounds of the laptop keys, I decided that I would try something new. Little did I know how much I would actually learn.

I don’t mean to criticize those who take notes on the laptop—or to tell you how annoying it is. But I’ve started to avoid sitting next to anyone who brings a computer to class because it’s hard to concentrate while someone’s loudly typing every single word the professor says. (Seriously, when professors tell anecdotes, there is no reason to write it down verbatim. You also don’t need to write the same concept five times, just because the professor repeated it five times). Concentration becomes even more difficult when someone is browsing Facebook or playing Tetris right beside me.

Taking notes by hand is indeed more difficult. When I initially tried to write down the majority of the important points my professors were saying, I usually wrote too slowly and missed key information, while my laptop-using peers got down every word. But the point of going to class is not to have every word memorized; it’s to understand the material. This semester, I’ve been slowly training myself to think about the concepts the professor mentions and then take notes—rather than just writing down everything he says and trying to understand it later.

One of my professors has recognized that students who take notes on their computer are often multitasking, instead of solely paying attention to the lecture, and are therefore disrupting their peers. She banned laptops in her classroom, claiming that grades were significantly higher in courses where students didn’t use their laptops.

In a 2008 study, a professor from Minnesota found that the more students used their laptops in class, the lower their class performance was, the less attention they paid to lectures, and the less they understood the material. These findings go against older ideas which suggested that technology in the classroom actually assisted student learning. So what happened? Has technology failed students?

I don’t think so. Rather, we’ve failed ourselves. Instead of using technology to be more efficient, to take notes more quickly or to enhance our learning, we use it to check our email when the professor is answering a student’s question that isn’t important to us. And our insecurities, which make us feel like we’re getting smarter only if we do have every word down, don’t help either. I understand this insecurity, because I used to think that way as well. It’s much harder to trust that you’ll write down what is actually necessary—and that’s not every word that comes out of the professor’s mouth. It requires trusting your own judgment and knowledge.

Becoming a non-laptop user in the classroom isn’t an easy path to take. However, I wish I’d made the change earlier. I would have spent more time listening and learning, instead of just typing, and would have appreciated my classes that much more.

This was published in the McGill Tribune as part of my bi-weekly column, Perspectives.