For better learning in college lectures, lay down the laptop and pick up a pen
Susan M. Dynarski Professor of Public Policy, Education, and Economics - University of Michigan
Do computers help or hinder classroom learning in college? Step into any college lecture and you’ll find a sea of students with laptops and tablets open, typing as the professor speaks.
With their enhanced ability to transcribe content and look up concepts on the fly, are students learning more from lecture than they were in the days of paper and pen?
A growing body of evidence says “No.” When college students use computers or tablets during lecture, they learn less and earn worse grades. The evidence consists of a series of randomized trials, in both college classrooms and controlled laboratory settings.
Students who use laptops in class are likely different from those who don’t. They may be more easily distracted or less interested in the course material. Alternatively, they may be the most serious (or wealthiest) students who have invested in technology to support their learning.
Randomization assures us that, on average, the students using electronics in a study are comparable at baseline to those who do not. That means that any comparison we make of students at the end of the study is caused by the “treatment,” which in this case is laptop use.
In a series of laboratory experiments, researchers at Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles had students watch a lecture, randomly assigning them either laptops or pen and paper for their note-taking.1 Understanding of the lecture, measured by a standardized test, was substantially worse for those who had used laptops.
When college students use computers or tablets during lecture, they learn less and earn worse grades.
Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, in this experiment, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than summaries of the lectures.
Taking notes can serve two learning functions: the physical storage of content (ideally, for later review) and the cognitive encoding of that content. These lab experiments suggest that laptops improve storage, but undermine encoding. On net, those who use laptops do worse, with any benefit of better storage swamped by worse encoding.
We could try to teach students to use their laptops better, nudging them to think about the material as they type. The researchers tried this in a second experiment, advising the laptop users that summarizing and condensing leads to more learning than transcription. This instruction had no effect on the results.
Students using laptops can also distract their classmates from their learning, another lab experiment suggests.2 Researchers at York and McMaster recruited students to watch a lecture and then tested their comprehension. Some students were randomly assigned to do some short tasks on their laptops during the lecture (e.g., look up movie times). Others were allowed to focus on the lecture. All seats were randomly assigned.
As expected, the multitasking students learned less than those focused on the lecture, scoring about 11 percent lower on a test. What is more surprising: the learning of students near the multitaskers also suffered. Students who could see the screen of a multitasker’s laptop (but were not multitasking themselves) scored 17 percent lower on comprehension than those who had no distracting view. It’s hard to stay focused when a field of laptops open to Facebook, Snapchat, and email lies between you and the lecturer.
These studies, like all lab experiments, took place under artificial circumstances. Students were paid to participate, lectures were unrelated to actual coursework, and performance on tests had no bearing on college grades. This controlled setting allowed researchers to carefully manipulate conditions and thereby try to tease out the mechanisms underlying the effect of laptop use on learning.
But what happens in a real classroom, over multiple lectures? Perhaps laptop-using students review and encode their notes later, after class. They might even perform better on assessments, since they have more accurate notes for review. Further, students might work harder to stay focused on the lecture, even in the face of distractions, when their grades are at stake.
To capture these real-world dynamics requires randomly assigning hundreds of college students to different classroom conditions. At the United States Military Academy (USMA), a team of researchers took on this task.3
The USMA is a selective, liberal-arts college whose graduates go on to become officers in the US military. All students at the USMA take a semester-long, introductory economics class. The class is taught by professors in sections of no more than twenty students. Students in this introductory class all take the same multiple-choice and short-answer tests, which are administered online and graded automatically. This provides a consistent measure for comparisons of learning across sections.
The researchers randomly assigned these sections to one of three conditions: 1) electronics allowed, 2) electronics banned, and 3) tablet computers allowed, but only if laid flat on desks where professors could observe their use. Because professors at USMA teach multiple sections of the same class in a given semester, the researchers assigned each professor to more than one treatment condition.
At the end of the semester, students in the classrooms where electronics were allowed had performed substantially worse, with scores 0.2 standard deviations below those of the sections where electronics were banned. There was no discernible difference between sections where tablets were allowed (but restricted) and those where electronics were unrestricted.
In real-world education settings, a fifth of a standard deviation is a large effect. For example, the Tennessee STAR experiment found that children who were randomly assigned to smaller classrooms between kindergarten and third grade scored a fifth of a standard deviation higher than children in standard classrooms.
We can criticize the external validity of any of these studies. How relevant, after all, is the experience of cadets learning economics to community college students learning Shakespeare? But the evidence-based strategy is not to therefore ignore the studies but to consider the specific reasons that their results would or would not extrapolate to other settings.
The USMA authors argue compellingly that we would expect effects at other colleges to be, if anything, larger than those in their study. USMA courses are taught in small sections, where it is difficult for students to hide distracted computer use from their professors. Further, USMA students have strong incentives to perform, since class rank determines who gets the first pick of jobs after graduation.
The best way to settle this question of external validity, of course, is to replicate this experiment in more colleges. Until then, I find the existing evidence sufficiently compelling that I ban electronics in my classrooms.
Students with learning disabilities may need a laptop or tablet in order to participate in class. I (and every teacher I know) solicit and accommodate such requests. There is a loss of privacy, in that a student using a laptop is revealed as having a learning disability. This loss of privacy has to be weighed against the deterioration in learning that the other students suffer if laptop use is freely allowed.
Students may object that a laptop ban prevents them from storing notes on their computers. But free smartphone apps can quickly snap pictures of handwritten pages and convert them to PDF format. Even better: typing and synthesizing handwritten notes is a terrific way to review and check one’s understanding of a class.
There may well be particular classroom settings in which laptops improve learning. Perhaps a coding class, in which students collaborate on solving a programming problem. But for the typical lecture setting, the best evidence suggests students should lay down their laptops and pick up a pen.
The author was not paid by any entity outside of Brookings to write this particular article and did not receive financial support from or serve in a leadership position with any entity whose political or financial interests could be affected by this article.
What Are the Benefits of Laptops for Students?
Laptops are embraced because of the technological tools they offer combined with their portability. Not only are they becoming more popular for home use, but many schools are starting to incorporate them into their classrooms as well. Several advantages exist for students using laptops, including more efficient and detailed note taking, faster writing and editing, and convenient group work and study. Laptops offer these advantages to students no matter what their grade or age.
More Efficient Note Taking Taking notes by hand can be time-consuming and taxing on your hand. When students have laptops, they can type their notes directly into a document. Electronic note taking is both faster and more flexible. Digital note taking allows students to index and organize their study material automatically, quickly search for information by keyword and share notes with other students. Digital notes can be stored and backed up so they are not lost -- unlike paper notes -- which may become destroyed or lost. While students can take notes on a desktop computer at home, only a laptop allows them to take notes when they are in class, where they receive much of their information. Notes can then be accessed at any time or place since the laptop is portable.
More Options for Writing and Editing Laptops can help students write papers more easily as well. Typing can make the writing process go faster, and the tools in word processing software make it easier for students to edit their work. By writing on laptops instead of a desktop computer, students can work at home, in the library or during work time in class. A project to give students laptops in the classroom in Maine resulted in an increase in student writing achievement, according to The National Writing Project. Eighty percent of students in the project said they would rather use their laptop to do their work and were more likely to edit their work using their laptop. In addition, 75 percent said that laptops helped them to be better organized, while 70 percent said laptops helped them improve the quality of their work.
Facilitates Group Work Group work is integral to student success. Students who learn how to work in a team and benefit from the strengths of other students in the group learn material in a new way. Laptops facilitate group work by allowing students to meet at any location -- whether it's a library, school room or a student's home -- and access all the materials they may need, including classroom notes, journal articles, online research or software for creating videos, slide shows or other items they may need for presentations. Wherever students have access to the Internet, they can also easily share files with one another.
Accessibility and Connectivity One of the biggest advantages of laptops is that they allow students to access information wherever they can get an Internet connection. With more places offering free Wi-Fi, getting an Internet connection is easier than ever. This accessibility allows students to study whenever they have the time -- no matter where they are. Greater access to notes and educational tools like education programs and websites can improve student performance in the classroom.
The Best Laptops For College Students Who Want To Work And Play
The best college student laptops are good at balancing the needs of everyday coursework with more leisurely pursuits like playing games and streaming video. Whether you need a laptop for research, notetaking, writing papers or unwinding after a hard day, the best laptops for college students can handle both. While you may see some overlap with some of the best overall laptops, our picks for students take the unique mix of student needs into account.
The best laptops for college students have a long battery life and are powerful enough to tackle any ... [+] school assignment. getty
Need something high powered but affordable? Apple's MacBook Air (with the M1 chip) is still the value champ. Not only that, students get an education discount and other perks from Apple. If you prefer a machine running Windows, Dell's latest XPS 15 is a great example of a powerful laptop that can do just about anything, and do it all well. For more limited notetaking needs or navigating online courses, the low-powered Lenovo Chromebook Duet costs just a few hundred dollars and can handle cloud basics.
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To find the best laptops for college students, we combined extensive first hand experience with in-depth research to pick the best laptops for students.
Best Laptop for Students Overall
Highly Portable And Great To Type On
Best Buy Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio Buy From Best Buy CPU: Intel Core i5-11300H | RAM: 16GB LPDDR4X | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe | Storage: 256GB SSD | Display: 14.4-inch touch | Resolution: 2,400 x 1,600 | Refresh Rate: 120Hz | Battery: Up to 19 hours | Weight: 3.8 pounds Best for: Students who want a laptop with great performance, impressive battery life and the convenience of Microsoft’s Surface Pen. Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio is an excellent all-around laptop with terrific battery life. This laptop’s touchscreen tilts into a Stage Mode, a convenient angle for writing on the screen with the extra-cost Surface Slim Pen ($130). The laptop’s 2K screen is gorgeous: Bright, detailed, and vibrant, with sharper text than you’d find on a 1080p display. Surprisingly, the display has a 120Hz refresh rate, which makes it buttery smooth for animation work and light gaming (esports and indie games only). While this model doesn’t have the latest CPU, but what it does have more than suffices for student needs—and this laptop’s ability to last up to 19 hours without a charge makes it stand out from the crowd. This Surface Studio Laptop isn’t inexpensive, but it represents a strong value for a Windows system with extensive battery life and this set of features. Pros: Versatile touchscreen
Stores and charges Surface Slim Pen
Lengthy battery life Cons: Older-generation CPU
Doesn’t actually include the pen
Best 2-In-1 Laptop For Students
Impressive Performance With A Versatile 2K Display
Best Buy Lenovo Yoga 7i 16-inch Buy From Lenovo CPU: Intel Core i7-1260P | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe Graphics | RAM: 16GB LPDDR5 | Storage: 512GB SSD | Display: 16-inch touchscreen | Resolution: 2,560 x 1,600 | Battery: Up to 15 hours | Weight: 4.2 pounds Best for: Anyone who wants the versatility of a high-performance 2-in-1 laptop and tablet with a large 2K touchscreen. The Lenovo Yoga 7i 16-inch has all the components for a strong performer, including a 12th generation Intel CPU and fast LPDDR5 memory to go along with it. This combination smooths processor-intensive tasks like video and photo editing. And helps this model achieve up to 15-hours of battery life, an impressive number for such a large, high-resolution display. The detailed 2K screen has sharp text, and its roomy size means you can get windows of reasonable size side-by-side—convenient for doing research and writing papers. And at 400 nits brightness, the display looks great in both well-lit and dark environments. As a 2-in-1, this model can change to tent or stand mode, and works with the included stylus. It can also be flipped around and used as a tablet, but is heavy enough you’d probably need to use two hands to hold it. (If you prefer a smaller display/lighter unit, Lenovo has 14-inch version as well.) This laptop has a slew of ports, including two Thunderbolt 4/USB Type-C ports for high-bandwidth connectivity, and two USB Type-A ports. Pros: Powerful internal hardware
Detailed screen is great for reading
Plethora of useful ports Cons: Heavy in tablet mode
Best Budget MacBook For Students
All You Need For School
MOST POPULAR Best Buy MacBook Air (M1 Processor) Buy From Best Buy CPU: Apple M1 | Graphics: M1 8-core | RAM: 8GB LPDDR4X | Storage: 256GB SSD | Display: 13.3-inch | Resolution: 2,560 x 1,600 | Battery: Up to 18 hours | Weight: 2.8 pounds Best for: Students looking for the best overall value, pairing low price with light weight and good battery life. When the MacBook Air (M1 Processor) first came out, it made enormous leaps in performance and battery life over its predecessors and set new standards for performance and efficiency in a thin and light laptop. While the faster still Apple MacBook Air (M2 Processor) is now available, the original M1 MacBook Air is the least expensive MacBook you can buy at $200 less, and it remains an excellent choice for a wide range of everyday computing tasks. This model has a 256GB SSD and only 8GB of RAM, but for lightweight tasks like writing up papers, taking notes, or doing online research, it's perfectly suited. The M1 processor is impressive enough too, for video editing or more intensive tasks. You just probably want an external drive of some kind for additional storage. The display on the M1 MacBook Air is gorgeous, with a 2K resolution for sharp text, vibrant colors and 400 nits brightness. One catch: It has just two Thunderbolt 4/USB Type-C ports, and one of those is for charging. Pros: Sharp display
Impressive performance for the price
Long battery life Cons: M2 models offer better performance
Best Creatives Laptop For Students
A Video Or Photo Editor's Dream
Best Buy MacBook Pro 13-Inch (M2 Processor) Buy From Best Buy CPU: Apple M2 | Graphics: Apple M2 10-Core | RAM: 8GB DDR4 | Storage: 512GB SSD | Display: 13.3-inch | Resolution: 2,560 x 1,600 | Battery: Up to 18 hours | Weight: 3 pounds Best for: Creative students with deep photo and video editing needs who want the fastest machine for the job. The MacBook Pro 13-Inch 2022 (M2 Processor) is Apple’s least expensive MacBook Pro model, and the first to use the new M2 CPU. This model handily leads the Mac performance pack, and has a massive 18 hour battery life. The unit retains the same look and feel as the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro, and still has the Touch Bar touchscreen strip atop the keyboard—an element no longer found on the larger MacBook Pro models redesigned in 2021. The 2K screen carries 500 nits brightnes, and is sharp with accurate colors—useful for creatives doing photo and video editing. At three pounds this model is relatively portable, and it should remain the lightest MacBook Pro in the lineup. It has two Thunderbolt 4/USB Type-C ports and a headphone jack, a limited selection of options considering one of those ports is for power, too. Pros: Solid performance
Long battery life
Display is crisp and bright Cons: Limited ports
Best Budget Chromebook Laptop For Students
Super Affordable, Super Portable
Best Buy Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 11-inch Buy From Best Buy CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 7c Gen 2| RAM: 4GB DDR4X| Storage: 128GB eMMC | Display: 10.9-inch touchscreen | Resolution: 2,000 x 1,200 | Battery: Up to 10 hours | Weight: 1.4 pounds Best for: Those who want a capable little ultraportable machine for notetaking on-the-go. Arguably one of the most portable laptops you can buy today, the Lenovo Chromebook Duet can handle basic cloud-based tasks, and does so with an attachable full-size keyboard and a capable 2K touchscreen, too. All of this is packed into an slim, attractive 1.4 pound chassis—making it a dream for carrying around all-day between classes. The display on this device is comparatively small, but it is enough for monotasking chores like taking notes or writing emails, and its 2000 x 1200 resolution delivers a crisp picture with a high pixel density. The hardware inside isn't powerful, but the lightweight and responsive Chrome OS doesn’t require much. Likewise, the storage is limited and slow, but again, for tasks light on creating this should suffice. The Lenovo Chromebook Duet is the perfect companion for web browsing and other light tasks, and it can even handle streaming video from YouTube and elsewhere. At this low price, this is one of the most affordable ways to get an ultra-portable system, but students with more complex needs will want to look elsewhere—including at the updated and pricier version of this laptop, the $499 Chromebook Duet 5 (13.3-inch OLED screen, 8GB of RAM, 128GB eMMC storage). Pros: Ultra compact and portable
Crisp display Cons: Limited on-board storage
Basic processor only handles light tasks
Best Premium Chromebook Laptop For Students
Strong Performance And Multitasking Potential
Best Buy Asus C536EA Chromebook Buy From Best Buy CPU: Intel Core i3-1115G4 | Graphics: Intel UHD | RAM: 8GB | Storage: 128GB SSD | Display: 15.6 inches | Resolution: 1,920 x 1,080 | Battery: Up to 10 hours | Weight: 4.2 pounds Best for: Budget-minded, cloud computing needs. The Asus C536EA Chromebook is a 2-in-1 with an impressive level of computing power for a Chrome OS laptop focused on cloud computing. This model has some of the beefiest components you can find in a Chromebook today, including an 11th Intel CPU, 8GB of memory--the most found in Chromebooks--and a 128GB SSD. The better CPU and higher memory make it easier to do multitasking and have more browser tabs open at once, without skipping a beat. It charges off of USB Type-C and Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, and has a built-in SD Card slot. This model weighs 4.2 pounds and measures just 0.7-inch thick, so it’s portable but not insignificant if you’re toting it around all day. The unit has a hinge so you can flip the screen 360-degrees to use it in tent, stand and tablet modes. The backlit keyboard is great for working in low-light situations. This model’s one drawback is its prosaic screen 1920 x 1080 resolution. This Chromebook works with both Android and Chrome OS apps, and is a great choice for students with more demanding needs. Pros: Slim design
Built in SD Card reader
Supports Wi-Fi 6 - 802.11ax Cons: Lacks high-resolution display
Intel UHD graphics best suited to casual games
Best Budget Windows Laptop For Students
Impressive Windows Performance For Under $1,000
Best Buy Asus Zenbook 14 Buy From Best Buy CPU: Intel Core i5-1240P | Graphics: Intel Iris Xe | RAM: 8GB LPDDR5 | Storage: 256B SSD | Display: 14-inch touchscreen | Resolution: 2,880 x 1,800 | Battery: Up to 18 hours | Weight: 3.1 pounds Best for: Students on a budget looking for a high-resolution touchscreen, long battery life and mid-range Windows performance. The Asus Zenbook 14 is a great choice for students looking for a lightweight, full-featured Windows laptop under $1,000. This model has the latest 12-generation Intel CPU, and uses DDR5 memory to take advantage of the processor’s performance boosts. This laptop can handle both lightweight and more processor intensive tasks. It has a high-resolution, sharp 2.8K OLED screen, terrific for spending hours in front of the screen typing, reading or even playing movies. Battery life reaches up to 18 hours on a single charge, so you rarely need to look for a power cord when out and about. At 3.1 pounds, it's portable enough to carry around all day without causing a backache, and 14-inches is a comfortable middle ground in terms of laptop size — more screen space for work and play, but not so big that it becomes unwieldy. The keyboard includes the unusual design of a number pad integrated into the touchpad. And it has a handful of ports, including two Thunderbolt 4/USB Type-C ports, an HDMI port, one USB Type-A port, and a microSD card reader. Pros: Excellent performance
Strong battery life
Detailed and clear OLED display Cons: RAM and storage may limit productivity
Best Premium Windows Laptop For Students
This High-Performance Model Can Do Everything
Best Buy Dell XPS 15 OLED Buy From Best Buy CPU: Intel Core i7-12700H | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti | RAM: 16GB DDR5 | Storage: 1TB SSD | Display: 15.6-inch touchscreen | Resolution: 3,456 x 2,160| Battery: Up to 11 hours | Weight: 4.3 pounds Best for: Students who need desktop-like power. Dell's XPS range includes some of the best Windows laptops you can buy at any size, but the Dell XPS 15 is a truly premium Windows machine combining high-powered internal components—including fast DDR5 memory and 1TB of SSD storage. If you want to do a little gaming in your off-hours, this model packs Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics, more than enough for gaming at maximum levels, as well as doing 3D design work and video transcoding, too. This laptop costs more, but it can do just about anything. This model has a finger-friendly keyboard perfect for long nights of typing up papers. It’s 3.4K OLED screen produces rich, crisp images and excellent contrast, perfect for browsing the web, or watching your favorite movies and TV shows. At just over four pounds, this Dell is not the lightest of laptops, but it's not so heavy that it'll be a chore to lug between classes. Pros: Strong performance across work and leisure tasks
Crisp, high-resolution OLED display Cons: Premium price
Best For Gaming Laptop For Students
A Fast, High-Resolution Display And Productivity Powerhouse, Too
BestBuy Asus ROG Zephyrus G15 Buy From Best Buy CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 6900HS | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce RTX 3060 | RAM: 16GB DDR5 | Storage: 512GB SSD | Display: 15.6-inch | Resolution: 2,560 x 1,440 | Refresh rate: 165Hz | Battery: Up to 10 hours | Weight: 4.2 pounds Best for: Avid gamers who do homework, too. The Asus ROG Zephyrus G15 packs a gaming performance punch, without the high costs associated with some more premium laptops. This model has extra vents to run cool, and nifty RGB lighting to give it the true feel of a gaming machine. But the G15 more than just a gaming machine: Armed with the latest top-tier AMD CPU and solid Nvidia graphics, this unit can handle everyday productivity tasks and it playing esports and AAA games when the work is done. The 2.5K screen produces sharp text, while the 165Hz refresh rate ensures you can be competitive during online gameplay. The keyboard is comfortable to type on, with backlighting and dedicated one-touch media controls too—handy for mid-game adjustments. Pros: Great all-round gaming and productivity performance
Impressive battery life for a gaming laptop
Sharp display with fast refresh rate Cons: Less battery life than many productivity-focused laptops
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