New study suggests the potential benefits of bringing a laptop to a university class

June 1, 2021 - Brandon Drain

In these times of technological innovation, the symbiotic relation between higher-ed learning and technology is prevalent in almost every classroom. When it comes to large, lecture-based classroom settings—seating between 300 to 500 students—that prevalence of technology usage dominates. 

Researcher and professor at Michigan State University, Susan Ravizza, delved into whether laptop usage could show some benefit to classroom performance. 

“Having taught many large courses over 10 years at Michigan State,” Ravizza said, “I noticed an increase of people bringing laptops to class. Often it was a lecture hall full of all these screens with Apple logos facing me.”

Unlike previous studies on the matter—which focused on the negatives of bringing laptops to class—Ravizza focused on a more nuanced approach: searching for the benefits of laptops in classrooms by measuring not just off-task usage, but class-related usage as well. 

Ravizza led a team of researchers to find the correlation between off-task and class-related laptop usage in relation to exam scores in a psychology 101 course at MSU. One hundred and three students, out of the 500 enrolled in the course, took part in the study, having tracking software downloaded onto their laptops to monitor overall usage during the 100 minute class periods. 

The software, RescueTime, monitored laptop activities ranging from class-related tasks such as note-taking, viewing slides, answering in-class questions and using the internet for searches related to class material, like references. In addition, the software tracked other activities such as checking email, shopping, instant messaging, videos and other random activities unrelated to class. 

What the software didn’t do was measure activities outside of the classroom, and students had the ability to turn off the software whenever they weren’t in the psychology class. The study was conducted in the fall of 2019, pre-pandemic. 

What the study revealed was a positive correlation between one type of classroom activity, viewing slides, and course performance, in relation to the time spent doing class-related laptop activities. In addition, the study suggests bringing a laptop to class doesn’t increase off-task, distracting behavior. 

While these findings are promising for shifting the narrative of laptops in classrooms, Ravizza suggests there’s more work to be done:

 “At this point, I don’t think we could make a one-size-fits-all policy about bringing laptops to class,” Ravizza suggests. “Things are just more nuanced than just saying, ‘laptops are bad.’ Technology is here to stay. It’s better to educate people on how to use their technology in productive ways.”

Link to more on Dr. Ravizza’s research: