Study finds multitasking on a laptop impedes classroom learning


teachingVLaptops are increasingly taking the place of writing tools such as pen and paper, especially among postsecondary students. However, using a laptop to browse the Internet while listening to a lecture can be intrusive, a recent York University study reveals.

“The results of our experiment confirm that multitasking on a laptop reduces a student’s ability to comprehend lecture content,” says Tina Weston, a co-author and doctoral student in the Department of Psychology York’s Faculty of Health.

“A more surprising finding was that students sitting nearby a multitasker also underperformed, despite actively trying to focus on the lecture. These students were placed at a disadvantage because of the choices of their peers,” adds Weston, who worked alongside McMaster University doctoral student Faria Sana on the study led by Professor Melody Wiseheart of York University’s Department of Psychology.

The study, published this month in Computers & Education, a publication focused on technology use in classrooms, was conducted on undergraduate level student participants. They were asked to attend a university-style lecture and take notes using their laptops as a primary task.

Half the participants were then randomly assigned to complete a series of non-lecture related online tasks during the lecture. These tasks were meant to mimic typical student web browsing during class in terms of both quality and quantity, according to the researchers. In a comprehension test at the end of the lecture, multitasking participants performed worse than non-multitasking participants.

For the same study, another set of undergraduate students was asked to take notes using paper and pencil while attending to the lecture. Some of them were strategically seated throughout the classroom so that they were in view of those multitasking on laptops while others had a distraction-free view of the lecture.

The authors conclude that both the multitasking student and the student positioned in close vicinity perform poorly on in-class assessments compared to non-multitasking students.

As the results of this work have important implications for classroom instruction, the researchers have offered a list of Frequently Asked Questions describing problems resulting from laptop multitasking and steps instructors can take to optimize attention during lectures.