Northwestern profs to study whether laptop use affects grades

Ally Mutnick

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Two Northwestern professors are about to conclude a three-year-long study to determine the effect of laptops on student grades in large lecture-style classes.

Dr. Michael Smutko, a physics and astronomy lecturer, and psychology lecturer Dr. Sara Broaders have restricted the use of laptops in some of their classes over the past three years to test whether electronics help or hinder learning.

“It’s no secret that in every college structure and maybe even high school now, laptops (have) just exploded in the classroom,” Smutko said. “Sometimes you would just be looking up at a sea of Apple logos. You wouldn’t actually see any students’ faces.”

Smutko said he was inspired by a study conducted at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2008 that compared grades with students’ laptop use. However, only 17 students participated in that study.

Smutko and Broaders got the funding and approval from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences to test the students who have come through their astronomy and psychology classes over the past three years. Of the 789 students in Smutko’s three Modern Cosmology classes, two-thirds agreed to participate in the study, he said.

In Winter Quarter 2010, Smutko’s Modern Cosmology students could use laptops, but their Internet access was monitored by Northwestern University Information Technology, who reported which students logged on the Northwestern wireless network and how many bytes of data were downloaded during the class. Smutko and Broaders then compared this data to student grades.

Smutko used his winter 2011 and 2012 classes as control groups, banning them from using any electronics in the classroom. Smutko said he will compare these students’ grades with those of the students in the winter 2010 non-control group.

Weinberg sophomore Nikhil Bhagwat, who took Smutko’s class as part of the control group in winter 2011, said he had mixed feelings about the study because of the difficulty of manual note taking. Still, he acknowledged laptops can be a distraction in class.

“I always find myself constantly switching back to checking my mail and looking on Facebook,” Bhagwat said. “And if you glance around a lot of people are doing the same exact thing.”

Bhagwat said many of his professors ban laptops from the classroom to increase participation and mitigate distractions.

Weinberg freshman Sabrina D’Agostino, who is currently in Modern Cosmology, said using a laptop to take notes in class can be beneficial.

“It varies from person to person,” she said. “Some people have different learning styles.”

After listening to a presentation by Smutko, psychology Prof. Karl Rosengren decided to test this theory in some of his larger classes

Rosengren asks all his students with laptops to sit on the same side of the classroom so that only students who are already using laptops can see screens in the rows ahead of them. Rosengren said students are more attentive and focused with this setup.

“It seems to get the people who really want to use the laptop for classroom purposes to be more focused on taking notes rather than doing online poker or Facebooking,” Rosengren said. “Also, it’s clear that it doesn’t distract the rest of the class as much.”

Rosengren said he is interested to hear the results of Smutko’s study. This is the final year of data collection, and Broaders is currently on sabbatical to organize and analyze the data already collected.

Broaders could not be reached for comment.

Smutko said he believes the results could impact classes across departments.

“If laptops turn out to be good, we need to be spending more and getting more wireless in the room and supporting this fully,” Smutko said. “If they turn out to be bad, maybe we should do the exact opposite.”