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What are students really typing?

During my graduate career at the University at Buffalo in the Anthropology program, I was occasionally invited to lead a class discussion.  The classroom itself could seat upwards of 200 students, many of which had brought along their laptops.

Photo from

On one balmy spring morning, I was asked to give a lecture on social scripts.  Seeing a natural connection to the classroom setting, I began my discussion from the back of the classroom, immediately breaking the students’ social expectations (i.e. their social scripts) for what a prototypical lecturer should be doing.

Although the strategy worked, that is not the point of this post.  Carrying on the theme of a recent “Flipping the Classroom” conversation within the Hybrid Challenge group, I was struck by the number of students who had their own laptops (this was about 8 years ago), and further struck by the percentage of those students who were updating their social network status, checking last night’s basketball scores, or browsing YouTube.

For someone who self identifies as an ‘engaging teacher’ (perhaps engaging teaching assistant would have been more accurate at the time), the students’ lack of engagement left me downtrodden.

Map of Online Communities from xkcd

It appears I was not alone, because recently a St. John’s University law professor had researchers look over students’ shoulders and two University of Vermont business professors used computer software to monitor what students were doing on their laptops during lecture. Though neither study had quite the precision of a true controlled experiment, these results are notable because they relied on observations of students instead of self-reporting and surveys.

In the Vermont study, students cycled through an average of 65 new windows per lecture, of which over half were considered distractions. At St. John’s, most second- and third-year law students used their laptops for non-class-related purposes over half the time.

Any visit to a large lecture is likely to reinforce these data. Students are apt to drift to email inboxes and social networking sites. Facebook is a staple of many college students’ laptop screens.

Many times, students will simply pull up Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to copy down bullets when the professor advances to the next slide, and then return to surfing the web.

The study also revealed a significant deviation between student survey results and actual computer-use practices. Students tend to under-report the amount of time they spend on distracting activities in class.

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Self, this is horrible!  By allowing my students to bring their laptops into my classes I am condemning them to a fate of distraction and disengagement.”

To which I reply,  “Wait!  The end is not nigh!”  Do not be so quick to ban laptops in your classroom.

In later posts, I will further discuss the consequences of laptops in the classroom, and propose a number of ideas to engage students through their technology.

This post is part of a series relating to TRC’s theme, “Face-to-Face Education in the Digital Age”.

Read the next post –>, “Engaging Students Through Their Laptops”.

About the author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

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